Stereotypes are empirical generalizations, and they are largely true. That’s how they got to be stereotypes. As such, they can be useful guides when dealing with other people, even other things. But stereotypes can be so pervasive that they affect how you perceive yourself, and one of the most pervasive of stereotypes is that pertaining to age. In this article we’ll look at self-stereotypes and how to overcome them.
Stereotypes of age are generalizations about what someone usually is or does, or what they should be or do, at certain ages.
The structure of society reinforces these stereotypes, and they are so common to our patterns of thought that they can be like water to a fish: the fish doesn’t even know that he’s in water and swimming. It’s just natural — just as we don’t give much thought that we’re at the bottom of the atmosphere.
For instance, mandatory elementary education means that children and teenagers from ages 6 to 18 are expected to be in school. If they are not, we see that as a glaring exception that must have some reason.
But my grandfather quit school at age 13 on the death of his father so that he could support his family. A laudable act, no doubt, but he was probably expected to do this at the time in which he lived.
These days, it’s becoming more expected that high school grads will attend college, and therefore if a young person between 18 and 24 or so is not in college, he’s expected to have a good reason for it, especially if under pressure from parents.
So the stereotypes roll on. After college, we’re expected to get married, buy a house, have children. It’s highly expected that you’ll drive a late model, expensive car.
Going against the grain in all of this, should you want to, can be tough, especially if you yourself expect that you’re supposed to do these things.
As you get older, you’re expected to be and act older. The approach of Social Security, when you’ll get money to stay away from work, reinforces the notion that you should stop working. And wait for death.
I got to thinking about this topic because in theory I could start collecting Social Security next year, when I turn 62.
Given what kind of shape I’m in — excellent — and given my interest in anti-aging, the idea that I’m ready to stop doing what I do because I’m too old to do it seems ludicrous.
Perhaps more importantly, I believe I could have many decades of healthy life ahead of me. I could get a PhD, work on my business or any number of other projects and still be able to enjoy the fruits of my work.
Yet, the actuaries tell me that in 21 years, I have a 50% chance of being dead. I don’t believe it, but — those are the facts: 50% of men my age will be dead in that time. Barring, in one direction, nuclear war, and in the other, some vastly powerful life extension technology.
So, even though I consider myself an independent thinker, I face the reality of what science actually says.
Personally, I think I’ll be deadlifting 320 when I’m 82. But who knows. I’ll be trying anyway.
What I’m getting at is that the stereotypes can keep you from doing what you want, or what you think best. For instance, if I thought I could get that PhD and work as a scientist for the next 50 years, I might do it. The stereotype of my age says that no one does this.
When I look back on my life at the decisions I made and the course my life took, I see that much of it was dictated by stereotypes. Education, marriage, work, how I dressed and behaved. I’m not saying it was all bad by any means; as I noted above, stereotypes can be useful.
But you must realize when you’re acting out a stereotype even when you don’t realize it. Otherwise you’ll end up doing things just because everyone else is doing them, or everyone expects you to do them.
When you’re 20, don’t go to college because everyone else is, or your parents expect you. By all means, go if that will help you get ahead. (But choose wisely, not many people should attend college in my opinion; the return on investment is abysmal on average.)
Don’t get married because you’re at the age when people normally do so. You need a much better reason than that. (In my opinion, the same strictures apply to marriage as for college.)
And, if you’re around my age, don’t believe the stereotypes that it’s acceptable to be fat and out of shape, to spend your time watching television, or in general just to lack ambition and be unworthy of attention.
I struggle myself with the idea that my life is supposed to be 75% over. Not out of a fear of death, but from a fear that I’ll stop trying to achieve anything, that I may as well just hang it up because there’s not much time left.
The late historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun wrote dozens of books and kept at it all his life. At the age of 93, he published the 800-page From Dawn to Decadence, his only best-seller and widely considered his best book. He continued to write until he was 103, and died at 104.
I doubt that Barzun paid much attention to stereotypes; if he had, he would have spent his twilight years playing golf and watching TV. His inattention to stereotypes led him to do his best, most creative work long after others would have quit.
I know an important scientist who is still working at age 80, and another who still keeps his hand in at 95. I doubt they pay much attention to stereotypes either.
My own mother, who taught singing all her life, founded a community chorus at age 65 and directed it until the age of 91.
Chuck Berry is 90, and his new album will be out soon.
On a different level, take a look at Mike Cernovich, a lawyer and writer who looks like he’s having quite an influence on the upcoming presidential election. He’s in his late 30s, and he’s violating just about every life stereotype that you can imagine. He could have been satisfied to be a lawyer, make decent money, settle down and keep quiet. But he seems to be having the time of his life, in no small part because he refuses to abide by stereotypes.
As for myself, I’m going to ignore what the actuaries say, and what the media and culture say, about what I’m supposed to do with my life.