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Modern Aging: Thinking About What It Means To Be Told To "Act Your Age"


This week on "Modern Aging," WEMU’s Lisa Barry talks with local aging expert Dr. Theresa Reid about what it means to tell someone to "act your age."  Cultural attitudes about aging are changing a lot, and Theresa suggests making the command to people of any age is out of date.

Theresa Reid
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU
89.1 WEMU
Dr. Theresa Reid

Topline (It's Complicated):

“Act your age” always is an expression of cultural assumptions about what age means: What our age gives us permission to do, and what our age it takes away permission to do.

“Act your age” always means you’re acting younger than you are, younger than you should be acting.

Up to a certain point, it means “accept the positive status the culture confers on your age.”

  • When you tell a young person who won’t quit playing video games to “act your age” and get a job, you’re saying it’s time to step into more adult rights and responsibilities.
  • Every year of life up to a point, we get to do more: drive a car, vote, go out for drinks, be the boss, sign the lease.
  • After a certain point, it means, “Stop trying to claim the status the culture confers on people younger than you,”  “Stop trying to be young.”

When does that change come?  Must be mid-40s?

Up till then, it means “grow up.”

After that, it means “accept that you’re past it” – “it” being your prime.  For olders, “Act your age” is really cutting:

  • Olders will be told to act their age when they dress or wear their hair as we expect younger people to dress, when they get up and dance – and not to Benny Goodman, but to Drake – or when they go to concerts by younger musicians, when they start dreaming again, when they have exuberant fun.
  • “Act your age” to older people often expresses, embarrassment about sexuality in old age, and, much worse and intimately related, disgust for the old body, the body that is showing signs of where we are all headed.
  • A lot of the time, “act your age” tells older people to hew to a diminished stereotype of aging.  We’re supposed to be all dignified, slow, un-sexual, probably decrepit.

But it’s complicated for youngers, too – it’s not just about gaining status:

  • For youngers, it’s tacitly promising, right: You’re more grownup than you’re acting.  You’re capable of more. BUT – kids are told to put away toys, to stop loving Disneyland, to stop playing imaginatively, to stop imagining or dreaming, period.  We talk wistfully about “youthful dreams.”
  • In this perspective “too young” means unserious, irresponsible. It expresses anxiety about the person’s ability to make a living, to contribute productively to society, to fit in.
  • “Grow up” means “get serious.”  Start saving, contribute to your 401(k), start a family, etc. Conform to social expectations.

Certain element of truth here, right?  A couple years ago, there was a widespread news story about a 30-year-old man in upstate NY who wouldn’t move out of his parents’ house.  They had to go to court to evict him!  So, maybe your right to not act your age stops where it impinges on your parents’ retirement funds.

And I’m not wearing miniskirts and thigh-high boots any more, either.


  • We should stop telling people at any age to “act your age.”  It’s never meant kindly, and it expresses old ideas about age that are typically highly constraining, often unkind, and rapidly going out of date.


For fun, see Ari Seth Cohen’s books,

A terrific story of a woman not acting her age is Jane Juska’s memoir, A Round-Heeled Woman.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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