01/30/2013 09:53 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

In Praise of Aging

Does it pay to be older? It depends who you're talking to. If you're a Baby Boomer or Gen X'er, talking to an economist will make you glad for your salt and pepper hair and your crow's feet. Overall, 55- to 64-year-olds have an unemployment rate of 6.6 percent and a median household net worth of $162,000; compare that to the 42.5-million twenty-somethings whose unemployment rate is double and whose net worth is negated by $294 billion of combined student loan debt. And older people are still being hired: From 2002 to 2011, the population of older workers grew by 8.9 million. A 2011 Pew study says that older folk have had it better for a while. Younger households in 2009 were worth significantly less -- 68 percent less -- than younger households in 1984, while older people are worth more than they were 30 years ago.

But that's only half the story. Older people may rule the roost economically but the locus of power in our society's symbolic and cultural spaces remains very much in the hands of the young. Anyone over 40 has felt that slight sting of irrelevance when you are amongst younger people who are increasingly averse to asking their elders for advice or even being able to manage a conversation with someone laboring under male pattern baldness. We remain a society that maligns aging. And it has real consequences: older people have to try very hard not to lose their jobs because that's when the tables turn -- older workers who are laid off take an average of 60 weeks to re-enter the work force. In younger states like California, ageism is rampant: Of the 18,335 employment cases filed in 2010 with California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing, age discrimination ranked above racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual orientation.

So, the question is, why are companies reluctant to hire older people, particularly if they carry the stigma of having been downsized? Because we live in a cult of youth.

Take this as proof: According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, cosmetic surgery is up 87 percent since 2000. Among the most popular procedures? Botox and chin lifts. Male procedures are on the rise too, rising annually by 6 percent. Some theorists think it's an outgrowth of industrialization which prized youthful vigor because factories staged hard, demanding physical work. Being young is desirable because the narrative of aging in our country is framed as a story of decline. Listen to the magazines today and they'll tell you that you hit your prime at 19. Academia has produced some extraordinary work about the myth of aging, very little of which makes it to the mainstream media. Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a Resident Scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, writes that "decline is naturalized by the twin beliefs that the body fails at midlife" and that this failure produces "age grading, the cult of youth, a psychological and even a cognitive side to programmed decline."

In other words, our culture is aging us. She writes humorously about a fitness trainer who tells her that the declinist narrative first rears its head at 14. "This is currently the age when the young... pick up the technologies of youthfulness, learn how to notice aging in others and be disgusted by it, and this lay the groundwork for fearing decline and watching for it not much later in their life course (could this explain the rise in plastic surgery among teens?)." For women, this becomes even more acute: As anthropologist Margaret Lock writes, "Women's social lives are usually conceptualized as being subordinated to the biological clock. One result of this gendered distinction is that female middle age has been increasingly subject to medicalization throughout this century in Europe and North America."

Aging sells. According to data from SymphonyIRI Group, Baby Boomers are driving a skin care boom; It's a $3.53 billion industry and its growing at a furious clip. Gullette puts this beautifully: "I see the midlife medicalized and made into a set of problems and always reified as a time of life. Underlying the discourse is the downsizing of people in their middle years, even in the professional and managerial classes." Other scholars have opined that as the world seems more and more beyond our control, we have localized our sphere of influence to our bodies. We may not be able to fix the world, the logic goes, but at least we can repair ourselves. It's should be noted that while the United States is number one in cosmetics spending, it ranks number 23 on the world's "satisfaction with life" ranking.

So, what's the alternative? Try the Japanese way. Lock describes how aging in Japan is seen not as a failure of biology but as a shift in social relationships: "Aging is seen as an advancement through the social hierarchy, accompanied by social maturation and increasing responsibility." The icon of old age is the laughing Zen priest who is free and at one with the universe. One of the bigger shocks of getting older often is that you actually feel younger. Older employees are often the most vigorous, the most focused, the least bothered by office politics and the distractions of the lunchroom.

Aristotle believed a person entered their prime (akme) at 49 and he knew a thing or two. In the end, we need to recognize what humankind did for millennia -- that aging is a positive thing attended by maturity, experience, poise and a measure of kindness. That's why companies should pay for age. And why our culture needs to see that aging is a narrative of progress.