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When we talk about age, we are so open, yet we tend to fall tumbling into the same assumptions. I do it too. It seems there is a difference between how people feel about “aging” and how we feel about us—ourselves—aging. Perceptions of what it means to grow older and be older are very much linked to personality—it’s individual and complex.
It is so easy for us to categorize people; age is linked to so much misunderstanding. Ask any child how old their parents are and they will fumble. Ask a youngster when someone is old, and they will find the 30s a match. Ask a 30-year-old and the answer is different. Age is feared and magical; it holds experience and mortality.
I work in the strategic consultancy ReD Associates. A while back, we did a study for a big spirits company that wanted to know more about the ‘baby boomers,’ the generation who are 55 to 70 years old now. Like many other companies, they are part of shaping our image of age. They too focus on a youthful crowd as brand carriers, and in the process, they know very little about anyone else. One big revelation was the strength, freedom, and energy this baby boomer age group was experiencing—financially, spiritually, and socially. This is a group that often gets portrayed as golden greys with canes and a sunset—yet what we saw was activity and vitality.
Any lifestyle brand that wants its target age group to be 14 to 25 years old is setting a very narrow platform for itself. Most brands line up next to each other in a race targeting this super young generation that companies presume are both doers and activists, brand customers and ambassadors. The hunt for this consumer group can sometimes seem like a Fata Morgana in the real world—sometimes they actually don’t exist, and there is no room for complexity in the seemingly bland segmentation models. I rarely feel I fit any box. And age is where assumptions seem to linger long—in our own minds and the collective mindset.
So how do we tell a different story about age? One that does not just build on the assumptions?
One thing to acknowledge is that people move in themes that interest them and that are more linked to lifestyle. The boundaries are not particularly defined by age. When you turn 25, you might also centrifuge into other social groups because of life choices, work relations, family, etc., but it does not mean you lose your grip on you. Some things pop up in a specific age group but get adapted in others.
In a way, the advertising and campaigning of these assumption dogmas make for a tiresome dissonance. And all of this, of course, gets even more blurry when we add sexuality, skin tone, body size, etc. It is as if our openness is being held down by us, by industries, by communication, and by tradition.
Age has always been something more than just a horizon for me—my father had me at 50, my siblings were my mother’s age. At 44, I look back at a past I have lived and pieced together—I serve my time in a trial and error space, learning and unlearning. I have gathered enough data to see patterns, both good and bad. What did I imagine life would be like at 44? Who do I think about when I imagine someone who is 44? What are the crooked routes I have taken?
Like a Russian doll, I carry all my previous iterations inside me. Layered experiences. Transparent frail overlays that create a density. Identity. I am 44 years old. The layers are not always organized chronologically. Sometimes emotional experiences surface, sometimes they get stuck.
The grown-up child
I don’t really remember being a child—well I do, but I don’t. My mother had major anxiety and, later, quite severe depression. Most of the time, I remember being grown-up, or acting grown-up—being responsible. I always knew where the emergency exit was or how to get us home. In my daycare, the teacher pulled me away from the group of kids hanging in trees and eating sand and asked me to be the day-to-day support to a hearing-impaired child. I was five. In boarding school, I shared a room with the new kids to ease their first weeks in the new environment.
The nineteen-year-old toddler
I had the emotional capacity of a two-year-old—the best way to describe my state of mind at any moment was either eager or disappointed. I had bought an answering machine to make sure I did not again miss a call from the guy. The tape was eagerly re-winded to listen carefully to the details in his voice and the background noises, and though I was unsure of his potential, the potential of equally eager love lived in my new answering machine.
The life that ended at 25
In my twenties, I had a strange sense that followed me in almost everything I did, a sense that it was always too late. I was stuck in that feeling. Like an old car that only holds together when in movement, I broke down and started to be exactly what I feared—stuck, too late.
I felt it was too late to start working out, to hunt down a new job, to start a new education. While this may be linked to a sort of melancholy, I also feel that this is the onset of adulthood. When you land there in the freedom-filled waters of young adulthood, you can stall in complete freedom of choice overload, and realization of inadequacy overload, and maybe most predominantly, longterm blindness overload.
The 38-year-old virgin
I split from the answering machine guy after 19 years. And at 38, I had to relearn life like a teenager—not just in an emotional capacity, but also finding my feet in a world that had changed so drastically. New social communities, new ways of communicating, new platforms for interaction. I crashed and burned. I fell in love with people I hardly knew, made friends on the other side of the planet, and felt lonely and like I was missing out. But I also got the chance to find myself again and start over new, with a very open mindset.
The mother (I did not become)
If I had given birth instead of having an abortion at 22, I would have had a 22-year-old son or daughter now. For what it’s worth, that experience planted itself in my consciousness and lingers with me—I’ve never regretted the decision, but I carry this imaginary person too, like other defining experiences. I was not ready to be a parent; I was in the midst of losing my father, and my world was filled with therapy and observing my own upbringing. Parenting was an idea that was still tied to my own parents’ life—not yet mine.
The powerless grown-up
The older I am, the more responsible I am, and the more people are dependent on me and I of them. In conflicts, like divorce or problems with children in school, there are sprints of losing one’s power, and it goes against all the ideas of being mature. The compromise is a blessing and a curse and assertive behavior the most important tool. You swallow pride and take beatings, and you grow a different set of power muscles.
My physical self
I have been hiding my skin—turning from photographers and ascending into turtlenecks. I did horrible medication at 41, and I should have done it at 21. I lack substantial wrinkling, and I could call myself lucky or just be happy I survived twenty odd years of acne that probably just kept my skin filled with grease. I relate to teenagers on IG opening to their struggle of finding beauty, and I envy their bravery.
At 12, I was full grown. I had my period. My breasts were big and stood in the way of the last part of childhood. I had to manage a grown woman’s body at a young age. For a while, I experimented—either enhancing the curves or hiding them. It was not until I started running at 34 that I really connected with my body. It was there. I focused on my mind and suddenly became a grown woman. My personality and body started working together.
The mother (I am)
At 27, I did become a parent. And it was as if my point of view changed quite literally from that hedge hawk aerial view of my parents to a form of understanding, a deeper connection to them and to compromise. I reckoned with my own parents as I became one. I understood. But I had to be one to learn.
I have been the energetic mother who is the same age as the other parents. But they sometimes act like they are 80 and I like I am 19, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Parenting is a tough and wild journey, with roots into one’s own life as well as those of the children. You realize you are growing next to someone now, no longer alone on the journey. Their self iterations are part of you until they start circling on their own.
Outro—breaking the chrono-logic
I work with visual communication every day, and with the choice I make for presentation, I become the gatekeeper of how age is perceived for the brands I work with. In the end, if I do not challenge their assumptions as well as my own, how can I create something closer to the real?
I carry these and more layers of identity around with me in everything I do. It is what makes life complicated and unique. It is the fluctuation of good and bad, light and heavy, strong and weak that flows through my life and interacts with relationships and experiences. And we have a responsibility to challenge the assumptions.
Aging is not just an increasing number, it is a whirlwind of experiences and an endless traveling between past, present, and future selves. And it is looking at yourself—thoroughly—so you don’t get caught up in your own assumptions.
I have men in my life that I know I would have an amazing relationship with if we were 80. In a way, it is sad, because it means that our love did not work out in the present. But it’s also soothing to dare to place myself in the mind of a future older Nanna, to breathe that air too…and grow the fuck up now.