I smile and nonchalantly ask, “How old are you?”
She laughs, smiles back at me and says, “Why do you want to know?”
A quick mental calculation leads me to the conclusion that nothing but the raw truth will fly in this exchange. I glance down at the table shyly and respond, “I have a thing about age.”
“Oh, you do? What’s your thing?”
In less than three months I will turn 30. This is a much anticipated and welcomed birthday, for I imagine my next decade to be more grounded and steady than the tumultuous 20s. Perhaps I will live in the same place for more than 3 years at a time. Hopefully, I will settle more comfortably into my skin and spend less time worrying about what others think of me. My 20s were rife with major life transitions: cross-country moves, graduations, break-ups, job searches, shifting family dynamics and coming out processes. This is what is supposed to happen in one’s 20s, right?
The conversation above, which occurred between my partner and I during one of our first dates, is just one example of the ways I have internalized age as a social identity. At the time we started dating, I was hesitant to be in a relationship with someone younger than me. The light at the end of the tunnel of my 20s was in sight, and I was pretty convinced that the best way to build a healthy and stable relationship was by dating someone my same age or older.
Similarly, my reflections on and hopes about turning 30 are an indication of the meaning I’ve been socialized to attach to age. What’s interesting is that, while I have whole-heartedly bought into some of the common age-related milestones, I am actively resisting others. Facebook informs me on the daily that many folks my age are having babies, buying homes, running marathons, earning terminal degrees, and/or getting married. Even when I’m honest with myself and acknowledge that many of these milestones are not things I actually want, I still feel some degree of not measuring up to a particular standard of “success” or sense of being “settled.”
Until recently, age wasn’t a social identity that I thought of with a critical lens. About a month ago I had the good fortune of spending a day with my friend and colleague, Vu. As we walked around the dog park, I let Vu know that something he said at ACPA in March had been on my mind ever since. At a CSJE meeting, Vu talked about age as one of his most salient identities and shared that he was reflecting on the meaning of age in his lived experience. Two months later, this was still on top for me. And as 30 draws ever closer, I find myself critically questioning why this birthday in particular is viewed by many as a milestone.
Admittedly, I partake in the craze of reading and sharing Buzzfeed lists and quizzes. From “29 things to Understand About Being in Your Late 20s” to “What Age Are You, Really?” (I’m really 53, by the way), social media offers no shortage of opinions on age. These lists are usually funny and sometimes evoke a sense of camaraderie or connection with folks of a similar age. Clearly, many people find them engaging or they would not be gracing our newsfeeds with such regularity.
So age as a social identity is all around us. But do we question it with as much rigor as we critically question other social identities? And how does it intersect with other identities? Inspired by Vu’s comment about age at ACPA, I have since been pondering the social construction of this identity. Both the passing of time and the physical process of aging are real, but what about the layers and layers of meaning and value that are attached to these realities? I was socialized as a white girl and woman in a middle-class family living in the Midwest. The cultures in which I grew up taught me countless lessons about age, from whose voices were valued to what types of clothes were “appropriate” to when one was “capable” of making decisions on their own behalf. Well into adulthood, I have accepted at face value many of these ideas and often times find myself perpetuating them. (Fortunately, I got over my “thing about age” in relation to dating, though not without some necessary challenge from my partner.)
The more time I spend thinking about the “truths” I have learned about age (or more accurately, perceived age), the only conclusion I can draw is that I have plenty of unlearning to do. I am not suggesting that the concepts of lived experience and wisdom are meaningless and the entirety of what we conceive to be age is socially constructed; on the contrary, I have a deep respect for and appreciation of the wisdom that one collects across the lifespan. What I am suggesting is that age as a social identity is complex and riddled with values and judgments across cultures and intersectionalities, and that analyzing this identity with the lens of critical theory could be a fruitful endeavor. For me personally, working to unlearn some of the “shoulds” related to age would be liberating and help me to be more happy with what is happening in my world by letting go of internalized expectations of what life is supposed to look like “at my age.”
I aspire to be more diligent in questioning what society has taught me about age (ie, whose lives are full of drama, who is a good driver, who is capable of knowing what they need and how to access it) and to be more aware of not projecting my conceptions about age onto other folks. After all, who’s to say what 30 will actually feel like? And perhaps it doesn’t even matter, given that I’m actually 53.
finn schneider lives in the Bay Area and works in violence prevention and bystander intervention education at the University of California, Berkeley (go Bears!). They are particularly interested in reading and talking about race, gender, queerness, and industrial complexes (such as the prison and, more recently, marriage-industrial complexes). At heart, finn is a pretty big nerd who enjoys watching documentaries and absolutely loves learning new things. finn can be reached via email at email@example.com.