I saw my shrink. She’s like 84 or something like that, and I told her about my students who said they didn’t want to get old and all wrinkly. And we are both sitting there looking pretty wrinkly, but she is more wrinkly than me. She said perhaps I should ask my students what they think or feel about getting old. I said, yea, maybe I could do that, but I sort of doubted that they knew or would be able to offer any explanations for their thoughts and feelings.
As usual I was projecting. I realize that had some teacher bothered to ask me that question when I was back in college that I wouldn’t have had much to say (and so assume that my students wouldn’t have much to say). Back in college I didn’t think about getting old at all. True, I thought about dying nearly every day. But that could happen at any time, the way I saw it. Getting old was not a pre-requisite for dying. So had I been asked, I might have said something like, “Getting old? Hell, it happens.”
So I said to my shrink, I didn’t think about getting old because I was mostly interested in just surviving. Getting from one day to the next and not somehow screwing up completely, or dropping dead in the middle of the whole thing. And she said that had been true of her also. She spent her high school years studying to be a concert level pianist in the middle of the Nazi Occupation of Paris. She had plenty to think about besides getting old. The future was uncertain. Getting old might happen or maybe not.
So I started thinking again about what my students had said. With a special emphasis upon getting all baggy and wrinkly. The young woman who didn’t want to get old was an attractive young woman. So maybe that’s what she meant. Getting old means becoming unattractive. So perhaps for this young woman and the others that seemed to know what she was saying being attractive was a central part of their identities. Probably she works at being attractive. It takes time and effort. So perhaps—still speculating—her self-concept centers on the very idea of being young.
We live—or so I have read—in a youth oriented culture. The culture celebrates youth and accordingly the young feel celebrated. The other night I was watching TV and the anchor woman for the local news I swear didn’t look more than 23. And of course she was attractive. So getting old means losing in effect a source of power—a way of being the center of attention—simply because one is young and attractive.
The stuff I had students read from Erikson was written back in 1968. He wrote partly in response to the big youth boom of that time, the baby-boomers hitting the market. Certainly, though, the youth culture and the ideal of youthful appearance have intensified since that time. Still, what he had to say back then fits with now. Any step “forward” in development means losing something (as well as gaining something). He writes of the step from childhood to adolescence almost as if it equaled being kicked out of Eden.
So the step into college for some young people might mean psychologically being kicked out of the Eden of Youth. In fact, one student spoke of college almost as if it were the end of the road.