Prior to this semester, I only used the term marathon to describe 26-mile-long runs and a 24-hour viewing of Harry Potter movies. Now, as a sophomore in college, I can add three consecutive days of exams, several all-nighters and the wish that caffeine came in an IV to the list of marathon-level activities in my vocabulary.
Last Friday night, after I lost my self esteem in a lecture hall temporarily titled “exam room three,” I came home to my housemates and neighbors sitting on our living room floor, yelling at each other over an intense game of Cards Against Humanity. While I could have chosen to sleep, or at least nap, I ultimately dropped my backpack for the first time in 72 hours and joined them on a carpet in need of vacuuming.
It was euphoric. The knowledge that I was done choosing between answers A or C amid a harshly-lit auditorium transported me to an elevated plane of pure happiness.
But, before I could stop my consciousness from wandering, I felt a uniquely disturbing pressure to make the most of this moment. After so much wasted time on insanity-fueling multiple choice questions and solitary study nights, a heightened need to make up for the youthful, college fun I missed out on the weeks before loomed over my head.
Although I was physically and mentally exhausted, I chose to stay up with my friends — feeling as though my time as a young person was slipping away. Supposedly, I will one day remember these four years as “the best days of my life” — a phenomenon closely correlated with the heavily-documented, distinctly-American obsession with youth.
But why are we so obsessed with staying young anyway? Who does this infatuation really benefit?
The promotion of youthfulness in the media goes back decades.
In conversation with Professor Susan Douglas — communications & media professor at the University of Michigan, and author of “In Our Prime: How Older Women are Reinventing the Road Ahead” — I learned about the extensive marketing history supporting the American culture’s infatuation with youth.
According to Professor Douglas, there has always been negative media messaging surrounding aging. However, when the young-adult baby boomers of the post-war era entered the market around the 1960s, media and marketing tools that promoted the value of youthfulness and ageist messages became prolific. Industries targeted this new, large consumer base by endorsing pop-culture and flattering the younger generation — suggesting they were “cooler” or superior to their parents and grandparents.
Companies found this marketing strategy lucrative, as baby boomer consumers had a large market capture. Professor Douglas explained that as a result, music such as rock ‘n’ roll, young-adult-style films and a host of material products geared toward young people became increasingly prevalent in society. Due to the success of these advertising tools with the decade’s teens, this cultural emphasis on youth persisted through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s.
As a lover of arts and pop-culture content, I’m familiar with a variety of musical sensations, top-rated TV shows and treasured coming-of-age narratives. Songs like “Jack & Diane,” “Summer of ‘69” and “We Are Young,” trained me to idolize my teen and college-aged years as the most valuable time life has to offer.
“Oh yeah / Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…Holdin’ on to sixteen as long as you can / Change is coming ’round real soon / Make us women and men.”
While “Jack & Diane” earned its spot in the American-anthem repertoire for its catchy tune and clever rhymes, I wonder if John Mellencamp’s lyrics contributed to the song’s allure. According to this beloved ’80s artist, becoming women and men — or more specifically, exiting your teen years — eliminates the possibility of a “thrilling” or enjoyable existence within the latter decades of your life.
However, imagining my 16-year-old self as the peak cumulation of my life is both a horrifying and entirely false concept. Not only am I happier as a 19-year-old in college, but I am also a better person in terms of identity growth and autonomous development.
Therefore, it should be easy to disregard the notion that my late teens and twenties are “the best days of my life,” and I should ignore Pitbull lyrics like, “We might not get tomorrow, so let’s do it tonight.” Yet, nonetheless, I continue to catch myself feeling the need to mimic the wild and spontaneous characters in the latest teen Netflix dramas, in order to ‘have fun while I can.’ But why?
In speaking with Professor Sonya Dal Cin — communications & media professor and adjunct professor of psychology at the University — I learned how compounded marketing messages and societal influence may promote this contradictory self-image.
“We know from extensive research in psychology and communications that messages prevalent in society often reflect societal values, but they also have an impact on how we see ourselves,” said Dal Cin. “What people are exposed to does impact the way they make sense of their own lives.”
Dal Cin goes on to describe the implications these environmental factors may have on a person’s self esteem.
“There are a range of different ways in which people think about what’s important in life, and, therefore, how they may or may not be meeting what they view as the ideal self,” said Dal Cin.
She delineated how the inconsistencies between what people think they should be versus what they actually are can cause tension.
“In psychology, there is this concept of ideal self versus the actual self. When there is a discrepancy between the ideal self and the actual self, it can cause some difficulties in how people feel about their identity,” Dal Cin said.
Therefore, messages about youth and age can certainly affect personhood and self-image depending on how an individual places value on the media, the culture of their environment and their understanding of actual and ideal selves.
Professor Douglas describes how this concept, deriving from self esteem issues, allows for markets to capitalize on a culturally-produced, collectively-felt fear of aging.
According to Professor Douglas, a binary was created in the 1960s that pinned ‘old’ and ‘young’ against one another. Negative messages about older generations, specifically the women in those generations, were cemented into American culture through television and other public platforms.
Professor Douglas mentioned how Disney often portrayed elderly female characters as crazy grandmothers, hideous witches and evil mothers. I’m reminded of Snow White’s stepmother, the Evil Queen, who disguised herself as an old woman in order to trick the fair princess into eating a poison apple, all because she was jealous of the princess’s beauty.
Characters like Disney’s Evil Queen were juxtaposed with young female characters, often princesses, who represented beauty, kindness, happiness and desirability.
By reinforcing this binary in popular culture, the media capitalizes on the association that old women are ‘bad’ and young women are ‘good.’
“They tell us we can’t be happy with wrinkles and eyebags. And they engrain those beauty standards in the minds of young people early on,” said Douglas. “The job of the entire anti-aging industrial complex is to make everybody phobic about getting older. It’s a great strategy, because everybody is always getting older, and nobody can escape it — creating a constantly renewing and endless market.”
After speaking with both Professor Douglas and Professor Dal Cin, I have a newfound motivation to resist the youth-oriented pressure that the American consumer industry has created.
While I’m sure the 2012 version of One Direction believed we needed to “go crazy, crazy, crazy” and “live while we’re young,” I think we can all agree that the band’s former lead singer, Harry Styles, is “living it up” more as he approaches thirty than when he first performed that song at eighteen. His overwhelming popularity and sold-out stadiums certainly serve as evidence to that fact.
And surely John Mellencamp enjoyed life after he made it big with “Jack and Diane.” He did become a musical legacy, after all.