Psychology professor wonders what’s the big deal

We’ve all known people who downright refuse to disclose their age.

Or maybe you like to shave five years off your age when you tell people how old you are. For those who attempt to guess, it’s safe to say undershooting is the considerate thing to do.

Age is one of the first things that people recognize about others, said Anne Vernon, chair of the psychology department at Mount Royal University. Her previous research about social perceptions of aging suggests a difference between what people think of their own family’s aging process, and their thoughts about old age as a whole.

Many assumptions are made about people on the basis of their perceived age, she said, and by not revealing one’s age it is an attempt to block those kinds of negative perceptions.

Furthermore, a study looking at age concealment by University of New Mexico professor Mary Harris suggests most people believe 52 per cent of women and 34 per cent of men over the age of 50 lie about their age. Granted, that study is from 1994, but it’s safe to say that many do still fib a little when asked that age-old question.

But not everyone feels the need to conceal their true age. Beverley Pinder, 72, has no problem telling people her age.

“It’s what you feel. It’s not what you are; your age is just a number,” Pinder said.

Despite feeling confident enough to tell others her age, she doesn’t get asked that question too often. She said she thinks a lot of people don’t ask her age because they consider it rude to do so.

However, Vernon, 58, wonders why it is socially unacceptable to ask someone their age. She said, “In a sense, why not [ask someone their age]? But on the other hand, why are they asking?”

It is the motivation behind the question that troubles Vernon. Like Pinder, she said it shouldn’t matter exactly how old someone is. We can all guesstimate based on physical appearance, and Pinder said that if people don’t know your age, they might assume you are younger than you are.Beverley Pinder, standing with her husband Tom, said she believes age shouldn’t be a defining factor, but in a world of age-defying cosmetics it is still important to take care of your skin.
Photo by: Jenica Foster

Vernon said most people, if they are going to feel anxious or threatened by their age, start in their 40s. This is the age that younger people generally start to associate the declines related to aging, she said.

Pinder said she believes this is because when people turn 40 there is a common perception that, “everything goes downhill after that.”

Nature Vs. Science

Vernon advises against trying to fight aging because it is inevitable. She maintains it’s degrading that there is a whole line of products that make you look less like who you are.

She said: “If you considered any other social characteristic of a group of people and they walked into a store, and it was anti-whatever-group-they-belong-to, do you think they would buy those products? Do you think those products would even be allowed to be sold?

“You could plug in religion, ethnicity or physical characteristics, and can you imagine a whole line of products that make you look less like who you are? It’s really insulting.”

Pinder doesn’t agree with Vernon. She thinks it is common sense to take care of her skin as much as possible because she doesn’t know what it is going to be like down the road. She uses the creams, serums and even Botox.

Women Vs. Men

Meanwhile, Vernon said there is little research to support the theory that women are more age-sensitive than men, but social perception shows otherwise.

She said: “There aren’t too many men that say, ‘Wow, she gets better with age.’ If anything you hear, ‘Wow, she still looks like she did when she was 35.’”

Meanwhile, women are subject to more negative scrutiny with age than men, Vernon said.

“George Clooney was always good looking, but it’s almost like for a while he was getting better and better looking because he was getting older, and he was still hot to a lot of women.”

On this point, Pinder agrees, saying she thinks for the most part men can do whatever they want and wrinkles still look good on them because men age better than women.

Wisdom Vs. Relevance

Vernon said nowadays it doesn’t matter as much as it used to that age generally means someone is wiser. It isn’t the accumulated knowledge and experience that older people are being evaluated for, she said, it’s how much they can keep up with everything else that’s going on from minute to minute.

She said, “Younger people often laugh at or make fun of older people who might not be familiar with Facebook or Twitter. That kind of up-to-the-moment relevance makes aging very threatening.”

jfoster@cjournal.ca