kottke.org posts about Jennifer Senior

“The Puzzling Gap Between How Old You Are and How Old You Think You Are”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2023

For The Atlantic, Jennifer Senior writes about how and why people’s subjective age — the age you are in your head — differs from their actual age.

But “How old do you feel?” is an altogether different question from “How old are you in your head?” The most inspired paper I read about subjective age, from 2006, asked this of its 1,470 participants — in a Danish population (Denmark being the kind of place where studies like these would happen)-and what the two authors discovered is that adults over 40 perceive themselves to be, on average, about 20 percent younger than their actual age. “We ran this thing, and the data were gorgeous,” says David C. Rubin (75 in real life, 60 in his head), one of the paper’s authors and a psychology and neuroscience professor at Duke University. “It was just all these beautiful, smooth curves.”

Why we’re possessed of this urge to subtract is another matter. Rubin and his co-author, Dorthe Berntsen, didn’t make it the focus of this particular paper, and the researchers who do often propose a crude, predictable answer-namely, that lots of people consider aging a catastrophe, which, while true, seems to tell only a fraction of the story. You could just as well make a different case: that viewing yourself as younger is a form of optimism, rather than denialism. It says that you envision many generative years ahead of you, that you will not be written off, that your future is not one long, dreary corridor of locked doors.

I am not entirely sure I can even answer the question of “How old are you in your head?” I’ve always had trouble even remembering how old I actually am and don’t really think about it all that much. Maybe that’s changed a bit in recent years, as milestone anniversaries pass and the ol’ body breaks down. When pressed, I used to tell people I’ve always felt like I was 30 years old, even when I was 12. As a kid attending mixed-age gatherings, I often sheered clear of hanging out with kids my age — I preferred the adults. Here’s Senior again:

Of course, not everyone I spoke with viewed themselves as younger. There were a few old souls, something I would have once said about myself. I felt 40 at 10, when the gossip and cliquishness of other little girls seemed not just cruel but dull; I felt 40 at 22, when I barely went to bars; I felt 40 at 25, when I started accumulating noncollege friends and realized I was partial to older people’s company. And when I turned 40, I was genuinely relieved, as if I’d finally achieved some kind of cosmic internal-external temporal alignment.

And as a 40-something, my curiosity has kept me interested — I would even say aspirationally interested — in what the younger generations are up to. Anyway, back to the original question: fine, twist my arm, I’m 35 in my head.

A perhaps related digression: I don’t know if I’ve written about this before, but despite being smack in the middle of the Gen X age range, I’ve always felt more culturally like a Millennial. My guess is that as an internet early adopter, I experienced being Extremely Online right around the same time as many Millennials did as teens and preteens. I’d be interested to hear how other folks who were very active in online culture as adults in the mid-to-late 90s feel about this.

See also Meet the Perennials, Up With Grups, and How to Age Gracefully.

“It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart”

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 09, 2022

Well, this article about the importance and difficulty of friendships as you grow older by Jennifer Senior just hit me squarely in the feels.

When you’re in middle age, which I am (mid-middle age, to be precise — I’m now 52), you start to realize how very much you need your friends. They’re the flora and fauna in a life that hasn’t had much diversity, because you’ve been so busy — so relentlessly, stupidly busy — with middle-age things: kids, house, spouse, or some modern-day version of Zorba’s full catastrophe. Then one day you look up and discover that the ambition monkey has fallen off your back; the children into whom you’ve pumped thousands of kilowatt-hours are no longer partial to your company; your partner may or may not still be by your side. And what, then, remains?

I’m 48 years old, divorced, introverted, with two kids in their tweens/teens. I haven’t had coworkers in more than 15 years (and have worked from home for the past 7 years) and moved away from many of my friends to a place where I didn’t know anyone almost 6 years ago. I feel, acutely, the desire for and the falling away of friendships in this weirdo phase of life, which is happening during the most societally destabilizing event many of us have ever lived through.1

Were friendships always so fragile? I suspect not. But we now live in an era of radical individual freedoms. All of us may begin at the same starting line as young adults, but as soon as the gun goes off, we’re all running in different directions; there’s little synchrony to our lives. We have kids at different rates (or not at all); we pair off at different rates (or not at all); we move for love, for work, for opportunity and adventure and more affordable real estate and healthier lifestyles and better weather.

Yet it’s precisely because of the atomized, customized nature of our lives that we rely on our friends so very much. We are recruiting them into the roles of people who once simply coexisted with us — parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, fellow parishioners, fellow union members, fellow Rotarians.

It’s not wholly natural, this business of making our own tribes. And it hardly seems conducive to human thriving. The percentage of Americans who say they don’t have a single close friend has quadrupled since 1990, according to the Survey Center on American Life.

One of those articles where I wanted to quote the whole thing…so just go read it.

  1. Am I referring to the pandemic or the gradual-then-sudden shift towards de facto fascist rule in the US we seem to be experiencing? Even I don’t actually know.

How One Family Grieves Their Son, 20 Years After 9/11

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2021

This is an extraordinary story by Jennifer Senior about the various ways in which members of a family grieved the death of a beloved son who died in NYC on 9/11: What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind.

Early on, the McIlvaines spoke to a therapist who warned them that each member of their family would grieve differently. Imagine that you’re all at the top of a mountain, she told them, but you all have broken bones, so you can’t help each other. You each have to find your own way down.

It was a helpful metaphor, one that may have saved the McIlvaines’ marriage. But when I mentioned it to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at UC Irvine who’s spent a lifetime studying the effects of sudden, traumatic loss, she immediately spotted a problem with it: “That suggests everyone will make it down,” she told me. “Some people never get down the mountain at all.”

This is one of the many things you learn about mourning when examining it at close range: It’s idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome. A lot of the theories you read about grief are great, beautiful even, but they have a way of erasing individual experiences. Every mourner has a very different story to tell.

That therapist was certainly right, however, in the most crucial sense: After September 11, those who had been close to Bobby all spun off in very different directions. Helen stifled her grief, avoiding the same supermarket she’d shopped in for years so that no one would ask how she was. Jeff, Bobby’s lone sibling, had to force his way through the perdition of survivor’s guilt. Bob Sr. treated his son’s death as if it were an unsolved murder, a cover-up to be exposed. Something was fishy about 9/11.

I read parts of this with tears in my eyes because I have grief in my life right now. Many of us do, I think. Because of the pandemic — a big, mixed-up ball of emotional energy that can’t dissipate until, well, I don’t know when — because of past trauma kicking up dirt, because of the way we’ve treated others and ourselves, because we want to help others, especially our children, deal with their grief and big feelings more effectively. This piece was an urgent reminder of just how long grief can last and how many ways it can manifest in different people.