Why Older People Should NOT Be Allowed to Change Their Legal Age

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 33 min.

In a recent article at Aeon called “Why Older People Should Be Allowed to Change Their Legal Age,” Joona Räsänen writes:

Let’s say that on average you are in better shape than other people of your age. You are more able than them: quicker, sprightlier, livelier. You feel and identify as younger than your official age. However, despite all your youthful energy, you are also discriminated against because of your greater age. You cannot get a job – or, if you do, you might earn less than some of your younger coworkers simply due to your advanced years. The question is, should you be allowed to change your ‘official’ age in order to avoid this discrimination and to better match how you identify and feel? …

… Age change should be allowed when the following three conditions are met. First, the person is at risk of being discriminated against because of age. Second, the person’s body and mind are in better shape than would be expected based on the person’s chronological age (that is, the person is biologically younger than he is chronologically). Third, the person does not feel that his legal age is befitting. …

…Legal-age change should be allowed because it could prevent the harm of discrimination while in itself harming no one. …

…for an individual facing discrimination, legal-age change could be a feasible and practical solution.

The above quote skips past several paragraphs of the article, in which Räsänen briefly addresses two common objections to his proposed age-change program. The first objection is that age should be a chronological measure of one’s time on Earth; the second is the related objection that to change the date on one’s birth certificate would constitute an officially sanctioned falsification of information.

I’m not so concerned about those objections, so won’t touch on them. Instead, I’ll focus here on a worry he doesn’t address, which is that his proposed program seems to require categorically precise notions about ways of being particular ages, and that such age-based paradigms could could worsen, rather than alleviate, ageism.

I’ll return to this worry shortly. Here are some preliminary thoughts on Räsänen’s proposal, presented roughly in the order in which they occur to me. (The first five points explore my motivations, as a middled-aged person, for entering this discussion. I begin directly addressing Räsänen’s proposal at point five.)

Two important notes before getting started:

First, absolutely nothing I write here against age self-identification is meant to be applied to questions surrounding gender self-identification. I hope this is obvious, but I feel the need to say it.

Second, I am not suggesting in any way shape or form that Räsänen intends or would endorse any of the awful outcomes I worry about in this writing.

(1) A part of me is attracted to Räsänen’s idea. That part that still has thoughts like, maybe I’ll pursue a PhD after all, and in a subject I didn’t study in college, without it crossing my mind that I’m middled aged; until, that is, I encounter people 27 years my junior worrying about being too old to apply to PhD programs. Then I’m reminded of having been told by a professor six years ago that many admission committee members might see me as too old, at least for philosophy programs (which was my undergraduate major).

I’ve since run into this idea several times, under various justifications. The most common is that philosophy programs stake their reputations on placing their graduates in reputable tenure-track teaching positions, which are frighteningly hard to come by  for most graduates, and nearly impossible (I’ve been told repeatedly), for a freshly-minted, middle-aged PhD, even when the position isn’t so reputable. Why so hard to get a job? Part of the rationale there is that it takes considerable time for the fledgling philosopher to get good at what they do. I’m suspicious of that rational, but will spare you the details.

Another justification I’ve encountered goes: ‘I’m wary of any middle-aged person applying to our philosophy PhD program, as such programs are designed to train you for a career in teaching philosophy (especially to uninterested undergraduates), while older applicants seem to be applying due to an interest in philosophy, which is something they can pursue on their own during their retirement.’ Fair enough. I’m not sure this applies to me, as I haven’t had a career to retire from, and I don’t see how it applies to others, given that it’s not uncommon for people to pursue second careers in middle age, but fair enough.

For the record, I’ve also certainly encountered sentiments contrary to the above: ‘we would never consider age in our decision; we’re just looking for good fits to our program’; or even: ‘we value the diversity of experience that older students may contribute to the program. These are, in fact, the sorts of sentiments I encountered when applying to undergrad, and I’m sure my having joined the military in 1991 helped, short lived as that bad idea (for me) was. But the worlds of community college, undergraduate, and unfunded and funded graduate programs are different worlds indeed, the latter-most being the one I’m considering here.

As for the sentiments expressed above, the degree of cynicism* of a particular admissions committee—i.e., a group of folks tasked with selecting (say) five to 15 students from hundreds of applicants, many of whom are high-performing, eager overachievers—will of course depend on the members of that committee and on the particular culture of a given program. But my point here is that nobody is debating whether 21 is an appropriate age for applying to such programs.

(*This cynicism likely has little to do with age. I’ve also been told by more than one philosopher, ‘I’ll tell you what I tell everyone: avoid philosophy graduate programs at all cost; seriously: use your contemplative energies to do anything but philosophy.’ Maybe that’s good advice! But the state of contemporary academic philosophy is another discussion entirely.)

I share all this to demonstrate that I have reasons to find Räsänen’s proposal attractive. A small part of me certainly does.

(2) There’s a bigger part of me, however, that doesn’t. Mentally and physically, I don’t think I feel much different than I did twenty years ago, and my goals and interests haven’t changed all the much from well before that, even. At the same time, I want to be treated like a (let’s hope) mature adult who’s nearing 50. Someone, for example, who would like my 20-year-old self to have better understood that, once you reach a certain age, you’ve seen The Next Big Idea That Is Definitely Going to Fix (or Destroy) Everything become unquestionable dogma and then be replaced by some other unquestionable dogma enough times that you start to pause whenever you hear about The Next Big That’s Definitely Going to Fix (or Destroy) Everything. (Though I’ll sadly admit that destroying everything is a far realer prospect than is fixing everything.)

And then there’s the constant stream of things called ‘the most important thing in the world that nobody has ever talked about before’ that have been constantly talked about—with varying degrees of popular amplification—for as long as I can remember and since before my birth. It’s always fascinating to hear things like, ‘finally, xyz is the case, which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago,’ when a quick Google search would reveal that this was also being said about xyz 20 years ago. It’s some kind of inverse of the embarrassing phenomenon in science wherein Discovery Z is always just 30 years away.

Or maybe I’m reimagining my younger self through a lens of stereotypes about 20 year olds. (My apologies, younger selves!) I’m the first to admit that I have to work to remember what things were really like (from my perspective) twenty, thirty years ago. And, as bad as memory and (formal and informal) historiographic hindsight can be (due to our desire and need to tidy a messy past into a neat narrative and, even worse, to ascribe mental states to past actors, including ourselves) and as bad as we are at knowing what’s going on in the moment, there’s got to be value in being someone who both lived through an era and can reflect on it retrospectively; and there must be yet more value in having access to many, many such individual perspectives.

While a Google search can remind us of (say) the fervor the Y2K panic reached by 1999 and, less reasonably, the ways in which the bizarre hysteria of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and early 1990s casually seeped into and saturated day-to-day American goings-on (and has likely had lasting effects on U.S. culture that, dare I say, almost nobody is talking about!)—there’s got to be some irreplaceable understanding, or, just as importantly, an instructive sort of lack of understanding, that comes from having lived through those eras: from having swam in the waters and breathed the air, so to speak, permeated with the taken-for-granted idea that, all around you and every day, there are thousands of babies being sacrificed in Satanic rituals by otherwise regular looking, middle class people.

You don’t lose or scrub off that been-there quality by changing your age on paper, but you do lose a key outward indicator of it, which may threaten the respect this quality does, or at least should, command—a threat that deepens as one pushes the age-change program to the point of avoiding chronological clues. (A young man recently asked me the delectable question of how my experience as a teenager in the 1980s matches that of the kids on the show Stranger Things. I can’t imagine the network of lies required to make ‘that was before my time’ a credible answer.)

More worrisome, I admit, is the real pressure some people feel to hide their age. On this count, my sensitivity to the merits of Räsänen’s program of course increases as circumstances grow more extreme. Should, for example, we become aware that invaders plan to imprison or kill everyone of a certain age, I’d be on board with an age-change program. Räsänen’s proposal is, of course, not for such an extreme circumstance, but rather is meant for the world as it is right now.

(3) Our society tends to revere youth, to rate the young person’s life as more valuable then the old person’s life. I don’t share this feeling. We should cherish what our elders have to tell us about their lives in the decades before we were born, even when—especially when—it makes us uncomfortable to listen. And I mean listen, not just hear, when someone who (say) survived the Holocaust has something urgent to say about how we in the U.S. today are going about our political business Left, Right, and Center. We should value our seniors’ life experience and memories, however one-sided and fallible, for the fragile, utterly irreplaceable, fleeting treasure that they are. While remembering that our today is their today, too. An elderly person’s past and present constitute one continuous life, not a life with some extra, inconvenient post-life years tacked on while they and we wait for their death.

(4) And so there are two parts of me, a man who’s not elderly but middle-aged. One part wants to be forever exempt from negative stereotypes about age, which are sometimes hilariously mis-calibrated (see the next paragraph). The other wants to be forever treated age appropriately (what does that mean?). These sentiments aren’t unrelated.

I was once told by someone considerably my junior that I was too old to get their generation’s sense of humor. They then rattled off a list of entertainers who are my age as exemplars of the sense of humor I was too old to understand. (Note: Sometimes when an older person doesn’t laugh at a joke, it’s because they’ve heard it many times before.) Perhaps more common is the odd assumption that I’m too old to get the music made by people older than I am.

Maybe those musicians seem less mature than I, their teenage self preserved in a kind of red-leather-pants-and-spiked-hair amber. But I don’t know. It seems more complicated than that, and, besides, anyone looking closely enough can see that the preservation is a well-, or not-so-well-, crafted mirage. At any rate, if those musicians could identify as younger than I am it would make things simpler for those assuming I’m too old to get their favorite bands’ music (provided I haven’t change my age as well).

For now, treating me appropriately for my age would avoid such missteps. But not only because of my age. I might very well not have been attuned to the sense of humor in question; for example, had I grown up in a very different culture (even then: who knows what I’ve been up to for the last several decades). Not everyone my age is the same, making it difficult to know what I mean when I say I should be treated “appropriately for my age”—I mean something personal, not statistical, as in: treat me like an individual person (who happens to be the same age as those comedians you like). This obvious point is of course somewhat relied on by Räsänen when he proposes that folks should be able to change their legal age to a more fitting number. But it also relies on a statical understanding of what it means to be a certain age.

(5) And so, even the small part of me that’s attracted to Räsänen’s program believes it would have the opposite effect he intends. That is, he would like for folks who feel younger than they are to be able to avoid age-based discrimination by decreasing their age. Perhaps he’d love for all people to be able to avoid age-discrimination, and sees this as a way to allow at least some of them to, if not all. I don’t think, however, that even on balance it will lessen discrimination, or at least not the severity of the discrimination that does happen.

He also notes that he is not, in principle, “opposed to younger people increasing their official ages,” but only argues here for decreasing. So, while I’ll here and there make reference to age increase, I’ll focus mostly on age decrease.

Here’s an illustration of my concern. If all or most of the people who are currently 70 but feel 50 (and satisfy Räsänen’s three conditions) were to change their age to 50, then those remaining at 70 actually would, on average, robustly embody the worst stereotypes that now exist about 70 year olds (a stereotype that will apply, too, to the current 90 year olds who identify as 70; because, otherwise, they would have identified as 50).

At first glance, this seems to pose a logical impasse to Räsänen’s discrimination criterion: those who’ve gone from 90 to 70 will now be subject to discrimination in accordance with (now statistically robust) stereotypes about being 70. But it’s not so clear that this is an inherent problem in Räsänen’s program (though whether it’s an intended consequence is another matter). Rather, the program seems to suggest that there is an appropriate degree of discrimination to be applied to a particular age, provided that age is a fair categorical representation of the person that age is attached to.

(6) In short: The program relies on, or at least encourages, the idea that there are paradigmatic ways to be a particular age.

Many problems will likely emerge from this basic observation. I’ll briefly explore a small selection. For convenience, I’ll list ages as follows: ‘40b’ means biologically 40, while ‘40c’ means chronologically 40. What Räsänen is arguing for is that our legal age should be—at least for those of us who want it*—our true biological age, or close to our demonstrably true biological age, rather than our chronological age. That in mind, I won’t use a ‘b’ or a ‘c’ in some contexts, such as when I refer to legal age. Hopefully this will all make sense in context, but if it turns confusing, that’s partly my point.

[*If very few people would want it, it’s a mute point. We assume here that some significant number would want it. It’s not inconceivable to me that the more who do it the more would want it, but who knows.]

(7) Räsänen relies on the phrase ‘on average’ to underpin what it means to feel younger than one’s chronological or legal age. But this would be impossible to make sense of without some anchoring paradigms about age. That is, if many people above a certain chronological age were to decrease their ages, this would statistically reinforce the idea that, say, 40b year olds have certain attributes. In general, what it means pre-age-change-program to be, on average, a certain age would change post-age-change-program. And then what?

Or put it this way. If 40b isn’t connected to 40c—or, more importantly, some subset of that class, e.g. ’40c while healthy’—then what is it connected to? It becomes connected, rather, to some paradigmatic idea of what it is to be 40. There’d be nothing else to anchor it than that idea. And a 60c who says, ‘I feel 40b,’ could then claim to feel like the 40c who feels 20b, given that we could end up with many folks who are 20 that, statistically (if there are enough of them), present in ways that we’d usually associate with 40. Should the once 60c now identify as legally 20?

(I’ll touch here and there on why I don’t think this would be remedied by embedding into our culture two distinct, simultaneously maintained categories about age: the chronological and the biological.)

(8) That got convoluted. So here’s my basic concern put yet another way. Räsänen’s proposed program is flawed, and potentially harmful, due to its reliance on the very stereotypical notions about age the program aims to deflate. Once we decide that all the chronological 69 year olds who are in great shape should identify as 40, while those 69 year olds in pretty good shape should identify as 50, and so on, we’ll be left 69 year olds actually generating statistically clearer signs of old age—and, in general, clearer behaviors of what we think of as ‘old people’—than they already do.

We’ll be effectively establishing a category of ’69 years old’ as one for people who are not great with electronics, have deteriorated cognitive function, are of notably declining health, and who on average embody precisely the traits that we tend to discriminate against 69 year olds for (presumably) having, which is the very discrimination Räsänen seems to wish for them to dodge.

While it may be true that folks in such a condition aren’t the best candidates for (say) certain kinds of jobs, I am not excited about a program that essentially encourages a filtering out of the individuals in that group who fit some idealized profile of youthfulness. I simply don’t trust us to get it right, or to do anything but make those left at 69 years old even worse off than before.

(9) That said, I’ll return to a point made in point seven.

There’s no principled reason why the age-shifting process shouldn’t be ongoing. Once current youthful 40c and 60c year olds become 20b and 40b (where legal age is assumed, by definition, to be appropriately matched to biological age), respectively, those who are now legally 40 will either only be former 60c year olds, or will be a mixture of 60c and 40c year olds, and the analogous observation goes for legally 20 year olds. Let’s suppose most folks make the shift. And so most of the legally 40 year olds in the post-program world would actually be what we think of today as youthful 60 year olds but who, on average, will most likely show more symptoms of aging than the group would otherwise. It’s easy to imagine that, as a group, the stereotypes will follow them as they make the shift from 60c to 40b. In which case they very well may wish to again dodge those stereotypes by again identifying as twenty years younger. And so on.

Furthermore, as this process plays out, categories such as ‘youthful 70 (or 80 etc.) year old’ may cease to exist. I’m going to repeat myself here, but I think it absolutely critical to do so. Under Räsänen’s program, it seems not only that anyone over (say) legally 40, will be even more likely experience discrimination than they are now, but also that this is precisely what the program advises: those who less deserve to be discriminated against due to their age should be allowed to identify as younger; and let’s make sure that those stuck at being 69 actually fit the stereotypes that ground that discrimination.

I find this beyond unsettling. And, to be abundantly clear, I assume this to be the opposite sort of outcome Räsänen intends. I think he really would like to see ageism eliminated. Unless he thinks that ageism means erroneously treating a person as less capable than they are due to age, and that by filtering out the more capable, only the truly less capable are left behind. In which case, ageism, strictly speaking, would be more likely to fit negative age-based stereotypes, and would cease to be a negative form of discrimination (just as trying people over 18 as adults is generally seen as a kind of appropriate age-based discrimination).

Again, I find this enormously unsettling and think it not at all hard to imagine that it likely would result in an even more pernicious form of ageism (however defined) than exists now, one that grossly undervalues the elderly while quite still underestimating their capabilities in many instances. This sounds to me alarmingly susceptible to being nudged in the direction of a kind of old fashioned eugenics, which I emphatically assume to be absolutely contrary to what Räsänen intends.

I can’t stress this enough: I am not suggesting in any way shape or form that Räsänen intends or would endorse any of the awful outcomes I worry about in this writing.

(10) Of course, the process can’t go on forever. The theoretical limit of the process is a set (or, worse, hierarchy) of paradigms about age. I’d want to play around with some models—what would they look like?—before making any confident claims about what would actually happen under Räsänen’s program. I’m here to express not a prediction, but rather a concern about what strikes me as a plausible, and even highly probable, outcome largely based on the basic observation that the program encourages (and perhaps requires) us to view the category ’40 years old’ as the sole category consisting of a certain bundle of attributes (or some robust subset thereof), rather than emphasizing to us that the category ’60 years old’ may very well contain that same bundle, depending on the 40 and 60 year olds in question.

(11) At some point under the program, the notion of chronological and biologically age would have to be dissolved in favor of just ‘age’ (or ‘legal age’), otherwise the program isn’t to be taken literally: it becomes rather, ‘treat me as if I’m 20.’ But this literalness seems in tension with the program, which apparently aims to keep a person’s chronological age confidential. For example, Räsänen suggests the clever idea of one’s ID not showing a date of birth, but rather a number, like ’30 years old.’ This norm may serve as a constant, reminder, however, that many people are hiding their ‘real’ age.

(12) To be clear, it seems that, under Räsänen’s program, a successful age change is one that adjusts the person’s age, in some real, biological sense, from the wrong one to the correct one. As when correcting the time on a clock. ‘Legal’ age, then, just is age in all the ways we really care about what age is: a marker that helps determine one’s ability consent, to sin, to join the military, to vote, to buy certain drugs, et cetera.

(13) Räsänen produces the following thought-provoking and challenging thought experiment:

…suppose it becomes possible to cryopreserve living human beings in ultra-low temperature for dozens of years, and by this way reduce their biological ageing rate to, say, 10 per cent of the normal rate. A person who is frozen at the age of 40 and woken up after 100 years would be biologically in as good shape as a 50-year-old. Surely the law should not treat him as being 140 years old, even though he has existed that long?

I agree that it would seem strange to treat this person as 140 years old, though I’m not sure that’d be any stranger than treating a current 60c year old as a (‘typical’) 40b year old. That aside, and more to the point, the above technology is reliably quantifiable, making it much more like the case of a slowing clock, rather than a case of a person being less healthy or healthier than the typical person in one’s age group, a statistic whose derivation will unavoidably require some arbitrary methodological choices, and will change over time (e.g., in response to the age-changing program itself).

That in mind, let’s dig deeper into the thought experiment by way of some more extreme scenarios. I’ll assume that, unless otherwise noted, these scenarios occur outside of Räsänen’s proposed age-change program, or else things will quickly become very confusing. For example, the phrase ‘average 60 year old’ would likely be interpreted quite differently before and after implementing the age-change program. In fact, while I think we’ll sooner or later have to come up with ways to deal with technologies that affect how our bodies and minds respond to the passage of time, introducing Räsänen’s program would make such solutions more difficult to devise (or would be unnecessary, as this could also mean the elimination of stereotypes). To be clear, this is not a defect in the cryopreservation thought experiment, as it is meant to stoke intuitions about age assignments in the current era; including the age-change program within the experiment unfairly muddies the waters (so I’ll hold off on muddying them, for now).

Here are some extremes.

If someone today, in 2019, were to be awoken from a 100-year freeze during which their biological clock has been completely stopped, it would seem strange indeed to treat that person as anything but the age they were on the day they were frozen. This is particularly true if there are legal contingencies attached to the age. For example, if the person was frozen at eight years old, it’d be absurd to consider the child now ready to vote, drive, drink vodka, and consent to marriage.

At the same time, there’s nothing incoherent about recognizing that, on paper, the child is 108 years old, so long as their special circumstances are understood. We see such scenarios often in fiction, whether about people whose age has been, or appears to have been, frozen in time or slowed by way of stasis technology, time travel, vampirism, the One Ring, being a near-immortal Elf, visiting a planet especially close to a black hole, and on and on.

And if that recently thawed child enters an alternate dimension for what from our perspective is a few days, but from that dimension’s perspective is 20 years, then the child, on returning to our dimension, would no longer be a child, but an adult. And, provided the usual cognitive development and so on that we associate with adults occurred in that dimension, the person should be treated as an adult, which could mean many things, depending on the sort of upbringing this ‘sudden’ adult had in the alternate dimension. I know of two popular television shows that have used essentially this scenario as a plot device (hint: both shows feature vampires).

It would be interesting to do a wide-ranging survey of how (successful, compelling) fictional works have dealt with such scenarios. I’ll resist the temptation to dive into that here, and will instead say that my general impression is that fictional people in these (often anomalous) situations tend to do whatever seems intuitively sensible. Sometimes that’s nothing more than to wonder at the strangeness of it and shrug one’s shoulders. As we must do with many, many anomalous and commonplace things in this world. But sometimes we also have to make a decision, and a legal one at that.

The above are extreme examples. The intermediate, and maybe even more realistic, situation in which someone’s biological aging is slowed down 10% or 90% for some duration of time (five minutes? five years?) is admittedly less clear. Particularly given that one is presumably not living, learning, experimenting, growing mentally, etc. during that time. And particularly if it becomes something that is commonly done by anyone who wants to do it. We’re faced with decisions already about how to operationalize things like death and fetus viability—statuses that change as life-sustaining technology improves. The same will go for cryopreservation.

Such tech, if possible, will likely be introduced into usage slowly, which strikes me as a significant difference with the age-change program, which could be instituted quickly. I’ll set this thought aside for now; also, I acknowledge that I’m about the muddy the waters of the cryopreservation thought experiment, but I think it’s now appropriate to do so.

How to deal with such tech would require decisions about how to treat the age of its recipients, and these decisions will be like any other difficult question about the relation between life and technology: we’ll do the best we can in the complicated circumstances we create for ourselves. We’ll get some things wrong and some things right, just as we do now in both general and particular situations.

In general, 18 year olds are granted certain rights and freedoms by virtue of being 18 years old, but it also must often be decided whether a specific 18 year old satisfies the conditions for being granted those rights and freedoms. One’s legal status is by no means entirely tied to one’s age. And we do have policies in place so that younger folks who need assistance related to mental or physical health concerns can, for example, collect disability at a younger age than average (though we can certainly do much better in this regard, both for the young and the elderly!).

The general legal status there is, like any policy, the default in order to free up our time to think about the cases to which policy doesn’t apply. Typically, 18 year olds do satisfy the conditions in question. (I’m of course thinking here from the perspective I now best: the U.S. legal system.) This brings to mind a dystopian (but not inconceivable) variation of Räsänen’s program in which we only allow someone to surpass the age of 17 if they satisfy those conditions. Though we are far more than just an age, and the thought of gray-haired 17 year olds counting as minors (and thus, for example, being legally able to date minors) is beyond unacceptable. In a less dystopian, but no more appealing, variation, a person might be allowed to request being kept a minor indefinitely. (I’m not claiming Räsänen would endorse, or must be committed to endorsing, these applications of his program, though his program does seem amenable to something disconcertingly like these applications.)

The upshot of all this is that I’m not sure Räsänen’s age-change-by-cryopreservation thought experiment is messy enough to capture the relevant intuitions involved in his unavoidably messy age-change-by-identification thought experiment. A single person who’s newly awakened from age-slowing cryopreservation may be reasonably subject to a wide range of treatments, depending on the details (e.g., How old were they when entering the machine? How long were they in?). We’d have to take it on a case-by-case basis. Age change by self-identification (quickly) becoming commonplace is another matter.

Even messier would be to declare that all humans essentially already are in such a situation, with their biological clocks running at rates so different that we should consider them to be different actual ages (designated according to conditions of the sort Räsänen proposes in his article). Even messier still would be to introduce cryopreservation and other age-rate-influencing technologies into Räsänen’s program, a contingency perhaps worth considering because some such technology may well be on the horizon.

All that said, I do think Räsänen’s cryopreservation example poses an intuitive challenge to my worries about his proposed program, and I’m not so sure I’ve adequately dealt with it. Maybe a better response will occur to me. At the very least, I’m happy to admit that there is a certain arbitrariness to how we assign human ages. I don’t see, however, how this fact supports the idea that we should make paradigmatic categories of age that could, for example, lead to worse, rather than better, treatment of many elderly people; which is my foundational concern here. Not to mention that this arbitrariness would become even more arbitrary and convoluted under Räsänen’s program.

(14) For what it’s worth, my baseline proposed solution to the problems posed by time time travel, traveling near the speed of light, and so on, is that a person’s age should be the chronological age of that person from their own perspective. In other words, were the person to constantly carry a running stopwatch, the person’s age would be whatever the stopwatch says at a given moment. In the case of cryopreservation, we’d have to ensure that the stopwatch is slowed down along with the person’s biological clock.

(15) And in case it needs saying: We should very much avoid cryopreserving developing brains. It’d be a tragic experiment that should never be run to subject a newborn infant to such treatment. Though it would still be intuitive to say that, upon awakening 300 years later, the person is now 30 years old. Sounds like the seed of a science fiction story. Hmmm…

(16) It strikes me that, the older someone is, the fewer worries there are about the weirdness of identifying as younger. A 110c-year-old identifying as 95 wouldn’t seem to afford the person any special benefits, legal or otherwise (in fact, I assume there’s some cachet to being that old in many cultures, including here in the U.S.). But a person who’s 30c identifying as legally 15 would enjoy some rather creepy benefits indeed. As might a person who’s 40c identifying as retirement age.

(17) If someone meets Räsänen’s criteria while in pursuit of something they value but don’t qualify for due strictly to age, then whatever it is about them that satisfies Räsänen’s criteria should be taken into account when evaluating that person. I have to think it’d be easier to pursue anti-agism policies than to develop an age-changing policy (in which, crucially, agism will likely still exist and very well might worsen).

For example, there are many programs (e.g., college scholarships) only available to those 25 and younger. I don’t have a clear stance on these in general, but can say that it’s easy to think of particular instances in which it would seem absurd not to give the scholarship to an otherwise highly deserving 26 year old, 27 year old, … 30 year old, … and … not sure of where the intuitive line here is.

To be clear, I’m not arguing against drawing arbitrary lines in many cases—we have to pick some age or another for receiving the right to vote and to consent to sex with an adult and so on. But in other cases, age seems an irrelevant, and thus unfair or unjust, criterion; we call such cases instances of ‘ageism.’ We’d be best off, I think, trying to eliminate those, best we can, rather than keeping them around while asking people to change their age to accommodate them.

(18) It’s worth noting that if technology and medical science begin to reverse the symptoms of aging, and 60c year olds look no different than 30b year olds, Räsänen’s program might be unnecessary. Or the world would be likely to be such a different place that it’s nearly impossible to say what new sorts of age-based discrimination would emerge (if any). I bet such technology is at least as likely to be developed as that of age-slowing cryopreservation technology in the foreseeable future.

More likely, then, we’d run into other sorts of biologically grounded discriminatory practices, such as favoring a more recent version of genetic enhancement over an older (i.e., obsolete) one. For a discussion of this, see this recent podcast episode of The Philosopher’s Zone: “Genetically Obsolete” (10/6/19).

I must again remind myself that the program Räsänen recommends is for the here and now.

(19) Räsänen extends his cryopreservation example by noting that “In the real world people age at different rates too.” Where “age” refers to biological age in a medical-statistical context, rather than a merely chronological one. I see his point, and I imagine there are subtle ways such contexts may develop and play out. The most vivid example I can think of is Hutchinson–Gilford progeria syndrome, “in which,” to quote Wikipedia (on 10/23/19), “symptoms resembling aspects of aging are manifested at a very early age.” I think the word “resembling” is important here, however, and that we obviously shouldn’t imagine children in this condition as anything other than children. I cannot speak from experience and would not want to generalize, but from what I gather, such children would very much like to be treated more or less as other people in their age group are, some of whom are in some ways mature beyond their years (compared to the average), some of whom are not, and so on. Just like in any other age group.

(20) I’ve tried (unsuccessfully, I’m sure) to set practical concerns about policy making and implementation aside here, and have only barely touched on obvious social concerns (such as the creepy idea of a 30c year old decreasing his age before committing a crime in order to be treated as a minor or to be legally intimate with a chronological minor; would Räsänen’s criteria actually allow for someone with a brain that has fully undergone developmental synaptic pruning to identify as an age at which that process is typically still underway?).

And I’ve set aside the worry that—no matter my resting heart rate, cognitive acuity, how young I feel, what my goals happen to be—people are going to see and treat me as a middle aged man, in ways I like and dislike, even if my ID says I’m 25. And I haven’t wondered about those who might like to change their ages repeatedly, forwards and backwards, according to their goals of the moment.

Räsänen doesn’t touch on such details (maybe he would given a higher word count), though he describes his proposal as one that “could be a feasible and practical solution.”

I agree, by the way, that it is practical, at least in the sense that, in principle, our ability to institute some form of this policy would not require any technological innovation. But I also think it less practical than other solutions to agism, such as increasing awareness, better P.R./marketing, and creating anti-discrimination policies where appropriate; as difficult as such things may be to get done.

(21) I referred in point 19 to the importance one’s specific goals might play in the application of Räsänen’s criteria. That is, the sorts of age discrimination one faces will depend on what one wants to do. I need not list here the many contexts in which youth is favored over seniority and, conversely, when seniority is favored over youth (usually due to the assumption that, on average, seniority means more experience, a greater connection of networks, appearing more like the stereotype of an authority figure [the classical paradigm of which for many cultures is an older male], etc.), until that seniority becomes so senior that we become worried about the person’s reliability succumbing to the typical ravages of old age.

This lends the program an unsettling arbitrariness, though I admit that, should folks’ goals be consistent and reasonably chosen, I could be entirely misguided in my concerns about the potential harm of making age-based stereotypes more, rather than less, fitting (on average). On the other hand, I’d still worry about a system that relies on the vague idea that goals should be consistent and reasonably chosen; that seems as arbitrarily open to unfair and unjust discrimination as our current system is.

(22) I imagine it wouldn’t be hard to produce lots more practical and social concerns, particularly in the short term. And there are of course also complicated ones. We might, for instance, worry about negative effects on medical treatment. We might think it important for doctors to know our chronological age. I don’t know if this would be a problem in the long term, however, at least in the imagined future many of us now hope to see become reality, in which personalized medicine does away with the need for many or most or all of the statistically grounded categories we now rely on as bases for treatment. Suppose that does render age obsolete, a crude indicator of how to treat a patient compared to the better data of the future.

Having done away with the category, there’d then be no sense to make of the phrase, ‘I feel like 40,’ much less, ‘I feel like an average 40 year old,’ as the reference class ’40 year old’ might not make much sense in that context—i.e., a context in which some folks are assured that they will never need (say) a prostate exam (though genetic intervention could help this along as well). What will make sense? Pharmacological phenotypes, perhaps. At any rate, while such a world may come about sooner than that of cryopreservation and traveling near the speed of light, it still may be much further into the future than we hope (last I heard, radical personalized medicine is turning out to be a lot harder to develop, and for a whole slew of reasons, than was initially assumed in the early days of human-genome mapping).

(23) I’ve given some (admittedly very brief!) thought to how we might devise some sort of method or calculus that avoids the worrisome outcomes I’ve noted here. For example, one might think there’s a way to deal with the problem of how to keep the statistics about what it means to be 40 from being influenced by the program itself by only using chronological ages in those statistics. This would also ensure that average chronological life expectancy (minus time cryo-frozen) is known (for various reference classes), which seems an important thing to know for a lot of reasons.

The idea there is that a person’s legal age can be bumped up or down according to how that person’s health and so on compare with the average for a particular age group. This could be as simple as: if the average chronological life expectancy is 70 years (minus time frozen), and a person seems to be 30 years away from death after 60 chronological years, that person’s legal age would (or could, on request) be bumped down to 40.

None of this is at odds with Räsänen’s proposal, so long as chronological ages are kept sufficiently confidential.

The problems with this approach, though, seem to be many. For one thing, being treated like we’re younger in a world that still relies on—perhaps more than ever—age-based criteria for (say) deciding who gets what medical treatment could still influence statistics about chronological age (e.g., if only those legally 50 or younger are able to get organ transplants).

Furthermore, this system would result in a mismatch between socio-cultural impressions about various age groups and the statistics used about those age groups. This would either result in multiple sets of statistics—e.g., the confidential one and the legal one, which would include stuff like the number of people of a certain age working a particular job or voting for a certain candidate. This raises the question of how a census would work, which is the primary source for statistics related to (say) employment.

Which in turn raises the question of what ‘confidential’ could mean under this program. It seems one’s legal age should be what is used, for example, in court proceedings, but it would be strange indeed to think that a local, state, or federal government wouldn’t have access to one’s date of birth. To avoid discrimination, would chronological age have to be kept not just from dating websites, college admissions committees, and self-driving car databases (should self-driving cars be programed to choose whom to hit according to age, a data point that could be transmitted from some personal device)—but also from judge and jury (and journalists)? While the defendant sits behind a screen in order to better hide their chronological age? If so, what about those unfortunates among us who’d be stuck at our chronological age due to failing to meet age-change conditions?

(Though I suppose presenting to a jury as 90 rather than 50 could inspire leniency. I enjoyed being the ‘older’ student while an undergraduate in college. But I realize this isn’t just about me or the experiences I’ve happened to have as I approach and enter into middle age.)

Maybe I’m way off track here. I don’t know. But this business of hiding one’s chronological age in accordance with a robust, multivariate medical classification sounds at best like a world in which personalized medicine has taken over and one’s age becomes unimportant. In which case there’d be no need to change it. But in the world of today, I’m not sure what sort of calculus would keep the project from spiraling mathematically (at least in the short term) while also avoiding yet more ageism rather than less, due to my oft-mentioned concerns about reifying ways of being certain ages by way of idealized paradigms or robust statistical categories.

(24) Before wrapping up, I’ll again call for us to recognize the variety—in health and maturity and in life experience and in tastes and dispositions—within particular age groups and to act accordingly. Which, as so often is the case, means treating people as individuals, one bit of information about whom is that they are an infant or 18 or 50 or 83. Wield that information responsibly and respectfully.

What’s so hard about that? At least, why should we prefer instead to purify age categories into paradigms of what or how a person of a certain age should be or, even worse, just is (according to whom? science? statistics? nature? dieties? lawyers?)? Let’s not make it so that we could end up with all elderly people actually being clueless about fancy new technology (because the elderly folks who are great at that technology, perhaps even who invented that technology, are now viewed as young). Let’s not reorganize the world according to our worst biases and stereotypes about people; instead, let’s do better with how we act on those biases and stereotypes.

Allowing everyone to shift their age in accordance to some idealized notion about what it means to be a particular age might work—might help make our complex and messy world a better place, a place where age discrimination is neutralized or at least diminished. Or it might be a disaster. My bet is on the latter.

(25) I don’t think this a very fair comparison, but Räsänen’s program strikes me as vaguely analogous to making it possible for people to change their legal weight according to some criteria having to do, for example, with the extent their social confidence matches the average of some other weight class, and, of course, to avoid discrimination. That this would be unfeasible, impractical, and potentially damaging is not my point.

We shouldn’t have to be—nor should we have to pretend to be—young, thin, beautiful, spry, sinless, or brilliant to be valued.


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