Thursday, October 8, 2009

Age - is it just a number?

I have a birthday coming up soon. This weekend, in fact. I have been described as a whipper-snapper recently, and some will be surprised to know that it's playing on my mind, but I'll be older than I've ever been before and that's quite scary. It's not a milestone. Not even a demi-milestone. It's not even a nice, round number. But it's still making me think about things: about the past; about the future; about the way we (humans) look at and use numbers*.

We, as a culture, and even (largely) as a species, ascribe a lot of importance to age, and particular ages. In the UK, for example, we can start having sex legally at 16, learn to drive a car at 17 and buy alcohol at 18. These are little more than arbitrary choices when you consider the massive variation of attitudes, achievements, intelligence and growd-upness between individuals of the same age (at any age). Even outside the law certain ages are ascribed similarly arbitrary meaning: 21 is when you 'come of age', whatever that means; you're peeking over the brow of the hill at 30, and life begins at 40.

But at the same time age is a very abstract thing. In terms of who I am, I haven't noticed a distinct change since... I can remember. Obviously things have changed along the way, but it's been a gradual change that those who have been close to me for any length of time fail to notice because it's so small, and we're all changing together. Age is fairly difficult to judge from the outside- anyone obviously younger than you, it seems, is barely more than a child. Anyone much older, a lot of the time, is a bit of an out of date codger. But where are the boundaries? When does someone change from being 'about the same age' as you to being a near-child or a codger? Is it as simple as that? Certainly not. So is age more defined by attitude and personality than by the number of years you've racked up on the Great Click-Counter in the Sky?

I tried an experiment the other day: I asked a class of fairly high ability 12/13 year-olds (year 8) to guess what age I'm going to turn on Saturday. The range of serious guesses** was astonishing: the lowest was seventeen; the highest fifty-eight. One got the answer on the nose, but the guesses were distributed fairly evenly along the scale, which suggests that the guesses were little more than wild stabs in the dark between a couple of vaguely sensible boundaries.

I have close friends with a wide range of ages, and there are people I cannot stand who are the same age as me. Some of the adults I meet are seemingly incapable of having any kind of intellectual conversation, whereas I could pick out a number of children in the lower years of my school who are more than comfortable taking part in more cerebral discussions, either inside the classroom or out.

So is age blurry rather than solidly defined? Are the numbers we ascribe to age futile attempts to unify what happens to us as we progress through life? Why is 40, for example, a landmark when people can be so markedly different when (or, indeed, if) they reach it? One of the big questions that getting a bit older always brings up for me is when does getting older stop being a good thing and turn into a bad thing? Or is it different for everybody? Or does everybody necessarily experience that?

This post is full of questions, I know! But I defy anyone to answer them with anything other than speculation. Maybe we should get rid of the system we have of counting numbers, and marking milestones.

Or maybe we should make every number a milestone, special in its own way. I'll start:

On Saturday I'll reach an age which, whilst not a multiple of 10, or a half-century, or a quarter century, or with any legal implications, can be just as special if you look at it in the right way. It's a special number because:

  • It's a perfect cube, and most people will have only four such birthdays in their life- it'll be my third, with nearly forty years to go until the next, and almost twenty years since the last.
  • The Messier object with the same number is known as the Dumbbell Nebula and, like many other such objects, is beautiful.
  • There are this many books in the Bible's Old Testament. For an atheist, that's a good'un.
  • Mozart completed this many concerti for piano and orchestra.
And, perhaps most interestingly,
  • It appears to be something of a magic number where sex is concerned, being cited by The Joy of Sex as the ideal number of participants for an orgy.
So it's a great number of years to celebrate. I just can't think for the life of me how to go about doing it.

* Yes, I do realise that's quite sad, thank you.
** The unserious ones included "a hundred and forty-six" and "minus one-point-three: you're still just a sperm, sir." I don't think that this last one was an attempt at an insult, but you can't always tell.