Last week I attended a prelim exam for a doctoral student in an interdisciplinary program – her dissertation project (and the topic that framed her exam questions) will look at the meanings of racial passing in literary texts written at different points in the twentieth century. The discussion was intense, but as it went on I began to wonder how “passing” might be thought about if the category were not race, or gender, or sexuality, but age.
Age is such a relative concept – the history of childhood taught me that. Now, as I approach retirement, I’m struck by the porousness of the boundaries of old age. Facebook and TV ads have been telling me that I am “old.” Age spots” are all around me, if only I were paying attention: gray hair, wrinkles, dark spots on my skin, flabby muscles, a weak heart, an overactive bladder, and extra pounds. Thought the ads are ubiquitous, “old” is not the message I’m meant to take away from these ads. Instead I am urged to conceal my identity and “pass” as a much younger version of me. If I do so, then the ads telling me 60 is the new 30 and 70, the new 35 will be true.
I can “pass,” I’m promised, if I make a few strategic changes with some strategic purchases. Creams to reduce wrinkles and dark spots, color for gray hair, pills to stay thin or get thin after not staying thin, an exercise machine to increase stamina and protect my aging heart. Oh, and don’t forget the face-lift and the exercises for my mind. But, age spots are persistent little devils, aren’t they? It is a full-time occupation to pass and turn my 60-ish body into a 30-ish identity. (And perhaps that’s why people in my age demographic need to retire!).
While pondering this idea of age passing, I came across an article I bookmarked a few weeks ago: “Grandparents and Retirees Get Tattoos, Fulfilling Lifelong Dreams and Raising Eyebrows,” from the Washington Post. “They hit the ‘screw it’ stage,” the owner of a tattoo parlor in Alexandria told the reporter, and add body art to their appearance. Tattooing — another effort at passing? Daredevil, in your face behavior that signifies youth. Just thought I’d toss the “first tattoo at 60” into the mix. Though it seems a positive statement of age acceptance, more so than all the hiding and concealing, still a tattoo in the “screw it stage” shares qualities with other signs of a desire to pass.
But what will it get me if I make this effort to pass? Just as there were benefits to racial passing in a society that privileged whiteness, there are benefits to age passing in a society that values youth as much as experience. Employment opportunities are improved – laws making age discrimination illegal are there because age discrimination is a persistent problem for wrinkled, flabby applicants who are not as “quick” or as “strong” as their younger counterparts. Perhaps by passing I can forestall that “superannuated professor” label a bit longer if the body’s appearance is taken as a marker of intellectual engagement and commitment to teaching and mentoring.
Age spot removal will not help me with Social Security benefits, however. Age may be a constructed concept, but birth dates are not. My work and wage history, on which my retirement benefits are calculated, ended for SSA purposes at age 60. Someone should let them know that 60 is the new 30. While I continue to contribute for the next few years based on a much higher salary than I had at 30, I will not see those contributions registering in the level of benefits to which I am entitled when I retire. Social security does not allow for “passing,” and its “full retirement age” is not a “spot” that can be hidden by creams, pills, and exercise. Bummer.
From the Department of Labor Website
The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. The Act, which applies to all ages, permits the use of certain age distinctions and factors other than age that meet the Act’s requirements. The Age Discrimination Act is enforced by the Civil Rights Center.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment. The ADEA is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA) prohibits discrimination against applicants, employees and participants in WIA Title I-financially assisted programs and activities, and programs that are part of the One-Stop system, on the ground of age. In addition, WIA prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, political affiliation or belief, and for beneficiaries only, citizenship or participation in a WIA Title I-financially assisted program or activity. Section 188 of WIA is enforced by the Civil Rights Center.