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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Expectations of Age

Welcome back to Dive into Worldbuilding for 2019!

The first thing we did when opening up this discussion was remind people about the special deal that Dive into Worldbuilding participants can get with Writing the Other's upcoming Master Class. Register by January 27th and get $40 off with the code diveintowb!

We weren't sure as we began the discussion whether to talk about later ages or all ages, but in the end there was so much to grapple with that we focused mostly on more advanced ages.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that all expectations of age are cultural, and they differ not only based on culture but also on gender, race, and class, etc.

We talked about how people develop a sense that a birthday with a "zero" at the end of it was a big deal. Naturally, this is just an artifact of the decimal-based number system that we use. We talked about how in places where they use the East Asian zodiac, every twelve years is a big deal. Our expectations of how important a particular birthday is are built into us on the ground floor. Kat remarked that she feels personally that the zeroes hit her harder than the twelves. She noted that the convergence of the two at age 60 is really important in China, Korea, and Japan.

Cliff mentioned how in the Southern US there are behaviors expected of people interacting with older folk. Young people are expected to give deference to elders by calling them Sir or Ma'am. This is not so much a rule in the Northeast, Chicago, or California. Interestingly, this behavior can be racialized: Southerners who accept this kind of behavior toward them may object to it when they see it in other cultures. Race tends to trump age, as when African-American men were infantilized by calling them "boy."

Whenever you take a respect behavior out of its original context, you can run into problems. Some cultures make a point of trying to break down hierarchy. Some make a point of trying to avoid gender bias, and this can be a problem when the formal words we use are gendered.

In some cultures, hierarchy is built into the language on every level.

In some cultures, people in their 30s talking about feeling creaky and getting older is normal; in some it's considered silly given how young they are.

Until what age are people expected to have plasticity of thought? Is there an age beyond which everyone expects your ideas to have calcified?

How do we measure age visually? It's a tricky thing to do, for a number of reasons. One is that people our age in earlier eras often presented visually as older. The phrase "act your age" relies on a set of expectations drawn from a visual or behavioral assessment of someone's age, and is always incredibly loaded. "Age-appropriate dress" is also cultural.

Kat noted that in the Facebook photo posts where people shared themselves ten years ago and now, some of the people looked younger in the more recent photos. One idea was that we've gotten better at selfies. Another possibility is that when we are younger, we want to look more mature to project authority, and ten years later we may have crossed a threshold where we want to look younger to combat ageism. Cliff pointed out that his beard ages him by about 20 years - but there are advantages to being an older white male, and little incentive to change it. Reading other people's age also varies culturally and racially. The Asian markers of aging are different, such as the way the skin and fat are distributed on the face, and the way the musculature is arranged. Many of us have a eurocentrically normalized sense of what aging is: wrinkles around the eyes, wrinkling forehead, sagging skin, graying hair and skin. The age when these features hit is different in different populations. There are important implications of age-judging for social justice as well, because they change social expectations of behavior. For example, black kids are often judged to be older than they are and this leads to them being punished more harshly.

The infantilization of millennials is also interesting. Kat says it's connected to a set of expectations for adulthood that no longer hold. The birth rate is going down because there is no support for families either financially or in the form of leave. A lot of the hit pieces on millennials are based on the post-WWII expectations for white people. Generation X, meanwhile, gets overlooked or erased, or told they don't count. Generation X didn't get the same things the Boomer generation did because the Boomer generation voted against it.

Certain ages of people tend to get erased in the larger cultural context. In our underlying culture, we don't necessarily have disregard for the elderly, but the Boomers, who used the phrase "never trust anyone over 30," certainly did. As their large population ages, we see a lot of cultural concern focused on their issues. There is more media focus on aging now, and on aging women. Many millennials don't have the anti-aging bias.

We have lots of ideas about what it means when older men have relationships with younger women, but Millennials are not accepting it any more. What about older women with younger men?

The movie The Hunt for Red October is historically interesting. We talked about Das Boot as well, and looked at what is considered "old" in the naval setting. In Das Boot, the captain is 26 and considered ancient because he hasn't been killed yet. The army tends to capture a stratum between the ages of 18-26. In WWI and WWII movies as well, the "old man" on the battlefield is a very young man.

In Dungeons and Dragons, there are stat changes associated with aging. You lose strength and dexterity and gain wisdom. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone gained wisdom as they aged?

We talked about the wise old man trope. This is certainly embodied by wizards in Fantasy. When are old people portrayed as wise, and when are they portrayed as foolish or out of touch?

Stories often deal with mortality but they tend to deal with aging less often, at least in SFF. Do stories deal with aging more in the mainstream genre? Why? Do we assume that science will eliminate aging issues in the future?

The films Bubba Hotep and Cocoon deal with aging in different ways.

Che mentioned that Stephen King's Insomnia has a senior citizen character who is coping with arthritis pain.

Sometimes mobility or health issues in the elderly cause them to withdraw from public social interaction. Obviously, though, this is not exclusive to the elderly, as one can be disabled at any age. Automobile culture causes isolation if you lose the ability to drive safely. We speculated that driverless cars might keep older people and disabled people more involved in society. Kat said we need to have a more accessible society, but it seems the concerns of Boomers may lead to increases in accessibility.

Thank you to everyone who attended! Dive into Worldbuilding meets tomorrow, Thursday, January 24th, 2019 to talk with guest author Ellen Klages about her novella, "Passing Strange." I hope you can join us!