Who Are You Calling Old?


Feeling one’s age. Whatever does that mean these days? Commonly it refers to those moments in our lives when we are confronting (or confronted with) biological as well as interior subjective experiences of aging. Things like hearing loss, vision loss, word loss, or “losing a step”, (aging seems to be a litany of losses). These losses have potent social meanings as well. Independent of their etiology and physical effects they serve as signifiers of aging. Those nervous chuckles we might share over a “senior moment” are indexing something just over the horizon. And that something is “getting older”, anthropologically speaking, transition from one cultural space and social identity, let’s call it middle age, to another, let’s call it elderly.

Anthropologists like to think about transitions because they can tell us so much about the order of things and about the cultural narratives that support said moral systems. A midlife crisis is a crisis because we are holding contradictory things (the before and after) in our imagined, ever reimagined, life stories. That’s what happens at the zenith of our maturity. Though there are innumerable paths to forge through this paradoxical time (we needn’t all buy red sports cars) the long established cultural narrative and unyielding biological reality still reads “it’s all downhill from here,” even while we cheer on the feisty old gal who refuses to “act her age”, at least within certain normatively set parameters—long distance swimming, good, topless pole dancing, not so much.

This familiar story of life passages, of reconciliation with a shift in “life stage” is embedded in ancient organic (cultural) narratives of life giving way to degeneration, death and renewal, the cyclical time that governs generational succession. It could be a story of self-examination and, at least partially, fulfillment. But, looking around at the larger social canvas, we find deep cracks in this narrative and underlying ideas about the order of things that support it. For the Boomer generation, “feeling one’s age” is anything but settled. Culturally, and with advances in the medical sciences, biologically we are witnessing a elongated stretch before the threshold of old age, a social phenomenon author Marianne Williamson describes as “the new midlife”:

“While a rapidly growing segment of our population is living to be over 100, it’s not that our lives are getting extended at the end but in the middle

This “new middle” looks to an anthropologist like a sustained period of transition, a prolonged liminal state of “betwixt and between.” There is no new, or “next” modal state we are comfortably, or resentfully for that matter, moving into; no normatively defined next “stage”. “We” are working out new ideas about what aging means and reinterpreting age-old experiences of what aging is, what it looks and feels like. Our experience of aging is shaped in the living of it. It just so happens that we are living in times when such experiences and meanings are open in ways that are quite radically different from the past.

Mardis-gras-4Perhaps, in these turbulent times, it is wise to hold on to our ambiguous, liminal status: to play the trickster for a while. Victor Turner, an influential anthropologist of the mid-twentieth century, devoted substantial effort to symbolically unpacking “rites of passage,” those rituals and ceremonies of transition observable in all human societies ― funerals, weddings, christenings, initiation ceremonies, bigger communal festivals such as coronations, or Lenten passages like Mardi Gras ― that work to move us, symbolically and experientially, from one state of being to another. He was particularly interested in those in-between moments and spaces in the ritual process, when we play with (and so make visible and explicit) the symbols and metaphors of the social order or “structure.” So, for example, during the saturnalia of Mardi Gras, the poor parody the rich, sexual mores are upended, gender and racial identities get mashed up. And, at least before the whole thing was Disneyfied, this in-between time in the Christian ritual calendar provided dramatic space in which our tacit understandings of the social order―class hierarchy, gender, racial, ethnic, local and sexual identities ― were brightly scored, visible, and so accessible to mischievous play.


In his early work, Turner focused on the ways that these liminal moments revitalize and essentially sustain “structure” (hierarchies, identities, the social order). Once the shenanigans have passed, successions are managed, the dead are no longer with us, young boys have become men, maidens wives, the resurrection is (once again) behind us, the existing social order is restored with new gusto. The king is dead… Long live the king. In his later writings, Turner focused more explicitly on the disruptive and creative possibilities of such liminal moments. Liminality, he saw, offered the possibility of generating new metaphors for social life, of reframing existing forms. He called this culturally creative potential “antistructure.”

In this sense, liminality becomes an interesting paradigm for examining the Boomer generation’s ambiguous experiences of aging. Not without a certain irony, advances in the biological sciences are upending our normative expectations of generational hierarchy and succession―our tacit understandings of the social order that are so deeply rooted in organic metaphors of life giving way to disease, death and renewal… Bury me under the old oak tree. In contretemps, the Ponce de Leon-like prophets of nanotechnology and genetic engineering draw their organizing metaphors from information science and “computers.” Think in terms of “exponential progression”―the model applied to describe advances in computing, miniaturization and more recently our understanding of the human genome.

Where go the ancient organic metaphors of degeneration and rebirth, and those structural models of social order based on cyclical time, in the face of these ever upward trending graphs of growth and capability? We are told that, if we can hang in for another ten or twenty years, hold off the corrosive effects of free radicals and inflammation (with our antioxidants), keep our weight in check, get out dancing, and do the daily crossword puzzle, we can last another 70 years after that, with the help of sundry molecular sized “bots” on patrol in our bodies. So, are we old at 60 or 70?

Well, yes and no. Bracketing for a moment class, genetics, and other vagaries of chance, from a medical standpoint some of us are and some of us aren’t. Similarly, in many other domains―work, parenting, athletics, sexuality―our experiences, and yes, our cultural understandings of aging, are in play. Back to Victor Turner and his observations about the disruptive or culturally creative possibilities of the trickster figure, the one who stands some “place” (symbolically, structurally, imaginatively, experientially) in contemporary American life that is betwixt and between. Recent online contretemps surrounding the Grammy appearances of Annie Lennox (“age appropriate”) and Madonna (anything but) put Madonna squarely in this trickster tradition. Commenting on her mischievous spin on conventional assumptions of “acting your age”, Keo Nozari at Huffington Post writes:

madonna-annie-lennox“Madonna might actually be helping reshape the paradigm for what it means for people to self-express in their 50s and beyond….It makes us initially uncomfortable. It pushes buttons. But, ultimately, it creates a path for people to choose outside what’s expected and what current norms allow.”

We have the opportunity — one could say special chance — of offering new metaphors for understanding and giving shape to our experiences of aging. This new phenomenology of aging will happen largely, and (one can hope) most productively, in conversations between generations — Boomers, their children, and their children’s children. Regardless of the potentially subversive power of “bots” in remaking the course of human biology, new understandings and experiences of aging will come from such inter-generational conversations.

It is incumbent on corporations and policy makers to be engaged in these conversations. And high time to rethink encrusted demographic profiles that drive marketing, product development, services and policy. Brands and institutions who are able to navigate in this ambiguous cultural moment will find new opportunities to flourish. At least this is our conviction at Practica. We have explored a number of domains where cultural conversations about the “new middle” are raging – whether Low T in the context of midlife manhood, cosmeceuticals in the service of health and beauty, pushing the boundaries of sports performance, formulating scent aesthetics of home or uncovering the cultural meanings of wealth and retirement in today’s world. Topics are legion. We just have to start rethinking our boundaries and conventions.