The Politics of Age

It is almost funny how many ideas we simply take for granted in our lives.  One of the most meaningless ones is that of age. And yet there are so many instances in which we think that a person’s age somehow defines them, whether they be teenagers or senior citizens.  Individuals are frequently stereotyped as being too old or too young regardless of their actual physical or intellectual capacities.  Whether we define adulthood as 16, 18 or 21 is entirely arbitrary, just as it is arbitrary to suggest that a person is old and should retire at 65 or 70.  

Yes, most people do become more emotionally mature and better at decision making as they move from their teens into their twenties but there is no magic transformative moment they are “grown up,” unless one uses sexual maturity and that typically happens around 12 or 13.  And similar things can be said about growing older.  People typically begin to deteriorate physically in their mid thirties but many remain healthy and robust into their seventies and beyond.  There is no magic moment when they become old.

Yet public policy operates as though these arbitrary numbers are real.  We postpone adulthood for as much as a decade, prohibiting many activities which we regard as dangerous.  There is at least some reason to think this is a good idea, particularly if this is a time in which these individuals are taught valuable life skills by teachers and parents.  Still there are undoubtedly many teenagers who are far more mature than people twice their age and that fact is rarely taken into account by policymakers.  When it is, it is almost always in the context of punishing them as adults, never with rewarding them with the privileges of adults.  Most preposterous is that people between 18 and 20 can vote on alcohol policies but are not allowed to consume it.  This makes my brain hurt.

And our idea that people should “retire” at a certain point also has no basis in reality.  If a person has saved up enough money throughout their lives that they can afford to stop working, then more power to them.  If not, they should continue to be productive members of society.  We lose so much accumulated wisdom every time a 65 year old leaves the work force. Yes, at some point, most people reach a point where they are no longer capable of working and it is at that point that some form of insurance, whether public or private, makes sense.  It is in people’s best interest to stay active and involved as long as possible.  It is also ridiculous to think that people should be paid not to work for twenty or twenty five years if they are capable of doing so.  Sure, it sounds pretty good to me as I reach my mid fifties but, as public policy, I think it is unsustainable.  

As so often in this blog, what starts off as a critique of the way we think about something ends up being an indictment of the way those ideas end up shaping public policy.  Using certain ages as benchmarks has value, helping people to mark transitional points in their lives.  Freezing those ages into our laws and regulations almost always ends up doing more harm than good.  Hopefully this piece has made you think about something we typically take for granted.  If it did, it achieved its goal.  As always, thanks for following along and have a great weekend!

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