By Julie Briggs
I’ve never grown up.
I say it often and mean it. Of course when I say it, I’m having fun, but when I focus thought around that claim, I know I feel it deeply.
What does it mean to feel you’ve not grown up?
My life is what you might expect of a mature adult. I went to university; I’ve worked in interesting and challenging jobs, and I’ve borne children and cared for grandchildren. I’m a sometimes artist and poet.
My life partner and I are solid. Life has brought hard hard times and sadness.
I’m in my seventh decade, and yet I carry lightly something childish. I feel playful, silly, and open to my childhood self and the unfolding of each day.
It’s apparently quite common to feel younger than our birthdate dictates. It’s been found that about eighty percent of Australians reaching age fifty report that they feel some years younger than their chronological age.
Western culture is obsessed with youth. Ageing is viewed through a negative lens, is expressed largely in marketing, and the impact has been greatest on women, but is increasingly so for men I believe.
I’m sure many have felt the sting of casual ageism.
It was galling for example to have a 16-year-old on work experience try to tell me, a project manager and communications business owner, how to bcc an email. How much more concerning the ageism that I might face in a competitive situation such as job interviews where it’s known unconscious bias can come into play.
And then there’s my own ageism.
I fell into that for a while around at fifty and despite the fact I had noticeably grey hair since my thirties, I had my hair coloured. It had the desired effect with lots of “…you look so much younger…” comments. A few years on I realised that while I complained about
ageism, I was in fact acting ageist, with my own self-esteem the only victim.
My own attempt at pushing back the years was quite modest of course. It is appalling to see the results of the battle to retain a youthful body image has on some.
It’s my view that the high proportion of people claiming and wanting, to feel younger than their chronological age is related to the messages conveyed across all forms of media. After all, if we revered elders as many cultures do, would people feel the need to claim they feel young, or try to look young?
So let’s get that out of the way. I look my age. My sense that I’ve never grown up has nothing to do with clothing, nothing to do with makeup. It is not a claim that I 'feel younger' than my sixty six years. It is not about partying like I’m nineteen.
What I’m referring to is always carrying a deep, pervasive sense of the self we associate with youth, and the behaviours that go along with that, which we often suppress as we mature.
It’s being able to play, dream, be open with others, make new friends, share your lunch, raise your voice in public, try new things, try and fail, try, and succeed.
And yes, it’s being able to be very, very silly at times.
I could choose to view this as pathology, as I think society often does - ergo the notoriety of so-called eccentric, older people; or I can just be grateful that I’ve had a life marked by enough privilege and good fortune that there is space for these things within me.
These are the things that served us well as children and in my experience still support me to have a happy and creative life.
So, I think we’re talking about two different things here. We can allow societal anxiety to smother us and strive to look and act younger than we are. And sure, we can feel young because we work at staying fit, dressing ‘young’ and using beauty products to try to claim it is so.
My preferred alternative though for you my sisters is to stand by your age, demand respect for your greying hair, and demand your space, you’ve earned it. But please
also my sisters, honour your earlier selves by retaining and allowing freedom to the impulses and bursts, and joy that formed you - and in doing so, never quite grow