People over Forty Feel 20% Younger Than Their Age: Subjective Age across the Lifespan

Article excerpt

Subjective age-the age people think of themselves as being-is measured in a representative Danish sample of 1,470 adults between 20 and 97 years of age through personal, in-home interviews. On the average, adults younger than 25 have older subjective ages, and those older than 25 have younger subjective ages, favoring a lifespan-developmental view over an age-denial view of subjective age. When the discrepancy between subjective and chronological age is calculated as a proportion of chronological age, no increase is seen after age 40; older respondents feel 20% younger than their actual age. Demographic variables (gender, income, and education) account for very little variance in subjective age.

Research has shown that most adults think of themselves as younger than their actual chronological age (e.g., Kastenbaum, Derbin, Sabatini, & Artt, 1972; Ôberg & Tornstam, 2001). Cross-sectional studies of self-perceived or subjective age across the lifespan show an increasing discrepancy between subjective age and actual age as people grow older (e.g., Goldsmith & Heiens, 1992; Kastenbaum et al., 1972; Öberg & Tornstam, 2001). This discrepancy is generally regarded as a denial of aging that is most pronounced in old age (e.g., Barak, Mathur, Lee, & Zhang, 2001 ; Peters, 1971 ; Ward, 1977). Montepare and Lachman ( 1989) have summarized this view: "Theorists in the aging field have suggested that the tendency of aging adults to maintain younger subjective age identities is a form of defensive denial by which they can dissociate themselves from the stigma attached to growing old" (p. 73). Following this age-denial view, a youthful subjective age is an indicator of successful aging (e.g., Uotinen, Suutama, & Ruoppila, 2003), which is consistent with studies showing that subjective age is a better predictor of psychological and physical functioning in old age than is chronological age (e.g., Barak & Stern, 1986; Markides & Boldt, 1983; Peters, 1971; but see Knoll, Rieckmann, & Scholz, 2004). Under this age-denial view, there is no reason to suspect a discrepancy between subjective and chronological age in childhood and early adulthood, but the discrepancy should accelerate with older ages.

An alternative view incorporates changes over the entire lifespan. Under this view and using purposely vague terms that we will clarify, people younger than "a certain age" want to be "a bit" older and people older than that age want to be "a bit" younger. Thus, under what we term a lifespan-developmental view, a discrepancy between chronological age and subjective age is not primarily an aging phenomenon (e.g., Galambos, Kolaric, Sears, & Maggs, 1999; Montepare, 1996). To make sense of this, we have to specify the terms "a certain age" and "a bit." A review of the subjective age literature converges on the observation that "a certain age," which we term an attractor age, is somewhere in early adulthood (Montepare, 1996), a period that has the highest density of normative transition events (Berntsen & Rubin, 2004; Neugarten, Moore, & Lowe, 1965; Rubin & Berntsen, 2003), is important to identity and its effects on cognition (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; Sehulster, 1996), and has the most available autobiographical memories (Rubin, Rahhal, & Poon, 1998). Here we take an empirical approach and let the data determine the exact attractor age. The term "a bit" might have two meanings: a discrepancy or a proportional discrepancy. For example, a 75-year-old person may feel "a bit" younger if he or she feels 20%, or 15 years, younger. A 30-year-old person may feel "a bit" younger if he or she feels 20%, or 6 years, younger. In contrast, a 30-year-old person who feels the same 15 years younger as did the 75-year-old person appears to feel more than "a bit" younger. Thus, for an entire lifespan, a proportional view may be more reasonable. Here, we turn the lifespan-developmental view into a quantitative statement by assuming that people of all ages will tend to have a subjective age that is closer to an empirically determined attractor age in early adulthood and that the further they are from the attractor age the greater their proportional discrepancy will be up to a maximum amount, which we will also determine empirically. …