Ageing In The 21st Century: Does Anybody Really Know How Old They Are?

As age boundaries blur, are 'trendy dads' and mutton dressed as lamb doomed to be consigned to the past, or is it all just in the mind?
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Age: always with us and a funny old game. It’s not a cause of constant reflection but there are moments in life that bring it into sharp focus. Making payment in a store recently there were issues with my pin; I suggested to the mid-teens girl on the checkout that we could swipe the card and I could sign for it. She stared, like I’d suggested completing the transaction by offering my village’s prize goat or some homespun wool in exchange for the merchandise.

Clearly, she was unable to recall anyone paying ye old-fashioned way of signing, instead of entering a pin. Lord knows what would have happened if I’d presented a cheque. It wasn’t a ‘could be old enough to be your parent’ moment, but distinctly notable nonetheless.

We’re born, stuff happens and then we die, that process hasn’t altered since human life first evolved. Yet, the circumstances of our ageing have changed considerably in recent times. We’re more youth-obsessed, acting older younger, staying younger longer, living longer and persistently trying to look younger. As we trundle towards our earthly demise during the twenty-first century, will it be potions, Photoshop or philosophy that has the most effect on the ageing process?

Oscar Wilde’s hedonistic and age-defying character, Dorian Gray, continues to fascinate readers since first being published. These days, we have post-millennium Dorian Gray mutations wandering around. People may not have a painting of themselves stashed in an attic to cheat ageing, but creams, surgery, injections and supplements are the everyday substitutes for vanity and disguising the unwelcome tolls of drink, dope or time.

I recently read about a comedian named Ed Wynn, who died in 1966. Apparently, when Ed was 70 and his career was all but over, he decided to move his birthdate to fifteen years and four months later. He only admitted to being 55, and in every way acted and gave the impression that the new date was correct. In no time, his whole outlook changed, new ideas for comedy acts came to him, he was working on a new television show and earning more money than ever.

The lines between generations have become blurred in the past few decades. Chances are the fathers of today’s young children grew-up playing computer games and are more than happy to do so with their offspring. Pastimes that were the preserve of the youth in yesteryear can be activities across age brackets today. It works the other way, too; with the advent of smartphones, tablets, Facebook and the like, many are the grannies addicted to Bejeweled or Candy Crush. Angry Birds, say no more.

On the subject of babies, today they’re often dressed in little band merchandise sweaters or T-shirts emblazoned with slogans about how great a DJ daddy is or how mummy ‘rocks’. This can seem supremely naff: children as vessels for advertising their parents’ street cred, miniature time capsules parading parental projections and past glories. Put in context of the fact that today’s parents probably continue to enjoy a late night out and the tunes they listened to still remain popular and it’s easier to understand.

It’s nice to think we look younger than we are. In a nightclub, I generally get taken for at least ten years younger than is the case; the same people may not have the same opinion if they saw me doing the school run on a Monday morning. Likewise, rued will be the day I stop getting asked for ID when I buy booze, but it’s something that never happens when the children are in tow (that sounds terrible, I’m buying food as well). Perspective and setting can be key to how other people perceive our age, alongside our personal outlook.


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Perhaps there’s just one day when we wake-up, look in the mirror at the crows feet and craggy reflection, and start saying ‘trendy’, ‘hip’ and ‘in my day’. Or, maybe we drift along, blissfully unaware of our true degenerative states, as the younger generations’ fully functioning eyes see only decrepit old carcasses. Photoshop and soft-focus are essential tools for maintaining a beautiful or youthful appearance online, but they don’t work so well in real-life, or so I hear from my friends who engage in online dating.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when ‘Trendy Dad’ syndrome appeared but we can be pretty confident it didn’t exist in the 1910s; it may even be a redundant term in years to come as technology, pop culture and pastimes blend between different age groups. Fashions are increasingly shared across generations, with styles that granny and mum wore in their youth repeatedly, and repeatedly, making comebacks in collections and on the High Street. Anything goes more nowadays, and likely next year and the year after.

One can still witness cases of ‘mutton dressed as lamb’, and long may such dressing continue; if that makes you feel good, girl, you go for it. However, I don’t think the term is used so much nowadays – unless my hearing’s deteriorating and I’m not picking-up on it as it’s whispered behind my back when my pin number escapes me in a shop.

Ageing is not all about outward appearance, though, even if my godmother and her friends say they often feel invisible on the street since passing fifty-five. Despite technology and media helping to draw generations together today, battle lines are being drawn by our current economic situation. Younger people feel hard done-by compared to their forebears, while senior citizens feel they deserve to be protected after decades of working. Interestingly, I read not long ago about the vision of some early-twenty-somethings regarding the raising of the retirement age: that in future decades they’ll be the ones in power and will simply reverse the raises and any other planned raises once they are in charge.

This is an ingenious idea of foresight and practicality, which also shows a level of solidarity with those having the retirement goalposts moved as they approach them now. Unfortunately, whether reversing the raises will be a viable option is highly doubtful, with economic realities and an ageing population, but it does demonstrate younger people considering different stages of age seriously.

Teenagers will likely always feel as misunderstood as their forebears did and naturally gravitate towards their own distinct music and culture scenes; but there seems to be more to link different generations together today, and none of us can truly escape the march of time, the different stages we encounter along the way and our own terminal decline on this Earth. It’s natural that the progression from youthful vigour to final decay fascinates us, even obsesses and terrifies some.

So, does the changing context of modern ageing really matter, or will the experience actually, fundamentally, remain the same? It’s such a personal process to undergo that ultimately it must be subjective, but it’s hard to deny we’re doing it in vastly different circumstances to our ancestors. Death also persists as the final outcome, that has not changed.

So, as old as you look or as young as you feel? I intend to roll with Ed Wynn and the mutton as lamb brigade.