What makes a person old? Is it their decreasing mobility and slumping posture? The bad hearing and regimen of medications? Physical attributes certainly may be part of the answer, especially for folks who resist exercise, diets, and procedures that could forestall decline.
But too often old age isn’t something that is forced upon us; sometimes it’s partly a matter choice. Everyone will grow old, of course, but how we adapt to our advancing years has the potential to stave off true old age for many years. Old age can be less about the physical and more about the mental. The adage “You’re only as old as you feel” has never been truer. Psychologists increasingly tell us that the key to feeling youthful boils down to feeling relevant—and relevance is often within our ability to control.
“Most people who feel irrelevant assume that society made them that way,” says aging expert Ken Dychtwald. “But that’s not the case. You make yourself irrelevant by insulating yourself from change and losing your connections.” So don’t let it happen. Here are eight ways to avoid feeling left out in a fast-changing world:
1) Get active in social media. A lot of what you’ll need to stay relevant has to do with technology, and perhaps nothing is more critical than understanding and using social media. The big sites are Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. With apologies to Timothy Leary: Turn on, log in, drop out (of old age). On Facebook and Twitter you can easily stay abreast of the activities of far-flung family and friends. LinkedIn is the go-to site for professional networking. You absolutely must have a footprint on all three.
But that’s just a good start. Understanding Internet culture at a deeper level will give you much more in common with younger people, who spend as much time on the web as they do in front of a TV. They get their news and entertainment from sites like Reddit and Hacker News. For a better sense of the kind of humor young people enjoy check out quickmeme.com. Some of these will have you rolling on the floor.
“It’s important to stretch yourself,” says neuropsychologist Rita Eichenstein. “People become more fearful of new things as they age. So you need to catch yourself and watch out for saying ‘This is not for me’ or ‘No I can’t learn this.’ Of course you can.” Learning anything new stimulates the brain and does more than keep you relevant—it helps keep you healthy and reduces isolation, Eichenstein says. So exploring new technologies could literally extend your life.
2) Google it. Older generations like to argue a subject into the wee hours. Younger generations grew up with Google and reflexively search the web for an answer before you can formulate a cogent line of reasoning. It can be maddening. Discussion is fun; taxing the memory on trivia and for a good-natured wager is a healthy social activity. But that’s not how young folks are wired. They figure if the answer is at their fingertips, why guess?
Adopting a Google-it mindset can be remarkably difficult. “It requires changing the way you react to a problem,” says Will Farley at website developer Webpowerlabs.com. “Older generations have been programmed to respond a certain way. Modifying an impulse that’s been engraved for years is difficult, but possible. Think of it as breaking a bad habit. Place a post-it note on your desk that says “Google it.’” Simple searches are easy. Just type in a question and odds are someone has already answered it on Yahoo.
3) Get a smartphone. You may love your old Motorola starTAC with the flip lid. But it and other basic cell phones scream geezer. Upgrade now to an iPhone or Android and keep it handy. Learn how to use mobile apps for Facebook and Twitter. Explore other apps too and spend a few hours learning how to use each app before you move to the next one. Be able to install a quirky ringtone on your phone. Just make sure it’s not Andy Williams’ Moon River; it should be something from the current Millennium—or Metallica.
Connect your home email to your mobile device, and give it a distinctive sound to differentiate it from a phone call. Young people will be impressed with such dexterity, says Ken Bodnar, chief technology officer of SelectBidder.com and author of the e-book 55 And Scared Sh*tless.
“Email is ‘Elderly’ mail,” Bodnar says. “Learn how to send your contact info via a button push and text.” Above all, he says, learn how to text. “Even if you have to devote two weeks to your phone’s manual, and get a magnifying glass to read it, and learn calculus to operate it, it is important that you master your mobile device. After all, a barely-weaned baby can operate an iPhone, so you should be able to as well.”
4) Get a tattoo. They aren’t just for sailors and NBA stars anymore. Tats have gone mainstream and a tasteful dose of ink that can be hidden under clothing if you choose can take years off your image. According to a 2008 Harris poll, nearly one in seven U.S. adults has a tattoo, and a Pew survey found that 40% of adults under 40 had one. Women are as likely as men to have a tattoo.
While tweaking your look, go shopping for some fashion from this decade. Maybe swap your old newsboy cap for a short-brimmed straw fedora; your Mother Hubbard dress for something that says Tory Burch. Those orthopedic shoes with Velcro laces are so comfy. I get it. But they scream elderly. It’s also time to ditch the wide ties and baggy jeans no matter how much wear they have left. Don’t go overboard. The last thing you want is to appear to be trying too hard. But men should untuck their shirts once in a while; women might wear a dress with pants underneath—and just chill. “Dress in an appropriate, but youthful, ageless and modern manner,” says style consultant Sherrie Mathieson. “If your exterior appearance looks old you immediately cast the impression that you think old.”
Your more contemporary look should extend to hair, make-up, general grooming including nails, and choice of eyeglasses. Be aware of your posture as well. You project energy and vitality with a confident stride and manner. And get your teeth fixed. “Young people don’t like to look at scary old teeth,” says Austin, Texas orthopedic surgeon Barbara Bergin. “If you’ve got gnarly, crooked, stained old teeth, no one wants to look at you. People must want to look at you for you to stay relevant.”
Get your hearing checked too. Nothing puts you out of touch with people more than not being able to hear them. Old people tend to deny their natural loss of hearing. Eventually young folks shut them out and move on with the conversation. You must hear in order to stay relevant.
5) Get more emoji-nal. In the old days you might end an email with a colon and close parenthesis to simulate a smile. You had to look sideways. But it worked, and it caught on. Well, emoticons have come a long way, baby. If you haven’t discovered emojis for your iPhone you are dating yourself. Smileys are just the start. There are hundreds of these expressive little figures. “They may seem kind of silly,” says Pam Satran, author of How Not To Act Old and who just launched the website adviceformyparents.com. “But the young, including young businesspeople, love them. You should download them and know how to use them.” While you’re brushing up on texting etiquette, says Satran, stop writing in all caps. It’s just rude.
6) Tone it down. Young people aren’t impressed with a wine list and fancy cars. They have different aspirations and often value things like experiences and relationships ahead of wealth. They tend to find high-end cars off-putting. But you’ll also look silly in a PT Cruiser or some other quirky vehicle that marks you as an old person trying to look young and hip. “Drive something reliable and nondescript like a Jetta and you’re good,” says Satran. As for the wine list, if you are out with a young crowd don’t even ask. The craft beer industry has exploded with exciting new flavors that young folks prefer. They’ll notice if you know more about imperial stout than French Bordeaux. While you are expanding your palate, try eating something scary like Gochujang, mangosteen or pig ears. Really. There are a lot of new foods out there that you should know about.
At the office, be fun and collaborative. Young people don’t want to be lectured or ordered around and they don’t want to deliver any lectures or orders either. “Millennials were raised to believe that success comes from working well with people,” says Bukola Ekundayo, 30, an associate brand manager for Post Foods. “Our teachers emphasized group projects. Our parents encouraged us to get along. Bullying was looked down upon and a premium was placed on treating each other well. It didn’t matter if you were a jock, geek, or Goth.”
7) Keep up with the Kardashians. You’d rather stick a fork in your eye, right? I get it. Reality TV is often trite, crude, and contrived. Do we really need to see Snooki get snookered in the hot tub? Yet young people find these programs engaging. They grew up in a time when both parents worked and family conversations and guidance about hygiene, relationships, and awkward social matters may not have occurred. Programs that explore such issues appeal to them. Dismissing Jersey Shore or The Bachelor out of hand looks arrogant and out of touch.
“Show real interest in their lives,” says psychologist Dana Klisanin. “Older people have a tendency to ask generic questions such as ‘How was school or work?’” But you will relate better if you have some common touchstones. “So stay abreast of popular news, sports, and films, and read reviews of popular video games. An older person who has heard of MineCraft is much more interesting to a younger person than one who hasn’t.”
8) Get exposed. Once you’ve watched America’s Next Top Model and some of the fare on MTV Networks, try engaging young people in the flesh—not about what you saw on TV; that’s just for context and in case it comes up—but as part of an activity that you really care about. Intergenerational connections are more rewarding and easier to explore as part of a common interest, where you can give as much as you get.
“Take whatever activity it is that you like to do and join a group,” says Cathy VonWald, a community services supervisor in Bellevue, Wash. “If you join a cycling group and bike on weekdays you will likely meet others who are retired. But if you ride evenings or weekends you will meet folks of different ages.”
VonWald and her husband, both baby boomers, ski all winter and have met friends aged 20 to 70. “We ski together on the mountain and then socialize off the mountain,” she says. “No one really cares about age; it’s about doing what you like to do and having a common interest.”
Another great way to connect is by mentoring a younger person at work. “This creates a symbiotic relationship between varying ages that opens the lines of communication and gives old and young the opportunity to learn from one another,” says Tim Elmore, generational expert and founder of the international non-profit Growing Leaders. “The older professional can teach the younger about interpersonal communication, the importance of body language, and office politics, and the younger professional can coach on ways to leverage technology to streamline and simplify company processes and other, similar skills.”
You have more in common than you may realize. As psychologist and author of The YOU Plan, Michael Woodward, says: “It’s just the context that has changed. What used to be called keeping up with the Joneses is now Facebook envy.”
So while everything has changed, nothing is really different. Hang in there.