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It’s no secret that many adults feel younger than their actual age. This mental age discrepancy is often romanticized through various cliches, but there’s something more sinister to how young we “feel” than simply being “young at heart.”
If you feel younger than you are, you’re likely overestimating the competency of your peers.
This article explores why this phenomenon may happen, how we can dispel the myth, and why we’d be happier once we do.
Feeling Younger Than Your Physical Age Is a Real Phenomenon
If you’re like 70% of adults, you likely feel younger than your actual age. But what does this really mean? After all, to “feel” younger seems within the realms of magic.
A study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review shows that most adults think of themselves as younger than their physical age. This starts around age twenty-five. Before the age of twenty-five, many people feel older than they are. However, after twenty-five, the reverse happens and people start to feel 20% younger than their age, especially after they turn forty.
The study theorizes that this is because of a defensive age-denial mentality and the stigma against the elderly.
However, this article will delve into the theory that age-denial is caused by overestimating the competency of our peers.
“You’ll Understand When You’re Older” and Other Lies
There’s a famous meme that circulates the internet about adulthood. Here’s one of many versions of it:
This meme is so funny because as kids we expect to grow up and have a realization of knowledge. Our society and the adults in it often tell curious young minds, “You’ll understand when you’re older,” or “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
These phrases seem harmless, however, they create a foundation for age-denial in the future. They make the assumption that adults have the answers. They make the assumption that when “you’re older” you’ll be more knowledgeable.
This is not true.
Yes, as you age and gain more experience, you do gain more knowledge. However, “when you’re older” never truly comes. There’s no magic age for enlightenment and it certainly doesn’t hit you all at once. You don’t wake up on your eighteenth birthday with all the knowledge of an “adult.”
Then, when those kids become adults and they don’t have the answers to whatever problems crop up (an inevitability of life), they feel like they’re not truly an adult, or they’re doing something wrong. This is the heart of age-denial or “feeling younger” than we are.
The heart of the issue is when we operate under the assumption that people our age know more than they do. Or, in other words, when we think our peers are more competent than they are.
The Truth of Competency: No One Is Truly Competent
Once you come to the realization that no one is truly competent, it’s both a blessing and a curse, or a relief and a terrifying realization.
“Mankind is made of two kinds of people: wise people who know they’re fools, and fools who think they are wise.”
There are many people who think they have all the answers and know everything. We’ve all come across them before. However, the more experienced and wise individuals realize how very little they actually know. This can be applied in nearly any field.
For instance, take a high school math teacher for example:
- Compared to their students, the teacher knows a lot about math. However, compared to college professors, perhaps that same teacher doesn’t know very much at all.
- Take those college professors and compare them to mathematicians. Those college professors may confess to knowing nothing of math in comparison.
- Take those mathematicians and compare them to the geniuses of math, such as Isaac Newton or Carl Gauss. Compared to those great minds, those mathematicians may know nothing of math.
- Those genius mathematicians may even confess to being aware of how little we know about math as a whole.
Competency is based on the comparison. The more experienced and knowledge you gain, the more you realize you do not know.
The same goes for life experience. As people age and get older, many realize how very little they know.
Another example of our lack of competency is the game “Go.”
Go is an abstract strategy game that is played professionally in many areas of the world. The beauty of Go is that is it a very simple game on the surface but complex and nuanced as you understand more, much like Chess.
A South Korean Go champion, Lee Se-Dol, dedicated his entire life to the study of Go. Not only did he spend countless hours learning his gameplay, but he stood on the shoulders of giants as he learned from the best teachers and best courses of study.
When the AlphaGo AI programming system was developed (a computer that knows how to play Go and learns to play Go), Lee Se-Dol played against it. He lost all of his games against the AI except for one.
Lee Se-Dol was considered the top Go player in the world. Before AlphaGo, he was untouchable. But AlphaGo has shown us the depths (or rather shallows) of our own knowledge and understanding.
Lee Se-Dol even said,
“I’ve realized that I’m not at the top even if I become the number one through frantic efforts. Even if I become the number one, there is an entity that cannot be defeated.”
Even outside of professional mathematics and Go tournaments, no one is truly competent, yet we still believe our peers to be. We look at them and see models of a “good life” by many of them. We may even seek answers or advice from them.
For instance, a 30-year-old may look at other 30-year-olds and think they have their life together, but not see themselves in the same regard as we are aware of our own lack of knowledge more fully than we are aware of other people’s.
Therefore, instead of feeling thirty, they may feel younger (and less knowledgeable).
Social Media Perpetrates the Issue
Social media is a vehicle for deceit in modern society.
It allows people to easily present snapshots of the best times in their lives. The platforms we engage with make it easy to present a tidy, competent front. It makes people seem like they have their life in order, even if they don’t.
Think of the top five things you see people share on social media. What are they?
Typically people post things like fancy food they ordered at a restaurant, drinks with friends, a goal they accomplished, something they purchased (car, house, pool, etc.), or picture-perfect smiles.
Now, those snapshot moments, what percentage of their life do you think they make up? 1%? 5%? 10%? Yet, they typically make up 80%-100% of a person’s social media feed.
See the difference? The percentages of what you show versus how often it happens in life are often vastly different.
The struggles that people face are not shown on social media. For instance:
- 1 in 4 American households undergo food insecurities, meaning they rely on soup kitchens, food banks, food stamps, or are uncertain if they will have enough food to survive.
- According to the CDC, 60% of adults have a chronic disease that impacts their daily life.
- Over 60% of Americans have credit card debt.
These are only some of the struggles that people face. There are many others. But you likely won’t see those photos glamorized and posted on social media.
Dispelling the Myth
Social media propels the myth forward that people your age are more competent and knowledgeable than we are. This is not to say that people are not skilled in their fields. Experience is what gives competence and knowledge, but even then, it’s all relative.
Really, no one has their “life together.” No one knows anything. We know very little in the realm of what is already discovered and what remains to be discovered. And we’re all just trying to get by the very best we can.
The best way to dispel the myth of competency and get out of age-denial is to be wise and admit we are all fools. Only then we can truly appreciate our own knowledge, competencies, and experiences.