Confronting the human condition
The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to become more aware of the minutiae of our everyday experience. For one, we became more cognizant of our social hygiene and its importance in mitigating the impact of this disease. Then, we tackled work-from-home etiquette—that is, the behavioral customs expected of those in the virtual office setting. While we have physically masked up and socially distanced, the pandemic brought us intimately closer to the most human lived experience: we are aging.
Most notably, the coronavirus made us abundantly aware of our age because of the very population that was most vulnerable to it: older adults. Indeed, some of the first things we learned at the dawn of the pandemic were that seniors are not only more susceptible to contracting this disease but also significantly more likely to die from it. This observation begged the question, What age is considered “old”?
One could associate old age with the age of 65, which used to be the age that one could “fully” retire (although that age has been slowly rising and is now at 66 years and 2 months). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that heightened risk for contraction of COVID-19 begins as early as age 50.
Does that mean 50 years of age is old? To be fair, it was not until a little over a hundred years ago that life expectancy started inching up from 40-something to what it is now—about 78. So, in the Victorian age, a 50-year-old could have certainly been deemed old by society’s standards.
But what about now? Most 50-year-olds I know, and 60-year-olds for that matter, don’t feel old. This conflict between chronological age (the number of years one has been alive) and subjective age (the age one feels) disrupted many people’s sense of identity and left them bitterly aware that they are old—maybe not by society’s measurement anymore but by nature’s at the very least. The constant reminder in the media that they are old, or older than they’d prefer being, and that their immune system is not as vigorous as it used to be, was—and still is—an unpleasant reminder that they are swiftly moving through time. Invariably, this nugget of existential awareness confers a deeper sense of where they fall on the continuum of life—near the beginning, somewhere in the middle, or toward the end—and whether their position in time is favorable.
After the pandemic fully landed in the United States, millions of people transitioned to a work-from-home format. If you weren’t staring at a screen most of your workday in the “before times,” you certainly were then! The consequence of this? That little box in the top right-hand corner of your Zoom screen. I am talking about your reflection in the video stream.
One of the unknown benefits of having meetings in person is that you were not forced to see yourself the whole time. We were blessed with ignorance of our outward appearance for most of the day. Sure, the occasional bathroom trip with the obligatory glance in the mirror might have brought about the cringey realization of the dark circles under your eyes, or those pesky “11’s” (i.e., frown lines) between your eyebrows, but those were temporary moments of self-awareness that evaporated the moment you walked out the door. We didn’t realize what a blessing it was to not have a mirror in front of our faces the entire time we spoke to others. This constant exposure to our reflections left many people wondering to themselves, “Is that really what my face looks like?”
What is referred to as the “Zoom Boom” occurred mid-pandemic when coronavirus-related restrictions were lifted on elective surgery and the field of plastic surgery was flooded with people wanting “medical spa procedures,” or things such as Botox and fillers, as well as other more invasive alterations. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) reported that not only did attitude toward plastic surgery improve but so did interest in having a procedure done. The consensus appears to be that this boost was in large part due to the increased exposure people had to their reflections on platforms such as Zoom. Indeed, those fine lines and wrinkles, lackluster cheeks, and eyelids that don’t seem to want to do their jobs anymore, were suddenly less easily ignored.
Our physical appearance changes subtly through time, and normally we aren’t even aware of it. The aging of our bodies is normal, but that is not to say that it is fun to be 100 percent aware of this transition all the time. Evolving to a more, shall we say, “seasoned” look from the youthful countenance of our past triggers a deep, uncomfortable sense within us that not only are we moving forward in time but that there is no turning back the clock. So, thanks for that, COVID.
How quickly and efficiently one transitioned to working virtually certainly revealed one’s age. More specifically, the level of tech-savviness and aptitude in the switch from in-person to remote work further uncovered the divide between the generations. In all the clips that went viral of individuals being stuck with unfortunate Zoom filters (e.g., the “potato boss” or the “cat lawyer”), you never saw anyone younger than 40 in those situations. Baby Boomers were certainly at the greatest disadvantage when it came to working from home compared to Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers. And who could blame them? For most Boomers, personal technology didn’t enter their lives until at least the 1980s if they were lucky enough to have “The Brick” (i.e., the original cell phone) or a home computer. However, most people survived just fine without these devices and were exposed to advanced pieces of technology only at the workplace. Boomers didn’t spend their formative years text messaging as their primary form of communication, watching TV shows on streaming devices, taking selfies, or being glued to social media platforms, as were subsequent generations. Although, one could make the argument that Boomers now love social media as much as everyone else.
Before the pandemic, Boomers were able to recoup from any technological blunders in the office with the help of IT, or anyone younger than 40 years of age. What essentially happened when we all began working from home is that Boomers were stolen from their native environments and exiled to work—solo and on devices and platforms many of them didn’t understand. The general lack of digital finesse numerous Boomers exhibited not only dated them but exposed the reality of how the world is now—tech-dependent— and that to remain relevant one must have tech-competency. The realization that one is not in Kansas anymore, that is, that the workspace is no longer a world with which one is familiar, stirred up existential dilemmas for many people over the age of 60.
Capability in the workplace is a source of pride and a foundational aspect of many individuals’ identities. The sudden realization that one might be “aging out” of the workforce and replaced by younger, more proficient employees (or even by technology itself!) can be shocking. Because of the COVID-19 situation, many older workers had a come-to-Jesus moment about their age and their fast-approaching expiration date at the workplace.
Despite appearances, awareness of our aging condition is not all doom and gloom. One of my favorite quotes by Irvin Yalom, an existential psychotherapist, applies to this sentiment: “Awareness does not lead to madness, nor denial to sanity.” In other words, awareness, although anxiety-provoking, is the price for authenticity. Aging is not a bad thing, yet it triggers distress in many people because of what it signifies: the truth of the human condition that nothing lasts forever. How you respond to this truth is the ultimate challenge of personhood.
Oxford, Mississippi native Lauren Hunter (née Dayan) is a provisionally licensed existential psychotherapist and doctoral student in Tulane University’s aging studies program. Her professional interests include aging, death, and anxiety surrounding these topics. Helping clients gain a greater sense of self-understanding through creativity and through the normalization of the aging process is a motif in her practice.