The New Age of age

Act your age!

We’ve all heard it — and, along about the age of 25, I found myself saying it. But it no longer elicits an exaggerated sigh and grudging obedience from the younger set. Thanks to rabid marketing, kids — and even some adults — are more likely to respond with, “Say what?”

“Ten is the new 15?” the Associated Press asked in a November article. That same month, Reuters discussed how cosmetic surgery is altering people’s perceptions about what is “old” and what is “middle-aged.” If one accepts the more traditional social constructs of age, it would seem we’re in a hopeless muddle about how old we really are.

Acting our age is becoming progressively more difficult. Let’s start with the kids — and the caveat that since I am no longer a kid (I hit the ripe old No. 34 on Jan. 1), nor do I have any, these observations might be characterized as those of a clueless old fogey.

According to the AP, from dates, to cell phones, to more adult music and, for girls, hypersexual clothing styles, the 8- to 12-year-olds among us are growing up too fast and are faced with enormous pressure to do so.

This is a timeless lament, but it used to be that the pressure came from peers, not from marketers who want to tap into the prosperity we’re sharing with our kids in the form of $51 billion in gifts and allowances. They’ve even coined a term for your children: the thoroughly obnoxious and moronic word, “tweens,” as in, “between childhood and adolescence.” Never mind that the 8-to-12 crowd is not between anything. They are children — whether they like it or not — and who gave companies the right to redefine childhood?

Answer: Us.

To begin with, we allow kids to listen to the inappropriate music and we buy them the inappropriate clothing, the expensive gadgets. Worse, we also reinforce the desirability of such things, either through a lack of example, or through laziness by not better monitoring the influences on our children’s lives. (Yes, I am speaking of TV.) Is it any wonder that Jimmy wants an iPod and, when he gets one, he spends more time with it than with his parents?

We could ask Natalie, a girl who told the AP she wanted an iPod and a cell phone because, “Sometimes, I just think that maybe, if I got one of these things, I could talk about what they (popular kids) talk about.” In other words, she doesn’t want a gadget. She wants to belong. Marketing companies know this. And thus, we have serious news articles asking: “Is 10 the new 15?”

But don’t despair. Aging adults, prompted by our insane worship of youthful beauty, are doing their damnedest to at least look as young as possible, so in some ways, the suddenly promoted 10-year-olds are being replaced. “Sixty,” proclaims a Reuters headline, “is the new 40.”

Reuters cites a survey by AC Nielsen that found 60 percent of Americans regard 60 as the new middle age. There’s nothing wrong with that viewpoint in and of itself. It’s just regrettable that it comes from advances in cosmetic surgery, rather than openmindedness.

The scalpel and Botox, after all, can make us look much younger, and the survey reported even people in their 80s were being “refreshed” through surgery. Other “advances” include “lunchtime lipo” and a spray to protect skin from electromagnetic radiation from cell phones.

And let’s not forget the Botox adverts appearing in major magazines, which depict women (I’ve yet to see a man) holding up a sign that reads: “I did it for me!” Yes, that’s right! I had poison injected into my skin because I care so very much about myself!

The successful exploitation of vanity has caused our grasp on reality to slip. Aging is natural. So is death. It’s not as if taking years off your face equates to adding years to your life. It would seem, too, that undergoing some of these risky cosmetic procedures is akin to throwing out a welcome mat for the Grim Reaper.

It also reinforces appearance-based bigotry. Just as women are now expected to look like supermodels — or at least invest significant time and money into the attempt — we’re fast on the way to expecting the elderly to look middleaged, and constantly telling them how inadequate and irresponsible they are if they don’t.

A climate in which neither an 8-year-old boy nor an 80-year-old woman is really allowed to “act” their age is one created by artificial want: Timmy wants the more expensive trappings of adulthood, while Ethel will pay anything to retain the skin she had 40 years ago. This climate is a marketer’s dream come true. But it’s a pretty lousy deal for the rest of us.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is a journalist in Montrose, Colo.

From Katharhynn Heidelberg.