At What Age are You Old?

First things first: where do you fall on my highly scientific Distance-to-Death Scale?

Distance-to-Death Scale

Are you old? And how would you know — does it have more to do with how you look, feel, or how you’re perceived by others?

At what age are you no longer a spring chicken? (I haven’t been called one in decades, so does that make me an old hen?) (Don’t answer that.)

When asked, “at what age do you believe old age begins,” survey respondents’ answers vary wildly depending on what generation they belong to.

Unsurprisingly, our perceptions of age morph depending on how old we are. When we’re seven we think our pre-pubescent babysitter is ancient. When we’re in our first job out of college our 36-year-old boss is painfully past her prime, and when we’re in the retirement home, well, we’ve waved the white flag to old age and it doesn’t matter anymore when people survey us about stupid ageing questions.

So what are the exact stats on perceptions of old age?

Millennials believe the average person becomes old at 59 (proof that youth is, in fact, wasted on the young), whereas Gen Xers define old age as 65. Baby Boomers and beyond believe the magic number is 73, which is consistent with research that explores how older adults push age transitions out to help make themselves feel younger. What comes to mind when you think of becoming old? Does reaching old age daunt you, inspire you, motivate you, or horrify you?

Pew Research Center surveyed the markers of old age, and here’s what they found:

% saying that a person is old when he or she…

You're old when...

When does youth end?

Just as Millennials perceive old age to be sooner than later, they believe youth reaches its bitter end by the age of 40. Gen Xers and Boomers, with a few more years of perspective under their belt, think youth ends at 31. The folks north of 74 think youth calls it quits at 35. When do you think youth throws in the towel? Are you still considered a “youth” — and if not, does it matter?

The big takeaway about you and your age:

Regardless of how old you are or how old others perceive you to be — or when your youth left you for a younger version — one important piece of research provides wise words to live by: how you think you’ll be in old age is a reliable predictor of how you’ll actually be in old age. If you imagine yourself as the person you want to be into the future, and choose an optimistic mindset that you can actually become that version of yourself in your old age, you’ll not only influence your aging outcome but you’ll also live longer. They say that people at 50 who envision themselves positively when they’re older + grayer (like as a social, active, healthy person) live 7.5 years longer than those who are Negative Nancy’s about the future (like those who expect to be chronically sick, dependent on others, cranky, and angry that Golden Girls reruns don’t come on until 9pm BECAUSE WHO CAN MAKE IT PAST 9PM?*).

Make a list of who you hope to be when you’re old — at whatever age ‘old’ means to you (except for the aggressive Millennial view of old at 59). Can you deliberately imagine yourself as a vibrantly alive person as you age? Perhaps you want to be thoroughly engaged in hobbies… connected to a strong network of friends and family… always on the go, getting an impressive number of steps in each day… always learning and growing and reading and taking classes… helping out in the community… you get the idea.

Visualize the vibrant, elderly version of yourself and hold onto that. Build the self-efficacy that you can become that spry go-getter, and keep reinforcing the optimistic belief that it’s possible. You’ll hopefully undo some of the stereotypical thought patterns of the youth around you (“Grandma’s got game!”), you’ll live longer (7.5 years!), and with more life satisfaction. Now that’s a life worth growing old for.

*I’m gonna step into the confession booth of embarrassment here for a sec. The Husband and I have been known to enjoy a little Golden Girls action before bed. We can’t make it through the full episode to 9:30 (BECAUSE OUR YOUTH IS GONE) but we do enjoy about 18 minutes or so of silver-haired humor (oh, that Blanche!) before dozing off.
I hope you don’t unsubscribe.

Jodi Wellman

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