About a year ago I was listening to a radio piece by Freakonomics which was commenting on the trend among basketball players to wear these thick black rimmed glasses during interviews. It turns out that very few of these are prescription lenses and the narrator of the story takes us through different explanations. He eventually speaks with an economics professor at Harvard who also wears nonprescription glass. The story takes a further twist when this Harvard professor shares the story of an unnamed colleague who dyes his hair gray so that he will be “taken seriously.” The thick rimmed glasses and especially the Harvard professor dying his hair can seem a little ridiculous. These stories however, strike close to home. I recently turned thirty-three and wonder how long I will continue as a “young man?” Is there a number or is it simply a look, a perception?
As I think about age, as a status symbol (yes, this sounds odd), here are four categories that collect my thoughts: Irony, History, Necessity and Collapse, and Grace.
Irony: With age you’re too old and are out of touch. You’re probably not innovative or tech savvy and will have a hard time keeping up with the new competition. If you’re not old you lack real world experience. Your advice is suspect and you don’t understand the bigger picture. In different fields there are certainly predispositions to age or youth, but in the majority of settings this tension seems to arise. We want people to be both old and young at the same moment. So the recent grad in his twenties dresses more formally with the suit and tie while the guy late in his fifties wears the sport coat with jeans. All to fit this non-existent age.
History: I continue to read about the cultural history of New England and recently came across a section on age:
The people of seventeen-entry New England lived in another world. They carefully cultivated an attitude of respect for the old, and ranked people in proportion to their age. ‘These two qualities go together, the ancient and the honorable,’ wrote Cotton Mather
…Old age was a sign of grace. Respect for age was not merely an ideal… it became a living reality.
Most elderly people were treated with respect in New England, no matter whether rich or poor, male or female, weak or strong.
According to this author a member’s role and influence in the community were assigned based on age, estate, and reputation (normally in that order). While this paradigm has significantly changed I think there are carry overs, though laced with the above noted irony.
Necessity & Collapse: One of the neat things about age, as a “status symbol” is that it is achievable by all types of people. It gives a path towards significance and contribution in a community which is open to all. Consider this quote from a piece in the NY times:
there were rival status hierarchies: the biblical hierarchy, the working man’s hierarchy, the artist’s hierarchy, the intellectual’s hierarchy, all of which questioned success and denounced those who climbed and sold out.
Over the years, religion has played a less dominant role in public culture. Meanwhile, the rival status hierarchies have fallen away. The meritocratic hierarchy of professional success is pretty much the only one left standing.
The culture was probably more dynamic when there were competing status hierarchies. When there is one hegemonic hierarchy, as there is today, the successful are less haunted by their own status and the less successful have nowhere to hide.
After tracking the life-goals of first-year college students, Astin found that in the mid-1960s there were about 45% of college students who rated “being very well off financially” as a very important objective. That figure jumped to 75% by the mid-1980s. When Astin asked those same students about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” over 80% of the mid-1960s students endorsed that as a goal. By the mid-1980s the number of students who aspired to that same goal had dropped to just a little more than 30%. Cote concludes that money-seeking goals and meaning-seeking goals have traded places among those transitioning to adulthood. He writes, “the American college-educated population is far more interested in ‘making money’ than ‘making meaning.'”
We need other means of understanding worth outside of financial success. What happens if the only way to be worthwhile, is to be worth a lot? Historically age has been a source of significance and place that was accessible to all and it is sad that in many ways we have lost this category.
Grace: I think much of our clamoring for status (of all sorts) has to do with insecurity and questions of belonging, significance, and place. In both the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament God gives significance and a place to the weak and undeserving. The fundamental status of belonging to God comes by grace, not as a reward for achievement. We all wonder if we have done enough to make it, to fit in, and to every single person God says, “No, you have not.” Fundamentally belonging only comes as a gift and it throws all of these other pursuits of status up in the air. If you have a place with God, being respected because of your age, glasses, wealth, or success has less of a hold on your life. Grace, also gives meaning to each stage of life – recognizing that God has lovingly placed each person in a specific meaning for a specific moment. As a young man, there are specific things God wants me to do and as an older man, there will be unique things for that stage. If our status isn’t ultimately bound up in who we are or what we contribute it gives us greater freedom to do what God has specifically entrusted for that time.
I try to imagine what it would be in the church to more fully exemplify the grace of God in regards to status. I imagine a church in which you see both the old, young, and middle aged recognized and encouraged. Stories of God’s work in the lives of the poor and the wealthy are both celebrated. What else would I see if God’s grace shakes and realigns our conceptions of status? I’d probably have greater freedom in the unique point at which God has me.