illustration by Theresa Berens
A personal essay by Gabrielle Lipton.
Consider the question baseball hero Satchel Paige once posed: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
He could have replaced “old” with any number of personal qualifiers: black, white, male, female, faithful, honest, happy, proud. But when he chose to address age approximately half a century ago, he was far ahead of his time. We’re still not asking about it. We’re still not talking about it. Who can answer his question?
Age fascinates me. With every tick of a second hand, we are all older, and the edge of the universe is a little bit farther away. Age is entirely out of our control and entirely blind, starting for everyone and stopping for no one. I would argue that it is the most unifying attribute people have.
Yet we critically think so little about it. We blow out our birthday candles and nametag ourselves with chronological numbers, but we have few definitions for what those numbers mean. We have school grades, insurance brackets and generations to keep things clear; we have assorted blanket terms – old soul, chapter of life, born in the wrong decade – to cover for the numbers when they don’t fit. If Mozart lived in U.S., he would have composed 25 symphonies before he could legally vote. Seventeen-year-old Gabby Douglas has won two Olympic gold medals, but she can’t buy a celebratory beer for almost four more years. We make legal and unspoken rules dictating how digits should govern our lives, but rarely if ever does age enter the public dialogue with the same magnitude as other social factors. Is this because it seems too innate to be sexy? Or is age actually a terrifyingly foreign concept that we are all stuck living with?
I was strolling around SoHo one night in January with one of my good friends when we came across a street-corner psychic. We took turns getting our palms read for ten dollars, and unlike most bargains in New York, our investments were the most provoking we made all season. I walked away bewildered by how she flatly recognized what I often shy away from admitting to myself: I deliberately lead my life so that I am always the youngest. According to her, from my friendships to work relationships to the person I will ultimately be with, I am and will continue to be the youngest.
Not long after the psychic encounter, I met a guy much older than myself. He joked that he was closer to my parents’ ages than mine; I laughed because it was true. But we connected. It wasn’t the first time I had been with someone older, nor was he the oldest person I had ever been with, but in those that came before, I was in school, or he was visiting from out of town, or the whole thing quickly dissolved into friendship. Timelines and timeframes comfortable buffered and structured each. This one had nothing. We both lived in New York, the island of infinite diversity, and our creative careers lack potential for promotion or a professional shape to lend our ages, as jobs often do. We could just float, waft and meet somewhere in the thick of the city air.
This new, older romantic interest got me thinking about Paige’s question. Rather than trying to figure out what my chronological age meant, I began to wonder what my current age felt like. Like it or not, I am pinned for the moment with the number 22, and even in New York, where every kind of racial mélange, gender bend and degree of openness exists in relationships, an age gap that crosses a generational divide still seems taboo. I felt I needed to preface him to friends and an ensuing need to preface him to myself. I didn’t know how to explain that our dates felt more relaxed than those I went on with guys my own age. I didn’t know why I was comfortable talking openly with him when there was so much I could risk seeming immature for. An ought set in to try and reason out why what was going on felt natural, and if it was, why it carried so much stigma.
In movies, tabloids, literature and philosophy, age relationships are repeatedly pigeonholed into certain dichotomies: student-teacher, parent-child, leader-follower, naïve-worldly. In friendly and professional circumstances, natural balances of power are assumed and age gaps are expected to play out in certain ways that don’t need questioning. We accept PG-rated number chasms. But once Socratic teachers start sleeping with their students, Woody Allen leaves his wife for his step-daughter, Lolita consents…our eyebrows go up, and we shift in our seats.
As always, sex is the culprit for confusion and judgment, not usually of the favorable sort. What exactly is going on behind closed doors? (And is it legal?) We fear what we don’t understand, so we assume the worst, that something is wrong. Daddy issues, emotional insecurity, or some sort of money-for-companionship setup are surely rolling around in the sheets, too, unhealthy motivators for a situation that will end up in flames. Who’s getting taken advantage of, and at what cost? Hence the predatory blanket terms for this batch of unfitting age cases: cradle robber, manther, couger. Trophy wife and sugar daddy err on the nicer side.
Or, as is often the case, perhaps our own desires are what scare us the most. When we don’t know why we want what we want, but we know it clashes with the status quo, we label our feelings as wrong or weird, suppress them and act like everyone else. George Clooney may be safe territory for anyone of any age to fantasize about, but the silver fox who you keep crossing paths with in line for morning coffee, or the pretty young intern? Up goes the caution tape. Observe from a distance. We shouldn’t even be looking.
Going back to the Origin, Charles Darwin proposed two reasons for natural selection and evolutionary change: survival of the fittest and sexual selection. The former favors those that are better equipped for their environment. The latter favors those that reproduce successfully. In a series of intense bird watching sessions, he saw this mainly happen in two ways: males competed for the territory most aplomb with females to mate with, and females used their exterior physiques to allure more males. Both sexes shared the end goal of offspring and did whatever they could to produce as many as possible.
From my experience, what Darwin observed isn’t too different from watching social interactions at a bar on the Lower East Side. Thankfully, we have contraception to control the effects, but the cause of our sex drives is largely the same: we are evolutionary hardwired to do what we can to reproduce. Women are more fertile when they are younger, specifically between the ages of 19 and 26, and men are more capable to protect and provide for offspring when they’re older and have had more time to accrue resources, social networks, stability and power. A study done in the early ‘90s by two of the most renowned scholars in this field, Douglas T. Kenrick and Richard C. Keefe, found that as men age, their desired age range for a partner steadily falls to ages younger and younger than themselves. By 60, the average man will date all the way down to 44 but doesn’t want anyone older than 54. Women, however, maintain a desire for someone up to 10 years their senior throughout their lives. In our non-existent public dialogue about age, we’ve overlooked this outlier of our otherwise truthful rule of thumb that like prefers like. In order to reproduce successfully, we’ve evolved to want an age gap. Our yearnings are nothing to fear; they’re natural.
We’ve also acted upon these yearnings for centuries. Mankind’s discrepancy against age gaps in relationships is really only a recent, Western development. The biggest average age gaps in relationships still occur in cultures that practice polygamy – men having two or more wives – a norm once practiced by certain Native American tribes that is still practiced by Mormons but primarily exists only in remote parts of Africa. It wasn’t even until after World War II that the average marital age gap in the U.S. fell below four years. Maybe we have evolved past our old ways, or maybe the past has led us to believe that relationships with large age gaps are somehow detrimental to the goals of our modern society.
In college, I had my first boyfriend who was significantly older. I was going into my second year; he had already been graduated for four and was working as a kitchen manager in a local bakery. We met during the summer when the town was emptied of students, and my summer job as a barista at a hangout coffee shop was broadening my friend circle into his social world of alumni and adults who had made the college town their home. Since our first meeting, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and upholding his reputation as one of the nicest guys in town, her pursued me gently and respectfully, asking me out for afternoon tennis matches and nighttime bike rides. He showered me with small surprises – soup he had just made, a favorite record – and said things like, “I can’t believe someone like you exists.” His patience paid off, and eventually, we fell into a sweet routine of being together.
But as summer ended, I couldn’t shake the feeling that as school picked back up, my study groups and mandatory appearances at theme parties would awaken him to my youth and snap him out of his charm. As all of my college friends came back and expected me to be fully emerged in our sophomority along with them, I wondered if his friends would start to think I had been a farce, or if my friends wouldn’t accept him. I predicted that dating someone older while still in college would amplify the differences in our lifestyles, and like trying long-distance or moving in together, I questioned if external forces would make these differences too apparent to overcome.
Broadening this out to a global scale, what Darwin hypothesized is countered by the fact that it is statistically strange to be educated and dating across a big age gap, especially while you’re still in the schooling system. Education is one of the biggest game changers in lessening age gaps in relationships, much of which has to do with its equalizing power between the sexes. Most visible in developing and modernizing countries, increased education gives women a greater chance to provide for their families and themselves, resulting in less dependency on older, more powerful men and more freedom to choose someone they like rather than need. But in any country, going to school gives us a regular, repeated group of options, and we grow accustomed to thinking that those options are the ones we should choose. A study of dating preferences in adolescents found that while boys ages 12-18 preferred to be with girls who are older than themselves (because, biologically, older girls are more fertile than their current classmates), the boys ended up dating girls an average of only .15 years younger – so, in their same grade. In the U.S., where a preschool through college education has us spending nearly two decades of our life primarily with people our own age, we don’t grow up acting upon our biological desire for someone older or younger. We’re not used to it.
Which is also part of the appeal. One of my best friends in college was a guy who lived on my dorm hall my freshman year. When he came back for our second year, he initially questioned my relationship the most, perhaps because, as a male, he saw my choice as discrediting. Were guys my age not good enough anymore? Did I think I was better or cooler for having a new group of older friends? Why couldn’t I just act my age? Of course I meant no harm to anyone, but I can’t deny that the psychic was right when she said that I limit myself to older guys for some of the very reasons my friend was getting at. I like the challenge of pushing my age to its social and intellectual limits and seeing if it has a maximum capacity. There’s an addictive nervous energy in feeling like you’re too young for what you’re doing, as if it’s illegal. Darwin be damned if it really all comes down to looking for a good protector of children, because though my dating preferences may be experimental, they are not case studies, and kids are nowhere on my immediate horizon. My attraction to older guys is largely just another way to break out of my comfort zone.
My mom’s perspective on my relationships, however, always takes the flip side. I may be able to rationalize my reasons for dating whomever, but why is he trying to get with me? Let’s state the obvious: older guys want younger girls because of how they look. Shallow? Sure, but science concurs. All the traits that we associate with youth and beauty are signs of heightened fertility. Smooth skin, toned muscles, white teeth, Pantene Pro-V commercial-worthy locks of sweet love, even a peppy step are all body language for being a solid child-bearing candidate. A study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that polled both sexes found that physical appearance is the overall fifth most desired trait in a partner, but it is by far the most skewed in terms of gender preference: men ranked it far more important than did women. (Women’s preferences were fittingly skewed toward provisionary traits, such as the ability to earn money and a college education.) Everyone wants something great to look at, and maybe more importantly, everyone wants to be admired by something great. This can even be stretched to explain cougar scenarios: for either of the sexes – but especially for men – it is an undeniable ego boost to be older and the object of affection of a pretty young thing.
And then there’s the contagion factor. One of my great friends who has had experience dating much older as well said pointedly of my most recent relationship that, “At some point, everyone just wants to feel young again.” Despite the simplicity of the cliché, I had never considered this point of view. But she’s right. You could chalk it up to the energy level or cool factor or overall excitement for life before falling into a permanent state of jadedness, but spending time with someone significantly younger is also an emotional experience. I babysit a nine-year-old boy, and he regularly reminds me of what it is like for each minute to matter so much, each hour to feel so long, for the same time tomorrow to seem so far away. His cares are immediate as is his joy. So many “firsts” are still left for him to experience.
Being with someone younger can, in some ways, turn back time. If you date someone your own age, you go through life together. If you date older, you see what life could look like in the future. But to revisit an age through which you have already passed, you recall so much about who you once were and can compare and potentially apply it to who you are now. The stigmatized side of this however, is that by changing yourself to complement the age of the other person, someone is being something they’re not; someone is deciding not to act their age. My friend’s questions got me thinking about the timeline that I was on with this older man and whether he was circling back to act closer to where I was, if I was acting up and coming over to his end, if we were meeting in the middle or if our connection was real on its own and off of a timeline altogether.
Even though we had plenty of overlapping interests, we always found ourselves talking about broad topics – our childhoods, how we were raised, the importance of being critiqued by others, what it’s like to grow apart from friends. Our conversations were more profound than those I have with people I have known since kindergarten, and as we each had a perspective of time that the other lacked, we made one another not only think but also reflect. Anything we differed on in these collective-conscious issues was rooted in us as people, shelving our ages as byproducts of ourselves rather than dictators, as they would have been in, say, a discussion about favorite TV shows. We could bypass the influence of our birthdays and respect the end results. But, the chicken or the egg: Did we talk this way to elude our age gap, or did our age gap not matter, and that was why we connected so well? Going back to Satchel Paige’s question, were we in it because we loved the ability to choose our ages, or because we felt the freedom of not choosing one at all?
Speaking of choices, the guy and I were at a bar recently choosing songs on a jukebox and got to talking about Bob Dylan. I explained that the work of Dylan’s work I most connect with not so coincidentally came about shortly after his prefrontal cortex finished developing. This portion of the brain sitting just below the forehead is the commander-in-chief of major life decisions, the top processor of good and bad, better and best, cause and effect, social interactions, personality expression…everything that deepens our thought processes, expands our capabilities, and makes for good lyrics. It finishes developing around the age of 22 and works at its peak state for five short years before puttering back down a slow road of decline. Most geniuses do their best work during their mid-twenties. After hearing out my Dylan theory, he asked if I felt pressure now that I am on the beginning cusp of this period. I realized his had already come and gone without his knowing.
I feel a bit delicate when I think about the fact that I am currently in my prime, and that this is one part of my age I can never choose or control. The summer before my freshman year of high school, parents, teachers and older friends told me I was about to start the best years of my life. The summer before my freshman year of college, parents, teachers and friends told me I was about to start the best years of my life. During those two “chapters,” if you will, there was always something coming next, another life phase that would be different, maybe better. No major life peak had yet been reached. Now, science is telling me I’ve just started the best years of my life. And after the next half-decade or so, my fertility and certain regions of my brain will close off the potential to be at their biological finest. They will have bested and moved on. There is an underlying sense of this is it.
My body is doing one thing, but the culture around me is dictating things differently. If now were like the ‘50s, perhaps I would have no problem giving up work and submitting myself to domesticity. But I am a millennial, a notorious changer of the timetable of adulthood, delaying traditional milestones of marriage, children, home ownership, a steady career. I am well aware that it is culturally acceptable now for me to have another ten or more years to myself before I will really start to feel the pressure to settle down, and my evolutionary timetable is off-synch with the one I have projected for myself. Am I wasting my prime? If I wait too long, will my ability to find the best possible mental and physical connection in another person fade away?
Ultimately, that’s my end goal (and ideally everyone’s, I would hope): connection. Every so often, there’s another article written about age gaps in relationships, but they all make similar arguments: big age gaps fuel inequality between the sexes, they’re physically detrimental, they’ll never work out. None of them are ever very tolerant of why they’re happening in the first place, and certainly none of them ever take the side that there could be benefits other than money, beauty, resources, or sex. I’m not denying that these are great add-ons, but they also are for any type of relationship, and I think it’s unfair to say they’re the only reasons why certain relationships exist. We don’t seem to think that we can find companionship in someone chronologically too much different. There’s always an unspoken premise that relationships with big age gaps never lead to happiness.
A friend of mine has one of the happiest relationships I have seen among my 20-something comrades. In the beginning stages of her relationship with her boyfriend, she knew she was falling in love because of their strong “mental sex.” It’s kind of a graphic term, but I also find it beautiful, connoting direct mind-to-mind contact, getting to know all of another brain’s parts, attuning to its thinking style and moving in synch until there is some kind of powerful, bonding climax. (And, I would say it’s safe to assume that deeper mental sex makes for deeper physical sex, too). Maybe this is why we assume dissatisfaction. Because of time-of-life experiences, generational differences in cultural vocabularies and stage in brain development, the larger the age difference, the more impossible it seems to be able to connect in this way.
Maybe there is a limit. Maybe there is a difference between two numbers that is too large to ever equalize, too wide of a pit filled with everything one person has experienced that the other person hasn’t, too many irreconcilable beliefs born out of different times. The hard truth is that if there is too much of an age gap, the younger of the two involved is likely to wind up alone. Perhaps it is better to have true connectedness that we know will be cut short, or maybe we would rather have dutiful happiness that will last a lifetime. But in order to have this much larger conversation, we must first find the gap’s limit, which requires addressing the gap itself. We must study our own origin – not Darwin’s – and first address our own age.
When I initially began this story, I feared that people in my life would read it and think of me differently. The family I babysit for may question my spending time with their son. My childhood friends may think I’ve become some kind of wild rebel since I moved to New York. My family may tell me to hush. No matter what we are programmed to do, no matter who we find ourselves connecting with, no matter how we decide to trade ourselves for the value of another, there is still a stigma in relationships with age gaps.
We’re starting to legalize gay marriage. One-in-ten marriages are interracial, as are one-in-five unmarried couples. The U.S.’s interfaith marriage rate is 42 percent. There is never going to be an age pride parade, laws enacted to protect the older or younger party in a relationship, or any tangible affirmation of couples that have seas of years between them. Perhaps, though we are biologically inclined to choose an age gap now, evolution will eventually catch up with culture, and our innate desires will be directed more toward those our own age. But until then, our clocks are still ticking, this romantic frontier is still largely unexplored, and it’s territory worth discussing without the implied detriment of a cowboy-and-Indian framework.
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
Evolution, brain development and cultural norms aside, I like to think I can remove my age from its chronological skeleton and shape it with the hands of my free will rather than those of a 22-year-old clock. I know enough about myself to trust that what the psychic said about my future partner will prove true, but in the same way I don’t like limiting myself to a number; I shouldn’t assume whoever he turns out to be is accountable to his either. Maybe I would be just as happy with someone ten years older as with someone ten years younger and – for lack of a better blanket term – wise beyond his years. I believe in age as a mindset and that growing up is a broad concept we can choose to apply to different parts of our selves at different times. I have yet to draw a numerical conclusion to Paige’s question, but maybe the point is just to try and do the math.
Gabrielle Lipton is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. Previous publication includes Slate, IndieWIRE, Paste and Relapse; side projects include her website and concocting unusual flavors of homemade ice cream.