America’s Infatuation with Youthfulness
Today, I’m writing straight from the heart. No research — just my observations. I have a gut check on something I see far too often in too many places.
In America, we love the thought of being young. We want to look young as we age. Being young is “hip.” Just listen to television commercials, look at billboards, or watch a movie. Last month, I heard two people joke that fifty is the new thirty. While this has been going on for decades, we began to see it expand when the first wave of Baby Boomers went through their midlife crises. We all want to be young again. Some of us even cling to it.
In fact, you don’t have to look far to see an adult…
- Wear skinny jeans at 48 years old.
- Get a tattoo at 55 years old.
- Attempt to be a buddy to their kids.
- Add piercings to our body in midlife.
- Get a tuck, a lift, a pull, or lipo.
- Buy a sports car, like the one they wanted in college.
- Talk the jargon of a teen or college student.
- Exchange their spouse for a much younger partner.
When I look in the mirror, I can easily identify with this longing to look and feel young again. I get it. I don’t like the way I sag or bulge or see my jowls drop. And everywhere I look, it seems people are younger than me.
As a demographic, we hate the idea of aging. CNBC.com reveals, “Age management, more commonly referred to as ‘anti-aging’ involves novel technologies such as hormone replacement to fortify aging bodies and slow the affects of aging.” That’s our goal. After all, who wants to feel old?
I’m not attempting to insult anyone here. I’m simply asking you to consider something novel: this mad pursuit to cosmetically look and feel young again is relatively new. Outside of those legends about the “fountain of youth,” past generations not only had little means of clinging to their youthfulness—they embraced quite the opposite. They looked forward to aging.
A Contrast in Perspective
In ancient times, becoming the wise elder in the community was what life was about. Influence was gained through age and experience. Wisdom came with gray hair… not Americans in mid-life attempting to mimic fifty shades of gray. Growing older was like earning your stripes; earning the right to be heard. That comes with experience, successes, failures and age.
Having traveled to over fifty countries, I’ve seen an interesting contrast between our view of aging in the Western Hemisphere and some countries in the East. When I was in India a few years back, a friend who lives there said to me, “Tim, you are looking older. I even see some gray hair on your head.”
At first, I reacted in a typical American way—denying that I was actually getting old. However, I paused to notice the tone in which my friend spoke. He was glad for me. He knew that I had always looked young for my age, which can prevent elders from listening to my words. He was happy for me. He was speaking with great respect and delight. Becoming an elder was a good thing.
So what makes it hard to embrace aging in 21st century America? I’m sure there are a number of reasons, but two looming ones are: technology and individuality. Technology changes so quickly, we all must continue to re-tool and embrace new iterations if we hope to stay relevant in the marketplace. I read a book recently that referred to Generation Z as an “effect,” not so much a generation or a specific population of young people. We must re-invent ourselves… and that feels a lot like staying young.
Additionally, we don’t do family or community the way we did in the past. Families and communities don’t gather as much, and when they do, we all want to hear about what’s new, not what’s old. Our youngest nephew is the hero, not grandpa. Who wants to hear from an elder?
The Downside of Clinging to Youthfulness
So why am I making such a big deal of this topic? Why all the fuss? Let me offer three ideas that illustrate the downside of our mad pursuit of youthfulness:
1. We appear fake, even laughable, attempting to be someone we’re not.
Believe it or not, the genuinely young laugh at older adults attempting to act and talk like we’re young. We are imitations at best. We’re fakes. A college student once said to me, “The only thing worse than being ‘uncool’ is being ‘unreal.’” We may try to be “Forever 21,” but they don’t buy it. They need us to be authentic and embrace who we are. Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.
2. We fail to model what a healthy, passionate midlife adult looks like.
One reason we see so many twenty-somethings failing to mature in a healthy way is they haven’t seen a model of a well adjusted, midlife adult who’s done it first. Adolescents need to see examples of adults who are passionate about their work, love their spouse, and are genuinely happy. We must embrace our life station and demonstrate life can be grand, even as we age.
3. We don’t play the role society needs us to play, as wise elders for our kids.
One reason for the disconnect between students and history is that we’ve not made the connection for them. They often don’t see how the past informs the future. I was appalled at how little a recent focus group of teens knew about our cultural heritage. I believe we must tell them the stories of our past and assume the role of a wise elder, even if they react strangely at first. Today, kids have loads of knowledge, but we can offer them wisdom.
I love what Susan Peters once said: “Children have a much better chance of growing up if their parents have done so first.”
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