March 01, 2010

Aging and Inequality

new karen 1 By Karen Sternheimer

A few weeks before my college graduation, I went to return something at a local store. The clerk asked to see my driver’s license to write up the return. When she looked up at me, she said, “Oh, you’re probably too young to have a driver’s license, dear. That’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

I was nearly 21, and incensed that someone would think I wasn’t yet 16! I told the clerk that I was graduating from college that month and that I most certainly had a driver’s license, which I handed to her to prove my age.

Today I would be flattered if someone thought I was several years younger than I am. But in my teens and early twenties I struggled to be taken seriously as a young person, particularly when I was on the job market. And now that I have established myself professionally, looking young is no longer a liability.

In fact, for many people struggling to find work, looking younger may be a plus. Local cosmetic surgeons send out coupons for procedures, suggesting that “facial rejuvenation” can get you that next job or promotion. If there were a pill that would stop the aging process, say around age 25, would you take it?

Recently, I read a novel that explores this very question. The Malthusian Catastrophe, by Ernesto Robles, tells the story of a Michael Jeffs, a recent MBA grad who can’t find the Wall Street job he’d always dreamed of because of the recession. Instead, he’s recruited by a firm that sells a nutritional supplement, “Sinsen,” rumored to stop the aging process.


Jeffs reluctantly takes the job, only to discover that the product seems to really work, causing a frenzy among consumers eager to get their hands on the supplements. He becomes rich and powerful as a result. Eventually the company becomes more powerful than most world leaders, and the president of the United States becomes a chief rival of the company’s CEO.

While all of this might sound great—who wouldn’t want to stay young and get rich in the process—the product triggers a series of unintended consequences.

First, the limited supply means that as demand grows, so does the price of staying young, so only wealthy people can afford it. Those who aren’t wealthy but are affluent enough to afford Sinsen cut back on their purchases of other things, which drives the economy into a downward spiral.

Second, so much land is needed to grow Sinsen’s active ingredient that farmers sell their land at a high profit and stop producing food, leading to starvation.

And finally, what will happen if the Earth’s population grows beyond its capacity to sustain life? This is what economist Thomas Malthus warned of at the end of the 18th century, and is called the Malthusian catastrophe. The book’s title comes from warnings from a sociologist, Dr. Joanna Hochberg, who cautions the public that what first seems like a wonder drug could create massive social problems. Her warnings make for good news show debates, but they don’t deter the public (or Hochberg herself) from taking Sinsen if they can get it.

The Malthusian Catastrophe is a great page-turner (and one of the only novels I’ve read where a sociologist is a main character). It also raises several important issues to consider about health and aging in contemporary society.

As I have previously blogged about, access to regular health care is directly related with income. While health care reform seems to have stalled in Congress, many Americans have trouble obtaining or keeping their health insurance, particularly as premiums soar. They may be forced to live in communities closer to environmental hazards. A recent study found that living near a freeway is linked with heart disease and interferes with children's healthy lung development.

In the novel, lack of access to Sinsen becomes very visible—the people who don’t take Sinsen are the only ones who age—and it thus magnifies the relationship between socio-economic status and the appearance of aging in contemporary society.

Lower income people not only tend to work at jobs that are more dangerous, with less autonomy, and more stress, but economic struggles themselves are very stressful and leave visible traces of age.

Affluence often means more autonomy on the job and greater work satisfaction. Wealth can buy vacation time, healthier food, flattering wardrobes and other luxuries that may make people look younger. Facials, teeth whitening, and other selective procedures can minimize markers of age for those who can afford them. Yes, some people do go overboard and look bizarre after too many cosmetic treatments, as Sally Raskoff has blogged about. But these selective and hidden lifestyle issues do create visible markers of class.

It’s ironic that in a time when life expectancy continues to rise, aging becomes seen as problematic. Americans born in 2020 are expected to have an average life expectancy of nearly 80 years, compared with about 47 for those born in 1900. By contrast, when the United States was founded in the 18th century, statesmen wore powdered wigs and white tights giving them an appearance of age beyond their years.

If appearing to age is considered socially undesirable, the market for products promising to provide the fountain of youth can expand unabated. But as Ernesto Robles warns in The Malthusian Catastrophe, an age-phobic society can produce dire consequences.


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Your college story resonated with me because, as a female-to-male trans person who hasn't gone on hormones, most people perceive me as a young teenage boy. I find it annoying, and so do several of the trans guys I know -- yet many other people seem to find this youthfulness attractive.

So, while I agree that people want to look young, I wonder just how young they wish to appear; and whether that ideal age is going down. If people one day wish to look like 12-year-olds, then other issues might arise: it would be hard to tell children from (allegedly responsible) adults.

I always wandered, why exactly does it have to be the 20's? What if that "perfect" age would be 40's? Wouldn't that be interesting :)

Another interesting fiction on age is called Jitterbug Perfume. Very much a page turner. It sparks the imagination like the Malthusian Catastrophe.

I agree with you and how people are always trying to look younger, but as a 17 year old that's still in high school i love to hear that i look like im 19 or 20 years of age. Once people reach a certain age, they always seem to want to look younger. It is strange that everyone always want to be in their 20's again or cant wait until they reach their 20's. For me, i cant wait to be in my 2o's or for that fact i cant wait to be a college student. I also found it interested that people wont take youngsters serious. I have experineced many situations where adults wont take me serious because of a number. I know that i am only 17, but that doesnt mean that i cant be taken serious because i am still a teenager. Age is just a number that everyone focuses way too much on. People need to start focusing on the actual person instead what age they are. If there was a anit-aging pill im not so sure that i would want to take it because then i would be stopping the natural process of life. I think that once you reach your 30's and already had a chance to live your 20's, then there should be no reason to want to go back because you already lived that time of your life and now its a new period of you life that's about to begin. Looking ahead to the future would be a good thing.

I thought this article was very interesting. The question, if you could take a pill that stopped the aging process at 25 would take it? really made me think! The book you read sounded extremely interesting. We are learning about how people are judged based on their age and gender in my sociology class right now, so this ties in perfectly. This really opened my eyes to people's desire to either be younger or older than they really are. Can anyone just embrace their current age and just enjoy life? :)

i think that every one should be happy with how they look mainly because if god wanted you to looka a different way or to be different you would be.

Something I've noticed is that aging only seems to be a big deal with women. Most men don't complain about getting old. Plus the media mainly targets women with their cosmetics commercials.

There's no need to say that the majority is highly concearned about HOW they LOOK, but the bigger problem is how they FEEL. And this is neglected. There's no social mandate on long and healthy life.
Aging is the main killer in the world. Nearly all the diseases one dies from are age-related. Wouldn't it be great if people could life for as long as they wish and be healthy (say, if the biological age would be around 30)?
As for the global negative future outcomes of the "anti-aging pill" mentioned in the book - they are seeming threats. I blooged about why overpopulation is one. As for the others - remember cell phones? How expensive they were? How only the righ could afford them?
Technological solutions (like devices and therapies) tend to become cheaper and cheaper as time goes by.
The main problem now is that we don't have this "magical pill". Of course, it's going to be a set of therapies in the future. More scientific research is needed in order to fight (cure, postpone, defeat etc.) aging. And I believe for that a social mandate is necessary.

A lot of aging issues come out of what we see of everyone else on things like the TV or internet. We're seeing tons of young girls striving for physical perfection that they end up looking older than they are and then you have the few older women who go through tremendous lengths to maintain a youthful appearance. We ahve to change everyone's veiw in oreder to fix the problems we have about age and looks.

My dad has had problems with this very thing. For the last sixteen years, he was a math professor at several colleges and universities in the area. Three years ago, he received his Doctorate degree in mathematics. Two years ago, he was laid off from Michigan State University. He has been looking for a job in that field of study, but has continued to be rejected because of his age. (52) He is obviously more qualified than most twenty-five year olds that apply, but can't seem to find somebody to give him a chance.

Everyone wants to look like they are in the twenties. Adults older want to look younger, and teenagers want to look older. I think for teenagers, they mainly want to appear older so they can be treated more equally. Many adults don't take teenagers such as myself seriously, but if I had the option to take the anti-aging pill, I don't think I would take it because I would miss out on that part of life.

I agree with the author ,Karen Sternheimer, because many teens aren't taken sirecly. If a teen would go up and tell an adult that the are hurt the adult may not believe them, bur if an older person were to come up and tell the same adult that they are hurt than that adult might actually do something. More and more people now a days aren't believing what the younger generations are trying to the adults.

When I was in my late teens, early twenties, my issue in regards to looking young was completely opposite. I looked older than I really was. I remember when I was 16, my friends would always ask me to buy them cigarettes at the local gas station since I was the only one out of the group that could pull it off without being ID. Of course I went along with it, peer pressure.
There was a question that was posed to the reader, “If there was a pill that would stop the aging process, say around 25, would you take it?” I would have to say no. We are supposed to age, that is human nature. I believe that as I get older, I become even that much more beautiful. In reading the rest of the article, the cost for the pill, Sinsen, would have a negative effect on society for many reasons stated. We were placed on this earth to grow, live life to the fullest and eventually die. This would allow the next generation to continue the process and flourish. If we try to manipulate and change the natural way of life; this will throw the balance off and could possibly cause an enormous catastrophe.

I agree with this blog, because I have to same problem. When people meet me for the first time, they don't believe that I am 17 years old, they think that I'm only 15 years old. Also, I am a senior at Fennville High School and no one wants to believe that either. The reason why I think it is a good thing to look young is because when I get to 60 years old, no one is going to believe it. The only bad thing is that we i asked my age, they are going to want to see my driver license.

I think that as people begin to age and they try to stop it they look worse then if they just went with it. I think aging is a natural process that everyone has to go through and that if you dont worry about it then your confidence will help keep you looking younger. I dont see why most of the population worries about it when their are much more important things to look at and worry about.

I think that every person wants to act younger and feel younger. There is no way you can reverse time or stop time but there is ways to help you look "better" by surgery or other items but there is no way you can live longer or never die. So I think you should let your body grow the way it wants to either your hair turning white or your face getting wrinkly there is no way you can stop time so why should you always look young. Your grandchildren or just your child want to see a grandma the way they think they should look and that is with white hair, wrinkly face, and that smile of theirs white or yellow. They want to see you as you.

That sounds like a very interesting book. I think it is interesting to think about how things we do now can affect us in the future. Everything mentioned here is very capable of happening because I could see the line between the rich and the poor increasing and becoming more visible. Personally, I think you should just let yourself age in your own way. I think that once you get older, you shouldn't really care what you look like anymore because you are usually loved by a family and they don't care what you look like either. They will love you no matter what. Great post!

This was a very interesting article. The change from wanting to look older and more mature to desiring to look young and beautiful that has occurred over the last two hundred years is fascinating. I think it represents our society's devotion to aesthetics and physical appearances. We no longer value the wisdom and experience that comes with old age but only the beauty of youth. But if we were to stop aging and remain young forever, we would disrupt the natural cycle of life and have devastating consequences as in the book you mention.

Age is trully a major part of social status-to old and you are deemed to slow and unable to work, to young and people see you as an individual who lacks responsibility or good work ethics. Age in American society is trully deemed undesriable causing inequality to the point where employers will want to know your age rather then your race or gender.

I liked your article. I think that our society's obsession with age is ridiculous. Parents and peers pressure younger children to look older than they are but once they past their teens and early twenties, they are complimented if they look younger than they actually are. There is nothing we can do to stop aging and I think as a society we should accept people as they are and appreciate their looks and ages no matter what stage of life they are in. There are so many more important qualities to a person than how old they look.

I find this very odd for our age. I have actually just done and assignment in my sociology class about the elderly living longer than ever before since 1960. I had to make educated hypothesis on what the positives and negatives would be and I would have never guessed the outcome being that employers on average looking for younger employers and people modifying their appearances through drugs and surgery's to account for this. This seems backwards to me; as we grow as a society I would think that we would learn to take into account what matters not make stratification based on facial features. I think this will be a transient way of trying to get ahead in the job market. I think eventually employers will see that workers will not work any better based on how young they appear today.

This time in our lives would come to us banging our heads and make us realize that we should act as our age because life will not bring us to the time when we had not lived ours.

today we are no longer surprised that many people are concerned with beauty and desire always stay young so that they are willing to consume drugs that have adverse effects for himself. supposed to prevent aging they just need to do a balanced lifestyle and maintain a regular diet

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