Should people be allowed to define their own age?

Binam Poudyal ’22, Guest Writer

An article popped up in The Guardian about two weeks ago about a man in the Netherlands who wanted to change his age. His official age was 69 yrs. old, but he claimed that he actually feels 20 years younger, and that even his doctors said that he was like a 45 year old. He said that having an official age was a bad representation of his physical and emotional state and thus made it difficult for him to find both work and love, such as the fact that stating his age made it difficult for him to find a date on Tinder. He compared his wish to alter his age to people who identify as transgender.

Here’s what I thought of the case. In essence, his argument was that the official definition of age did not fulfill the purpose of its uses. The official definition of age is “amount of time passed since birth”. In society, age is used as a factor to determine physical “oldness” or “wearing down ness”. Expectations are placed upon individuals based on their age, and the social structure is formed reflecting those expectations. For example, a 60 year old is expected to be too weak to do heavy work, and is thus granted senior citizenship rights. A 10 year old meanwhile, is expected to not have enough development of judgement so as to be able to vote. Age is taken as an important factor for what people can and cannot do, and what people are allowed or not allowed to do.

Now, while it is true that there is a strong correlation between “amount of time passed since birth” and “physical weariness”, it does not necessarily follow that two people who have the same age always have the same physical weariness. This is true even for expertise and experience. While being older does normally lead to better knowledge and judgement, a younger man might have better knowledge and judgement than an older man. 

Thus, it does seem like using the official definition of age as a source of evaluation for physical fitness or mental expertise may fail for many people. Those minority of people whose age does not reflect their physical or mental capacity are at a major disadvantage. For example, a 17 year old despite being very emotionally mature and knowledgeable will not be able to run for office. A 90 year old, despite being highly intelligent and mentally sharp may be discriminated against on job applications for software development. Thus, there is a strong case to either: redefine age for the sake of these people, or, make it mandatory to add another piece of information along with age that more accurately represents these people’s actual condition, or make it an optional for people to state their age. 

If the answer is that we should redefine age, or provide supplement information as such, then a follow up question is, should people be allowed to have a re-defined age (or alt-age) based on what they feel their age to be, or should there be an objective biological measurement? The obvious argument against allowing people to define their age based on feelings is that what one feels like is not what a person is. 

Feelings cannot be objectively measured, and allowing people to define age based on how they “feel” leads down a slippery slope where anyone can redefine their age for whatever other intentions they may have. Thus, there should be an objective biological measure for knowing a person’s accurate age. 

However, if one does conclude that one cannot define their age based on their feelings, one may also argue using the same reasoning that the same holds true for sex: that a person should not be allowed to define their sex based on their feelings; but rather people must undergo objective biological tests to determine their position in the sexual spectrum. 

This is something to think about. Counter-arguments to such a position may exist: such as that some things are more socio-economically necessary than others (such as that the issue of sex impacts a larger population group, or that sex misrepresentation leads to a bigger disadvantage), or that the same reasoning does not apply to both because the two things are different.

Returning back to the question of redefining age. Let us say that a biological measure is provided to check if a 60 year old is more like a 30 year old. Let’s say a 17 year old turns out have the physical characteristics of a 22 years old. 

Should the 17 year old then be allowed to drink, or be allowed to change his age so that he can enjoy other privileges granted to a 22 year old? Would the 17 year old’s rights be violated if he is not allowed to do so? 

One could alternatively argue of course, that allowing people to redefine age would lead to the loss of an important social heuristic, one that works almost all of the time, and that doing so would lead down a slippery slope where one can’t make sense of social categories anymore, or create effective general laws, and therefore people should not be allowed to redefine their age.

 The purpose of this article is not to put forth certain arguments or to make a certain claim. The purpose rather, is to show that some of these questions do exist and that it is important to think about them, for they have serious implications for the kind of society that we want to create.