Critical Turns of Time, Age, and Aging

In 2015 I had the honor to present the first plenary keynote after the Taoiseach, the Prime Minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny, had opened the 8th European IAGG Congress that was held at the Dublin Convention Center. The theme of the conference was 'Unlocking the Demographic Dividend'.

Henri Matisse - Icarus, plate VIII from the illustrated book "Jazz" (1947)

I am very grateful for the honor to deliver the first keynote lecture of this European congress; this eminent platform for contemporary international research on aging. A congress that is also a tribute to the prominence and flourishing of aging studies in Ireland. Congresses such as this are vital opportunities to get updated on new research but also to think once more about the basic concepts or assumptions of what we are doing. In this fashion I will present a brief conceptual analysis of time, age and aging and conclude with a short discussion of the theme of this congress Unlocking the Demographic Dividend.

I will begin and end with a short reference to Matisse's amazing late work of paper cutouts which was born from his sudden incapacity to use his hands and arms to paint. Out of this formidable existential crisis a new form of creativity arose that was not appreciated by all. Which is normal. What is remarkable from a gerontological point is that some commentators did not express that they disliked the cutouts, or thought they were bad art, but that they were an expression of Matisse's senility, because after all, he was already approaching 80 when he began to show this work. This is a stark example of what we call ageism. I want to suggest however, somewhat provokingly, that the tendency to use age in a seemingly self evident way also represents a more pervasive problem in aging studies.

Time, age and aging

Aging and time are interconnected because aging is basically living seen in a temporal perspective; especially living after having already lived for a relatively long time. This makes 'time' an important concept in trying to explain aging. 'Time' is usually connected to 'aging' through the concept of 'age', that is meant as an indicator of 'aging'. With calendars and clocks we can measure precisely what the 'age' of a person is in the sense of time since birth, although the meaning of such a fact differs depending on specific contexts and interpretations. Just imagine the differences between people who have lived the same number of years, let's say 55 years, in different historical circumstances, in different countries, wealthy or poor regions, in risky low paid jobs or in a generously paid and interesting academic position. However, 'age' continues to carry implicit generalizing assessments with it. As if somebody's age could be an answer instead of initiating new questions. I am not referring here to people who interpret their own ages in the context of their biographies; I am speaking here of age-related generalizations that are meant as explanations of aging processes.

Human aging involves processes that may have causal implications in interaction with contexts. Such processes can be measured over time and this may expand our knowledge but chronometric time does not cause anything: it is nothing more than a measurement of dated durations; very important for many purposes but under-reflected in its relevance for aging. The unfortunate habit to assume that time measurements are meaningfully laden appears to be inspired by traditions in which time was seen as representing a universal order of phases, eras, stages of the universe or mankind. Such a normative order or ontological 'Logos' led to the term chronological (Baars, forthcoming). To emphasize the need to explicate such implicit meanings of time and age I use the term chronometric time.

Chronometric time is a specific form of time that is grounded, not in dynamics of living nature, but in the movements of the solar system: gravitational movements of enormous bodies of dead weight. Insofar as these movements are not regular enough for precise measurements they are corrected by the rhythms of other dead materials: extremely frequent and stable atomic oscillations. However, the life that evolves on at least one of these gravitational bodies can be dated and measured but its developments do not follow chronometric time.

Of course, these reservations neither deny the finitude of life – nor that aging takes place within the limits of the species. It is however, unclear where these limits lie – they are empirical limits that will be broken by anyone who lives longer than Madame Calment. More important than the maximum life span are implicit generalizing assessments of age that tend to become a tool of societal exclusion. For instance, when workers who have become older than 50 or even 40 years are negatively labeled as 'older workers'. Or when somebody who has lived for 80 or more years is not taken seriously. The predicates 'old ' and 'older' contain more than just comparative measurements.

The question that arises after this critique of inadequate chronometric representations of aging is whether human aging might not follow regular changes of 'its own', that could be seen as its basic natural clock. In that case, its formative rhythms over the human life span might be expressed in a time scale that would adequately assess aging processes.

Usually, the Second Law of Thermodynamics has been called upon to develop an entropic measure for such an intrinsic age (Baars 2012). However, open systems such as human organisms, that rely on interaction and exchange with pluriform contexts do not fit well in the thermodynamic models of intrinsic dynamics that presuppose that the system in question is sealed off from the environment (cf. Yates 2007; Uffink 2007). The specific dynamic properties of human aging include an openness to the environments extending from personal lifestyles to ecological or social contexts. Emerging research from ecological developmental biology (Gilbert and Epel 2009) on the social organization of genetic expression (epigenesis) demonstrates how complex these interactive processes are (Dannefer 2011). These processes defy a general developmental Logos and must be discovered in their specificity, and in the course of this discovery chronometric time can only function as an instrument of measurement that should not be extended to represent human aging.

Aging: Increasing Differences

Because of such intrinsic openness developmental regularities may still be strong in embryological phases, but in childhood and adult life such regularities begin to decline rapidly. Comparative research on aging identical twins indicates that genes account for approximately 30% of developmental outcomes in old age; the remaining part is a playing field of contexts and personal agency (Gurland, Page, & Plassman 2004).

However, comparisons between age groups are still very popular although their value for the analysis of aging has been questioned for some time. In research on aging these questions have been articulated as cohort and age__confounds: is a certain characteristic an age effect or a cohort effect? Moreover, with the acceleration of social and cultural change in late modern societies it also becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle cohort and period effects. Several authors have tried to separate these different effects statistically and made claims to have solved the problem, but there are still good arguments for skepticism. According to experts such as Glenn (2004) these attempts have been futile, leading to 'much pseudo-rigorous research and almost certainly to many incorrect conclusions' (p. 475). A major problem is that these effects are not additive but interrelated: age, period and cohort effects interact with the dependent variables that researchers on aging are interested in.

So, we have reason to doubt whether age is really the 'independent' or even 'explanatory' variable much research assumes it to be, which leads to the question whether and how age-related concepts might make sense. Of course it is always possible to calculate average scores of relations between age on then one hand and norms, problems, or diseases on the other. The problem is that such averages and age-distributions – that can be helpful for specific purposes - tend to preclude research of the specific factors and contexts that lead to diversities in aging.

I will give two examples: one at a psychological level and another at a societal level. The first example refers to the extensive psychological research on 'the age that you are' versus 'the age that you feel'. It is not easy to understand how one can 'feel' being, for instance, 45 years old, 'younger' or 'older' than one's actual age, but the outcomes of this research appear to have strong predictive power. To have demonstrated such longitudinal effects is in itself of course valuable. Feeling younger than one's age, having positive perceptions and attitudes towards one's own aging have, again and again, proven to be reliable predictors of many important indicators. Such feelings are strongly connected with better cognitive and emotional well-being or health (Wurm et al. 2007), with future disability, longevity (Levy et al. 2002), morbidity and mortality (Kotter-Grühn et al. 2009, Uotinen et al. 2005).

But it is a peculiar form of reasoning that deserves more questioning:

  1. I am 65 (years old)

  2. Being 65 implies (for others): feeling not so good (stiff, tired, depressed… whatever.)

  3. I feel, however, much better

  4. People who are 45 feel like me

  5. But I did not feel like that when I was 45

  6. However, I 'am 65' but feel like 'being 45'

Here, chronometric age is not being interpreted but has become a proto-scientific instrument to interpret one's own aging. This raises many questions: What kinds of implicit life time clocks work here? Where do they come from? The metric discourse of aging demonstrates not only a cultural dominance of age but also a poverty of ways to interpret aging. The impressive predictive results appear to have seduced researchers to neglect what lies behind these facts and feelings of age as the data tend to be gathered without paying attention to contexts or to the expectations or experiences of the respondents (Diehl et al 2014).

These are puzzling ways in which age is made important; especially for others who are supposed to be determined by their age, whereas the exceptional I can feel younger or older. Which raises questions at a societal and cultural level: How and why did this generalizing overemphasis on age come about in, for instance, European societies? Definitions of who is 'old' and when 'old age' would have arrived have, according to historical studies for a long time been more dependent on the appearance and physical capacities of individuals than on chronometric age (Thane 2005).

Age was made important as a result of the political will of the late 19th and early 20th century European nation states to re-organize the life course; especially to improve the productivity of their populations. The ensuing tripartite division of the life course in education, work and retirement took place by establishing legal age__categories. Also, moral discourse surrounding the institutionalized life course also had a strong preference for age as this was supposed to guarantee that everybody would be treated equally.

Nowadays, the life course is producing very unequal trajectories, demonstrating the ineffectiveness and, in a sense, injustice, of treating different groups of older workers equally based on their ages. Without paying much attention to the differences between them; and here we find our second example on a societal level. Mandatory retirement is hardly a problem when most workers are exhausted if they reach retirement age at all (which was the case when retirement schemes were first developed). But it will be experienced as ageism by those who reach retirement in good shape, although others are hardly able to continue working if they can find work at all. During the last decades we have seen a constant reorganization of the life course that is not geared to accommodate diversity, but driven by intensifying global competition, a retrenching welfare state, recurrent systemic crises and neo-liberal politics of population aging. Together these developments form a difficult context for re-igniting solidarity over the life course (Phillipson 2015). However, with an eye on the growth of the world population there is hardly an alternative for population aging. So we have to 'Unlock the Demographic Dividend'.

Diversity and individual challenges of aging

There is some reason for concern as the desired flexibility of choice to accommodate the growing diversity of aging remains structurally dominated by a focus on productivity, accompanied by a neoliberal individualization of life course risks. It is one thing to get rid of mandatory retirement or raising pension age to encourage people to work longer, but this will not be helpful if one remains unemployed while a pension is still years away and losing value. Both the productivist interpretations of Active Aging that are dominant at the level of EU-policy (European Commission 2009; Walker 2009; Foster & Walker 2015) and the Successful Aging program tend to redefine the life course and aging processes in terms of individual challenges. Rowe & Kahn even emphasize that aging would be 'largely under the control of the individual' (Rowe & Kahn 1998, p. 37).

However, as we can learn from many studies of the life course, diversity in aging also consists of persistent inequalities of ethnicity, class, gender, and age categorization (cf. research by Crystal, Dannefer, O'Rand and others). The cumulative consequences of such structural and cultural dynamics of inequality cannot adequately be understood as resulting from individual choice or preference. Proverbs such as 'Time Destroys all' suggest that all humans are equalized in and through time, but some are destroyed earlier than others. Including aging in society implies attention for diversity in the positive sense of acknowledging the many contributions that can be expected from older citizens, but also attention for diversity in the negative sense of cumulative inequalities.

Henri Matisse in a wheelchair

A Dignity of Decline

Besides these two impressive challenges, we should not neglect that, as long as life is finite, aging eventually implies decline. We need more attention for the ways in which decline is being defined, acknowledged or denied by aging people themselves. It is time to eliminate age related exclusion and to acknowledge non-productivist agency, but also to recognize the dignity of human vulnerability: the dignity of unsuccessful, unproductive and in-active aging.

Confronted with the bureaucratic rigidities of chronometric age and the recurring dichotomies of successful versus failure, productive versus unproductive and active versus passive we can find some inspiration in biological interpretations of time as a rhythm of opening and closing, activity and passivity, degeneration and regeneration.

One way to envision aging as a continuation of life and not discarding it as something outside active life or as its opposite, is to see it as a dialectic of both vulnerability and complexity of biographical identity. On the one hand, as people live longer their life histories become more complex which has its reflection on identity in a broad sense. On the other hand, the vulnerability of human life also increases. A vulnerability, we may add, that which is not bound to age but shared by all human beings.

Henri Matisse - Blue Nude (I) (1952)

The inspiring example of Matisse shows that vulnerability and complexity interact to re-ignite creativity; that his vulnerability has even been of constitutive importance for the path breaking creativity of his late work. Many examples of what has been handed over to us as wisdom show this constitutive role of vulnerability in highlighting aspects of life and aging that remain hidden as long as we privilege 'normal' adulthood and categorize people according to their ages.

Thank you for your attention!