How old are you? The automatic response is a number, a figure that summarizes the time, in years, that has passed since the date of birth. It is the chronological age, the official one, which is reflected in the papers and leaves no room for interpretation. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg of our age map. For example, a person may appear to be physically younger than his or her contemporaries and at the same time lack the corresponding psychological maturity or deviate from what socially ‘corresponds’ to his or her age.

These other dimensions of age, the biological one (the degree of aging of the organism), the psychological one (reflection of emotional maturity and the age at which we feel) and the social one (based on how the person is perceived and perceives himself in society), they are not always aligned with what the DNI indicates, but they define us as much or more than chronological age.

“We usually focus a lot on the more temporal and physical aspect, forgetting more about the mental and emotional aspect,” says Rosa Mª Molina, psychiatrist and doctor from the UCM, teacher and disseminator. Social age, she says, is a more complex and subjective concept; a mixture of norms, expectations and assigned roles that help us navigate society. In most cultures, certain behaviors can be expected from people based on their age.

“This may include expectations about marriage, parenting, education or career, among others. Social age can also influence how people are valued and treated in terms of employment, interpersonal relationships, and participation in public life.” In summary, social age is a mutant indicator subject to cultural norms and traditions, as well as the historical context.

According to Laura Palomares, from Avance Psychologists, around the age of 60 we enter a stage with vital changes of enormous importance: from the emancipation of children, which often generates the well-known empty nest syndrome, to the assumption of grief and death of loved ones, going through the challenge of facing the aging of one’s own parents or possible health-related changes that are beginning to manifest, etc. “Social age is marked by external vital and social circumstances, beyond one’s own will.”

Alicia Aradilla, sociologist expert in neurolinguistics, writer and lecturer, relates it to social class, understood in sociological terms and defined by economic level but also by cultural and emotional capital. Pierre Bourdieu called this ‘habitus’ and described it as a set of internalized social dispositions that influence our actions and perceptions. These habits and attitudes, shaped by social position, determine how we relate to age and how we perceive it. “Studies have been done that show, for example, that upper-class women with a healthy lifestyle and greater access to economic, cultural and social resources appear younger than their contemporaries from lower social classes, with poorer nutrition and generally poorer habits.” less healthy,” says Aradilla.

Older adults are increasing in number and age. More than a third of the Spanish population is over 55 years old, that is, more than 16 million people, and at a global level, the WHO estimates that by 2050 one in every six people in the world will be 60 years old or older, doubling its figure. compared to 1 billion in 2020. Life expectancy is increasing, but society has not yet overcome ageist behavior that negatively affects people’s health and well-being, according to a 2021 report from the United Nations. Given this panorama, the high international organization encourages countries and institutions to work “to create a movement with which to change the way we think, feel and act regarding age and aging.”

In the current sociocultural context, mature people face a series of challenges. On the one hand, Dr. Molina points out, the increase in health problems related to aging, which can affect your ability to live independently and participate in society. On the other hand, repeated grief over the loss of loved ones and therefore a decrease in their social network, which can lead these people to progressive isolation. Third, age discrimination that reinforces the perception that they are less capable, less productive or valuable to society. Added to this are the difficulties some seniors have in accessing resources and services designed to meet their needs, such as specialized medical care, wellness programs and recreational activities adapted to their interests and abilities.

There are many challenges, but in the opinion of Laura Palomares, “social prejudices regarding age are possibly the biggest obstacle.” For example, in the work environment there may be prejudices that affect professional development, but there are also prejudices around sexuality that can negatively affect or generate insecurity. “It is important to transcend these labels on a personal level and not get carried away by them in order to continue developing these important aspects in our lives,” advises this psychologist.

The path to overcoming the age gap promises to be long and tortuous, because, as Rosa Mª Molina argues, negative stereotypes about old age can contribute to the social invisibility of older people and to the underestimation of their experience and talent. This also limits opportunities even in employment, an area in which, says Alicia Aradilla, social position is also determining. “A 60-year-old executive is valued, while a construction worker of the same age has more problems staying in the labor market.” This means that as people age, those in intellectual professions are valued more socially, while in other jobs aging is perceived as an obstacle.

On the other hand, Aradilla explains that people in higher positions can afford more disruption and be viewed favorably. This is evident, for example, in actresses or celebrities who sport gray hair on the red carpet, a gesture of ‘bravery’ that they can allow themselves due to their status. In contrast, an anonymous woman would avoid attending an event without dyeing her hair, because she would be branded as careless. In the social game, the sociologist says, desert is linked to status. The social weight is much greater than the individual weight. Therefore, when an older person reaches a level of recognition and visibility, it is experienced as an anecdote, an exception to the rule. “The capacity for disruption not only comes from the individual, but from the social position that he has achieved. And this feeds off,” says Aradilla.

The reality is that despite those loose verses that put age as a joke and challenge the conventions that society sets for them due to their age, older people are underrepresented in decision-making in various areas, including government, business. and culture, says Rosa Mª Molina. Likewise, she believes that isolation and lack of participation in community life can contribute to her invisibility and the underestimation of her experience and talent in policy formulation and planning programs and services.

“These are outdated social prejudices, but they continue to influence,” adds Palomares, for whom the introduction of new concepts such as prospective age, based on average life expectancy, should mark a change in many of these perceptions. “These new approaches better reflect the complexity of modern society and should prompt a change in outdated attitudes towards age.”

Emotional and social life evolves over time. According to Laura Palomares, the increase in life expectancy has made the concept of social age more flexible. “The improvement in the quality of life related to health, nutrition, scientific and technological advances has motivated a more proactive social attitude, regardless of age.” Some cultural changes are also favoring a more active role for the senior generation. Furthermore, the way we face age and how we act in the face of it, marked by our psychological age, can shape our perception of social age. Continuing to learn, have concerns and maintain an active life, physically and intellectually, can influence how we perceive this social age. In fact, there are those who, like Bernice L. Neugarten, psychologist, researcher and professor, consider that the relevance of social age is currently decreasing.

Dr. Molina corroborates this incipient transformation by highlighting that in modern society, with the movement towards more equitable roles, the age of becoming independent, getting married or having children is changing. Likewise, advances in medicine and increased life expectancy are leading to a reevaluation of what it means to be “old” or “senior.” Negative stereotypes associated with aging are being challenged and a positive view of active and healthy aging is being promoted.

An article on social and emotional age, written by psychologists Susan T. Charles, from the University of Southern California, and Laura Carstensen, from Stanford University, published in 2010 in Annual Review of Psychology, already highlighted the progress in understanding the social and emotional aspects of aging. The authors observed that older adults, thanks to their experience and time perspective, tend to show equal or superior social and emotional functioning than younger ones.

And if experience gives anything, it is the ability to adapt to a variable environment. However, the biological changes associated with aging affect and are affected by social and emotional aspects. Older adults facing unavoidable negative events may experience high levels of physiological distress, impairing their physical and mental health, a condition that is aggravated by social isolation.

On the other hand, in the opinion of Rosa Mª Molina, technology and globalization have created new forms of communication and social interaction that transcend the barriers of age. “Social media has allowed different generations to connect, which can influence how different ages are perceived.” However (there is always a but…) “those who are older or have limited access to technology may encounter additional obstacles to fully participating in contemporary society.” Likewise, the representation of different age groups in the media also influences their social perception.

Furthermore, family and community structure can shape the interaction between individuals of different ages. In collectivist societies, for example, the wisdom and experience of the elderly tend to be valued more, says Molina, while in others professional success and academic achievements are valued more, regardless of the person’s age. In societies that worship youth, older people face negative stereotypes or social discrimination.

“With emotional intelligence”, that is the key for Alicia Aradilla. This ability allows us to face difficult situations and manage the emotions that arise in social relationships. On a more practical level, Dr. Molina suggests getting involved in social and community activities to stay connected. “Participating as mentors, volunteers or leaders in community organizations, as well as staying physically and mentally active, can improve mood and emotional well-being, in addition to enhancing the experience of personal capacity.” Likewise, the psychiatrist proposes learning to use technology to integrate into modern digital life, because although a priori it is considered a factor that increases the generation gap, digital technology and social networks are also powerful tools to combat negative stereotypes. of the age.

Reaching maturity does not always have negative implications. Dr. Molina’s team has carried out a study to try to analyze the possibility of reducing this negative impact around old age by disseminating information pills about the aspects that improve with age. The objective is to demonstrate that positive psychoeducation based on scientific evidence helps reduce negative stereotypes about old age. But one thing is clear to experts: intergenerational relationships are one of the best strategies to reduce social stigma around age and improve the perception of the elderly.