How Society Invented the AGING CRISIS (& How To Break Free)

Our culture spends a lot of time fearing aging, trying to hide all signs of it, even attempting to eliminate it all together – but what if we stopped assuming it’s all bad? Culturally we talk about aging in terms of a series of crises — quarter life when we hit 25, the turning 30 crisis, and then the mid-life crisis. And the most prominent fear of aging in our society is around looks fading. But what if we stopped focusing so much on how aging looks to pay attention more to how it feels to progress through different life stages? If we face our fears, then the joys of getting older can come to the surface.


Our culture spends a lot of time fearing aging, trying to hide all signs of it, even attempting to eliminate it altogether – but what if we stopped assuming it’s all bad? And what if we stopped focusing so much on how aging looks to pay attention more to how it feels to progress through different life stages? If we face our fears, then the joys of getting older can come to the surface.

Culturally we talk about aging in terms of a series of crises — quarter life when we hit 25, the turning 30 crisis, and then the mid-life crisis when we start to worry about how much time we’ve got left, and what we’ve accomplished. This pattern speaks to how prized youth is in our culture, but slowly, it does seem like the needle is beginning to shift. We’re seeing more roles for older actors, for stories about the older experience, and more acclaim and curiosity about these narratives.

Aging is often framed in terms of loss. The loss of loved ones, the loss of your looks, the loss of ability. But here’s our take on what we gain as the years go on.

The most prominent fear of aging in our society is around looks fading. Social media and the beauty industry have found countless ways to monetize this with filters, facetuning, and plastic surgery trends — and the huge response to the recent teenage filter on TikTok has shown just how explicitly much of this is about chasing youth.

The way these trends are marketed plays into this fear. We are told aging effects can be reversed, or that skincreams are anti-aging, preventing the process before it starts. When Martha Stewart’s spa-day and pool selfies went viral at the start of 2023, it was because people praised her for not looking 81. Similarly, Paul Rudd is constantly praised in Hollywood because of how youthful he continues to look despite now being in his fifties. Even the recent twink death trend that went viral when images of an old and a young Leonardo DiCaprio were placed side by side showed that people still treat signs of age with cruelty.

Undeniably, it’s women who feel the brunt of this fear more than men, especially those in front of a camera. When Reese Witherspoon celebrated Amy Schumer back in 2015, she said: “Amy, I’m five years older than you, so I’ll probably have to play your grandmother in the movie, by Hollywood standards, and you’ll have to play your own mother.” But what’s most insidious is how many constant messages we receive in culture that getting older is gross and horrifying. In horror movies, we often see old women transformed into monsters, there to provoke fear and disgust in the youthful protagonists. It was there in The Shining, it’s there in It, and it’s still there — albeit played with in a more self-referential way — in recent horrors like Relic and Barbarian.

The result of this widespread fear impacts everyone, no matter your age. It also weirdly creates a very brief, idealized window of time where you’re not so young that people won’t take you seriously, but not so old that people will think you’re past your prime. We’re told to constantly work until we retire, while people at retirement age are overlooked and dismissed by our culture. It’s a framework that makes everyone miserable. What’s encouraging, though, is how now, people are starting to reject this mindset more, and embrace how beautiful older age can be. The rise of the “Dad Bod” illustrates how people’s tastes are changing. And the journey Emma Thompson’s character goes on in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is all about this, recognising how just because she’s older, that doesn’t mean she’s not gorgeous, or isn’t an object of desire, or can’t have a pleasurable experience. So it’s worth examining: what is it that’s causing all this fear? And if we recognise it, can we fight it?

When we talk about these aging crises, what exactly are they based on? With the quarter life crisis, the anxiety we feel when we hit our early to mid twenties is actually a pretty natural, chemical reaction to the fact that our brains have finally hit maturity and pumped the brakes, causing us to take stock and be a little more self-reflective.

As for the 30 crisis and the mid-life crisis, these are created culturally. Things like 30 Under 30 Lists turn the start of our fourth decade on the planet into this looming deadline we’re meant to be afraid of. A 2022 survey from charity Relate found that 77% of millennials and 83% of gen-z felt a pressure to reach certain life milestones by that age, whether that be getting married, starting a family, or deciding what you want to do for your career.

On the other hand, the mid-life crisis has changed over the years. In her recent long-read on the millennial mid-life crisis, Jessica Grose writes how “The traditional midlife crisis, as presented in popular culture, at least, unfolds amid suburban ennui. Disaffected adults feel trapped by conformity and the circumstances of marriage, children and a well-appointed house with a lawn that needs mowing every Saturday.” But now, these things that were the norm are becoming markers of privilege, and so the millennial mid-life crisis may be defined by not having the things you thought you were supposed to have, or more broadly by economic anxiety.

Still, many cultural depictions of the mid-life crisis remain focused around this more old-fashioned paradigm. Shows like Carol’s Second Act or Mrs Fletcher depict middle age as a time when we can really find ourselves, and take time for ourselves after years of living for other people. So for millennials, there’s the double fear of economic anxiety, coupled with not necessarily seeing your own experiences reflected in the culture.

All of this can feel overwhelming. We’re so confronted by images of how we should look, and what we should have accomplished by a certain age, that it gets hard to take a breath. But if we’re able to take a breath and release ourselves from that pressure, then aging can become something different — something empowering.

One positive thing about aging that is often cited is wisdom. But while our culture values intelligence of the sort that makes profits, it doesn’t always see much use for being too wise. Jamie Lee Curtis has another idea. She recently said: “It’s time to examine our beliefs and cultural assumptions about aging…and most importantly, how we can discover aging as a time to deepen our sense of purpose, joy and meaning.”

And she’s not the only one who has proudly espoused the joys and liberations that come from getting older. Rihanna’s entry into motherhood has totally shifted her sense of focus and responsibility. On turning 40, Beyonce wrote: “This is the first year that I really understand what it means to be alive and to live in the moment”, and Sandra Oh described aging after a certain age as being great because “you give less f*cks”. Justine Bateman – who played Mallory on Family Ties – hit back at articles dissing her for looking “old,” by affirming that she likes looking her age and thinks she looks “rad.” Andie MacDowell likewise said she embraces her grays because she says: “I want to be old. I’m tired of trying to be young. I don’t want to be young. I’ve been young. And to be an older person trying to be young, what an effort!”

More recently, it’s these kinds of mantras that seem to be getting taken up in stories centered around aging. Jackass Forever is, on the surface, the same anarchic schtick that it’s always been. But now that the whole gang are visibly graying, and showing that they can’t quite bounce back like they used to. The movie is almost touching because of how committed the crew are to the duration and strength of their friendships, as well as proving that age doesn’t have to slow you down from reliving your youth with your best friends. In Another Round we do watch as this group of friends self-medicate their mid-life crises with alcohol, but the end of the film is incredibly exultant and freeing — a realization that even at this older stage of life, there’s nothing stopping you from living.

And it’s also this theme that’s repeated in Everything Everywhere All At Once. At first, Michelle Yeoh’s character is really struggling with the burdens and responsibilities that come with age — motherhood, taxes, financial anxiety.But across the multiverse, we see how many kinds of person she can be — and by extension, how many kinds of person she is. The little flash she has at the end of the film revealing the many other universes isn’t a lament that she could be living a more exciting life, but a reassurance that all these potentials and possibilities still live inside her. This is neatly mirrored by Michelle Yeoh’s acting career too, the fact that she was underused by Hollywood for so long, and is now having her main event moment at an older age.

So while culture might like to imagine our peaks come early, we seem to be challenging that narrative, and in the process, maybe making people feel a little better about the years on the horizon.

Maybe one of the greatest lies ever told about aging is that youth = beauty. With a little more clarity, and lots more public examples, we see how people really don’t lose much as they get older. Fear and curiosity are two sides of the same coin, so with aging, instead of being afraid, let’s be curious. Curious about how we are going to change, what new things will we discover about ourselves — hobbies, joys, interests — and how will that deepen who we are and what we can contribute.


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