The Construction of Aging


Given the number of years that have elapsed since my birth, I could be considered an “expert” on aging, at least an experiential expert. Therefore,  it should have been  simple enough to come up with a few hundred words on age/aging that would fit in with this theme. So I began to write, or at least to think about what I would write, and then I stumbled, and stumbled badly.

First problem: just what is age?  Why and how does it matter?  And should it?  Why did something apparently so obvious (and something we routinely supply each time we’re asked on some form or questionnaire, “how old are you” or “what is your age?”) suddenly seem so difficult?  And this is not only because age is both a noun and a verb nor because these simple three letters can serve differentially to evoke, connote, and denote. And it’s definitely not because this word-syllable is also easily incorporated into longer – not always directly related – derivatives (and the ultimate tracker of such things, Google, tallies about 1355 examples).[1]

Trying to get control of this slippery word, I reminded myself that I, as most of us, have unhesitatingly checked off one of the multiple choice options or filled in the blank left for a specific number – or refused to answer – each time I was confronted with the request.  I knew, even before  the Harper government’s abolition of Stats Can’s long form made it impossible, that  age categories could be useful for comparing things ranging from education levels, to physician visits, to voting habits. In these formats, age can be an essential piece of information for allocating us for different cross classifications. And I didn’t get all twisted up in wondering what age “really was” as I ticked away.

But once I actually thought about what I was doing,  I really did begin to stray from a neat rote and automatic consideration of age.  For if the years I provide to the survey folks lets them put me into some box, the use of these numerical categories to compare groups also works to essentialize age.  In other words, the boxes  create (artificially) homogeneous groups that assume the “sameness” of the members in each that would lead to supposedly valid and useful comparisons with those in other categories with regard to the features of interest (eating habits, work, et al.).  And this was clearly not true.  We all know others who are the same age X, in the same box, as we are who definitely differ from us in substantial ways.

This suggests that this essentializing may actually be wrong or, even worse, that there is really nothing actually meaningful or useful about age as a number. What if age, to be meaningful and not just a statistician’s tool, was actually a construction by self and others that was historically, politically, socially, and always contextually determined?  What if, as I increasingly came to realize while waiting for words to flow, what we know about age, how we understand it, what we make of it, is just not something to be boxed in in simple ways but, more interestingly, a feature of the self wed to, or emerging from,  where we are at (time, place, context)?  In some ways it’s to consider not if we are some age, but if we become some age depending… Or even more heretically, perhaps: what if age was really something we all perform?

And it’s this “depending” and the performances that have been preoccupying me.

Age matters – and the double entendre in this phrase is intentional here.  Simply, age does matter: it is an issue of interest and concern.  And in what follows I will touch briefly on some of the ways in which age matters:  how we question and think about it.   These will be set forth as short – and likely very disconnected – entries, the goal of which is to stimulate readers to reflect on age – as I am still doing.




The often-unwelcome slice of time when we are seen as aged (or elderly) has become a trendy focus for self-help books and inspirational tracts, most focused on how to age graciously and without being bothersome (or costly) to others.  In some of this writing, it’s almost as if aging is a choice and one all good citizens should make – with those who don’t do the work to age gracefully having only themselves to blame for their wrinkles (what, no plastic surgery?), drooping eyelids (haven’t you heard of Botox?), sagging breasts (there are those silicone implants, my dear) and slowed pace (was the gym for training really that far away), and so it goes.

Putting aside the obvious and very problematic class- and privilege-based assumptions of all this, it remains that aging, especially for women, is framed as a frightful, fearful descent down the steep and slippery slope to dementia, or death – or both.  Medicines and surgery and high-tech interventions and appliances are, for some, perhaps temporary handles to stop the downhill slide, but fall we must.  Our bodies will sag, and we will slide.

But is this the only story for aging? Do we really need to be discouraged if not depressed by what is to come when there is more than enough already locally and afar to discourage and depress?  Paradoxically, perhaps it is the very inevitableness (if one lives long enough) and the ubiquity (everyone ages at all ages) that make the experiences, especially the individuality of age interesting.  Some of the snippets here may illuminate this individuality from a variety of perspectives.




Aging is something everyone born alive does;  we all pass (literally and figuratively) through life.  The time (leap years excepted) is the same between one and (pick any year) x, but the passage only seems to be associated with aging after about 65, making “aging”  age-constrained, something only for the elderly rather than something we all do.   Two examples illustrate this point.

First: while we talk of growing up and getting mature for those under 20, and though there seems to be a gerund gap for those 20-65, plus or minus, once well into one’s 7th decade, aging becomes the operative term – and more often than not, it tends to operate negatively.

Second:  we are generally amused and don’t snicker  when very young children say something odd or absurd and consider these utterances as delightful sources of pleasure.  But are we amused or do we, rather, snicker  when an older, elderly, person commits similar word gaffes?  Do we not too quickly consider these errors or lapses as signs of rusting neurons warning of impending dementia and certainly not evidence of the active imagination attributed to the toddler just beginning to speak?

Reality, welcome or not?  Or avoidable double-standard?  Whichever, maybe we should listen more carefully to everyone no matter their  age?




I sometimes (often?) think I’d like to “be my age,” but just what IS my age?  I know it can be measured on any one of several clocks, in any one of multiple formats.  And I know these often do not coincide.  We all have biological, chronological, (multiple)circadian, psychological, and social clocks, and they rarely tick away synchronously or in harmony within or between individuals[2]  This may be why we elicit suggestions (at all ages) to “act” your age; look your age.

Albeit acting one’s age is probably judged  more positively when performed by a 5-year-old than by a 75-year-old: should this be so? Moreover,  while looking one’s age may be desired by a young woman reaching the end of her teens  who wants to drive or vote,  North American society generally does not desire seeing the unfixed face of those at the ends of their 70s or 80s.

But  not only do we each have multiple clocks giving us some age, specific clocks do not tick at the same rate for all.  For example, those who have lived in impoverished circumstances tend to experience accelerations in their biological clocks that those raised in privileged environments may be spared.  As well, those who practice “mindfulness” may, as described in the book, Counterclockwise, actually stop or at least stall not only their biological clocks but also their psychological and social ones, too.   And how often do individuals feel  lots more vigorous, or frail, than they – or others – expect them to be based on their “age?”

The bells may be tolling, but we also can choose which ones are ringing out our years and on which clocks, and thereby manage (or perform) our personal constructions of age – no matter the elapsed time since we were born.  So if I want to “be my age,” which one will I choose to perform??? Do I struggle for age (as the teenager may do), or do I struggle against age when labeled a “senior citizen?”

Clearly, clocks are malleable, not always synchronous or linear.  They can be used to look forward (suggesting possibilities and openness) as well as to look backward (with wistfulness, satisfaction, sadness, or regret).  “Time marches on” we are told; and we are also told to keep pace, step right, act our ages.  But maybe movement along established lines is unwise.  If we do each have our own and different drummer setting out paces, with marching tunes differing between and among us – and within us – through the years, perhaps there is some sense of freedom in performing the age I want to be – and changing the performance as and whenever I want?  We’ve come to think of gender as fluid; maybe age is, too?




Thinking about clocks and their tickings leads more or less directly to matters about the lengths of time we can claim as our own – with the choices of measuring tools, like clocks,  quite variable.  One particular length getting lots of attention by biomedical researchers lately is that of  telomeres. This is the material at the end of chromosomes that appears to shorten with the years lived, suggesting their length  may be an important “marker” of age.  Telomeres have become so important to some researchers, in fact, that they (along with private entrepreneurs funding various “transhumanist” projects seeking immortality) are racing to develop ways to stop the shortening of telomeres or even to add to their size with hopes of delaying, if not deferring, death.

But there are other less futuristic lengths that matter with age.

Getting taller and getting shorter is one — and another example of why the timing of age matters.  I truly  love to watch the lines on the kitchen wall get higher and higher as I mark  their height as a child or  a grandchild  grows  and gets  taller.  Conversely, I don’t  have the same (happy) reaction when I realize  that mirrors in bathrooms which  used to capture my  entire face now only show the top of my  head as aging moves me from being the tallest in my 6th grade class to being merely “average” in later decades.

Lengths also measure spans, and for those adding years as they pass through life, there are two phrases that are often used: lifespan, and more recently, health span.  Whereas lifespan has tended to refer simply to longevity, the quantity of years lived or expected to be lived, and has in Western developed countries increased dramatically over the past century, the neologism healthspan refers to the quality of the years we pass through.

And while this seems to be a progressive framing, the concept of “healthspan”  may hide some less desirable implications.  For example, who determines whether an individual does or does not have some “quality” of life and for what duration?  Who will set the standards by which we may be shown to measure up or to fail?  And then what?  These seem to be length matters that matter.

And one more, this time what I want to call, provisionally, the “worth it gap” (WIG).  This  relates, perhaps, to measures of both the quantity and quality spans.  The WIG can be seen quite dramatically during patient/physician encounters.  When the patient and physician are about the same age,  I suggest (on the basis of no hard data, just hunches) that they will judge the risks of some intervention –whether or not it is worth doing — more-or-less similarly — and so the gap will be small.  By contrast, when the patient is much older than the physician, I believe they   will be much less likely to  make similar “is it worth it”  assessments, and so the gap will be large(r): “dangerous” surgery in the eyes of the physician may be “no big deal” to the patient.  Another matter to consider, perhaps, when reflecting on aging.




Getting old(er) is not a choice, and definitely should never be seen as a consumer choice – neither the doing of it nor the appearing it.  Framing it as a simple choice is, in many ways, another neo-liberal downloading of responsibility.  It is to make being/staying healthy and not appearing aged an individual’s job. And when the work is no longer sufficient, the individual can just go away – or be put away.

This perspective lends to seeing chronic health problems as  “threats” to the state insofar as treatments for those with these ailments will cost (some say they will “drain”) the public purse as healthcare takes up more and more funds that then will not be available for other necessary services and social expenditures.  Moreover, with birthrates as low as they now are, there will be insufficient wage-earners paying taxes to support the needs of the elderly who are no longer in paid employment and a supposed “dependency gap” will be the result.  Worse, those with chronic health problems, more likely to be those who are older than those who are younger, will thereby become a threat to society.

Putting aside the several false assumptions of this apocalyptic geriatric vision, it may be of interest to recall again how timing  matters whenever aging is discussed, since there actually is  another “dependency gap,” with this one  seeming  to raise no alarms about  threats to or drains of society.  I refer here to  the dependency gap that exists for individuals from the time of birth until they have completed their education and joined the paid (no matter how precarious, temporary, or underpaid this is likely to be) work force.

Infants and children are (rightfully) given all kinds of social and financial benefits (even sparse ones in times of “austerity”) and are not expected to contribute to the public coffers from which these funds come.  We support this gap, but do we support the one that may appear at later years?  Is it timing, or simple ageism?

Perhaps as a way to minimize the “dependency” needs of those who are older, we find  a  market for all kinds of self-monitoring gadgets to record data about our bodies and minds growing  incessantly.   Lately, this has been in parallel with the expansion of cosmetic, surgical, and medical interventions to “fix” the measurements that allegedly signal some problem for us to “fix.”  It doesn’t matter which is chicken and which egg: the profits for the private sector are huge in this commodification of age.

The examined life today overlaps with the monitored life, with both done by self and others.   And while we (or others) can measure more and more in more and more detail, is all this examining of any worth to the individual –  leaving aside, again, the critically important questions about the privileges needed to examine and monitor and how these  contribute to inequities and further oppressions in society.  Is the outer self that’s measured, monitored, manipulated, even medically and surgically assessed and altered,  what matters? Matters to whom?

What about the possibility of orienting  self-examinations – of reflecting about – our inner selves?  Might understanding these  be a more useful form of solipsism if we want to foster social change, reduce inequities, address oppressions and ensure solidarity and justice?




It may be that ageism at any age is the problem, just as racism not race is a problem. If so, we need to fight ageism (and racism) and not the bodies that are marked by age (or race).  We also might want to consider a range of ways in which age and aging are constructed and performed before invoking one-size-fits-all solutions to multiple situations and visions.

This is not a Pollyanna-ish call for a gentler way to experience, see, and respond to age and aging, but rather a reminder that age and aging are as much political and contextual as they are individual and personal.  Not everyone will want to be a “Raging Granny” – though those who do are surely wonderful age-benders.  But maybe as we age, we need to avoid raging at any of the so-called “ravages” of age and, instead, turn our rage to those in and with power who make aging unnecessarily difficult and painful when they reduce too many of the elderly, especially the women and those with disabilities among them, to poverty and expose them to intolerable situations of abuse and violence (physical and psychological).

We need to remember that  rage is an(other) age-word;  the aged today have reasons  to be enraged and we all need to welcome their engagement in demanding our mutual goals of justice across the ages.



[1] Some examples in one sentence: The outraged nonagenarian, her entourage all disparagers, scrummaged through her vintage maquillage and then sagely camouflaged her damaged plumage, her courageous bricolage a cagey stratagem to salvage her age-ravaged visage.

[2] And this omits for now what may be the original measure of age for humans, one’s gestational age (as measured in weeks since the last menstrual period of the woman carrying the fetus).


Abby Lippman is a longtime feminist activist with special interests in women's health and women's health policies. She has one foot based in academia (specifically at McGill and Concordia Universities) and the other, the foot she favors, involves her in social justice and reproductive activism with community groups in Montreal and beyond its borders.