WIf someone recently said to you in a surprised tone: “You don’t look 67 at all!” and you were happy about it, then we can tell you a secret here: you are old. There is no better indicator of old age. There are many nice variants of this sentence: “It looks like you’re not getting any older!” Or: “Your age doesn’t look like it at all!” Or: “Oh, you’re so old that you have a can apply for a senior citizen pass? But I wouldn’t have thought of that.” If you’re really happy about such compliments, then you make it clear that you don’t want to be addressed as old, but that you are perceived as such.
Old age, i.e. not pure age, is a very interesting category of our social life, which differs greatly from other categorizations. Somehow you are always old. Age comparisons play an important role for children and young people, and many things that happen in life are observed in terms of age: an early career, a late marriage, an all too early death. There are many institutionalized age categorizations and expectations, but nobody really wants to be really old. And yet there are clearly quite a few people to whom this description applies – in view of the demographic development in our latitudes more than ever.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the social world is full of categorizations based on very different points of view, which occur in the form of expectations, typifications, stereotypes and, last but not least, aesthetic categories. The sorting into the group of seniors or – even older – the very old is completely different than with all other social offers for self-description. In times of identity-political debates, many people primarily want to feel like they belong – certainly also an effect of a society that may be less and less familiar with stable affiliations. You can categorize yourself as a woman who is discriminated against, a man who is constantly criticized, someone who engages in certain sexual practices, privileged or underprivileged, but you don’t want to be old.
From the refusal of the elderly one can read something that could help the whole debate about classification. People aren’t just the way they are. They only become someone when spoken to. In the language of systems theory, the term inclusion is used for this. Inclusion, on the other hand, means something different than the participation of the disabled. But it’s similar. Before we explain that, let’s take a closer look at the age category.
The unfamiliar age role
While you get used to being addressed as a woman or man – to the chagrin of gender studies – as you grow up and then gradually feel at home with it, you are not at all familiar with old age. You know other older people, but not yourself in this role, precisely because you know older people in contrast to yourself. You were older than others somewhere, but this experience was then lost again the next moment. Age is a continuous variable, not a discrete one. One is not either old or not, but more or less old. The change does not take place abruptly, but gradually. What the entire gender discussion would like to have and for which it fights with all available means against the evidence of a self-stabilizing everyday practice is a progressive form. Aging has this form.