Being a philosopher and single again, I have been overthinking the whole dating thing. I suspect that those who give it little or no thought do much better; but I am what I am and therefore I must overthink. An interesting adventure in interaction provided me with something new, or rather old, to think about: age and dating. In this scenario I was talking with a woman and actually had no intention of making any overtures or moves (smooth or otherwise). With some storytelling license in play, we join the story in progress.
Her: Flirt. Flirt. Flirt.
Her: “So, what do you do for work?” Flirt.
Me: “I’m a philosophy professor.”
Her: “At FSU?” Flirt.
Me: “No, literally across the tracks at FAMU.”
Her: “When did you start?” Flirt.
Her: “1993…how old are you?”
At this point, she dropped out of flirt mode so hard that it damaged the space-time continuum. Windows cracked. Tiny fires broke out in her hair. Car alarms went off. Pokémon died. Squirrels were driven mad and fled in terror, crying out to their dark rodent gods for salvation. As my friend Julie commented, I had “instantly gone from sexable to invisible.” Here is how the conversation ended:
Her: “Um, I bet my mother would like you. Oh, look at the time…I have to go now.”
While some might have found such an experience ego-damaging, my friends know I have an adamantine ego. Also, I am always glad to get a good story that provides an opportunity for some philosophical analysis. What struck me most about this episode is that the radical change in her behavior was due entirely to her learning my age—I can only infer that she had incorrectly estimated I was younger than fifty. Perhaps she had forgotten to put in her contacts. So, on to the matter of age and dating.
While some might claim that age is just a number, that is not true. Age is rather more than that. At the very least, it is clearly a major factor in how people select or reject potential dates. On the face of it, the use of age as a judging factor should be seen as perfectly fine and is no doubt grounded in evolution. The reason is, of course, that dating is largely a matter of attraction and this is strongly influenced by preferences. One person might desire the feeble hug of a needy nerd, while another might crave the crushing embrace of a jock dumb as a rock. Some might swoon for eyes so blue, while others might have nothing to do with a man unless he rows crew. Likewise, people have clear preferences about age. In general, people prefer those close to them in age, unless there are other factors in play. Men, so the stereotype goes, have a marked preference for younger and younger women the older and older they get. Women, so the stereotype goes, will tolerate a wrinkly old coot provided that he has sufficient stacks of the fattest loot.
Preferences in dating are, I would say, analogous to preferences about food. One cannot be wrong about these and there are no grounds for condemning or praising such preferences. If Sally likes steak and tall guys, she just does. If Sam likes veggie burgers and winsome blondes, he just does. As such, if a person prefers a specific age range, that is completely and obviously their right. As with food preferences, there is little point in trying to argue—people like what they like and dislike what they dislike. That said, there are some things that might seem to go beyond mere preferences. To illustrate, I will offer some examples.
There are white people who would never date a black person. There are black people who would never date anyone but another black person. There are people who would never date a Jew. There are others for whom only a Jew will do. Depending on the cause of these preferences, they might be better categorized as biases or even prejudices. But, it is worth considering that these might be benign preferences. That, for example, a white person has no racial bias, they just prefer light skins to dark skins for the same sort of reason one might prefer brunettes to blondes. Then again, they might not be so benign.
People are chock full of biases and prejudices and it should come as no surprise that they influence dating behavior. On the one hand, it is tempting to simply accept these prejudices in this context on the grounds that dating is entirely a matter of personal choice. On the other hand, it could be argued that such prejudices are problematic even in the context of dating. This is not to claim that people should be subject to some sort of compelled diversity dating, just that perhaps they should be criticized.
When it comes to apparent prejudices, it is worth considering that the apparent prejudice might be a matter of innocent ignorance. That is, the person merely lacks correct information. Assuming the person is not willfully and actively ignorant, this is not to be condemned as a moral flaw since it can be easily fixed by the truth. To go back to the food analogy, imagine that Jane prefers Big Macs because she thinks they are healthy and refuses to eat avocadoes because she thinks they are unhealthy. Given what she thinks, it is reasonable for her to eat Big Macs and avoid avocadoes. If she knew the truth, she would change her eating habits since she wants to eat healthy—she is merely ignorant. Likewise, if Jane believed that black men are all uneducated thugs, then it would seem reasonable for her to not to want to date a black man given what she thinks she knows. If she knew the truth, her view would change. As such, she is not prejudiced—just ignorant.
It is also worth considering that an apparent prejudice is a real prejudice—that the person would either refuse to accept facts or would still maintain the same behavior in the face of the facts. As an example, suppose that Sam thinks that white people are all complete racists and thus refuses to even consider dating a white person on this basis. While it is often claimed that everyone is racist, it is clear that not all white people are complete racists. As such, if Sam persisted in his belief or behavior in the face of the facts, then it would be reasonable to condemn him for his prejudices.
Finally, it might even be the case that the alleged prejudice is actually rational and well founded. To use a food analogy, a person who will not eat raw steak because she knows the health risks is not prejudiced but quite reasonable. Likewise, a person who will not date a person who is a known cheater is not prejudiced but quite rational.
The question at this point is where does age fit in regard to the above considerations. The easy and obvious answer is that it can fall into all three. If a person’s dating decisions are based on incorrect information about age, then they have made an error of ignorance. If a person’s decisions are based on mere prejudice, then they have made a moral error. But, if the decision regarding age and dating is rational and well founded, then the person would have made a good decision. As should be suspected, the specifics of the situation are what matter. That said, there are some general categories relating to age that are worth considering.
Being fifty, I am considering these matters from the perspective of someone old. Honesty compels me to admit that I am influenced by my own biases here and, as my friend Julie has pointed out, older men are full of delusions about age. However, I will endeavor to be objective and will lay out my reasoning for your assessment.
The first is the matter of health. In general, as people get older, their health declines. For example, older people are more likely to have colon cancer—hence people who are not at risk do not get colonoscopies until fifty. Because of this, it is quite reasonable for a younger person to be concerned about dating someone older—that person is more likely to get ill. That said, an older person can be far healthier than a younger person. As such, it might come down to whether or not a person looks at dating option broadly in terms of categories of people (such as age or ethnicity) or is more willing to consider individuals who might differ from the stereotypes of said categories. Using categories does help speed up decisions, although doing so might result in missed opportunities. But, there are billions of humans—so categories could be just fine if one wants to narrow their focus.
While an older person might not be sick, age does weaken the body. For example, I remember being bitterly disappointed by a shameful 16:28 5K in my youth. Now I have to struggle to maintain that pace for a half mile. Back then I could easily do 90-100 miles a week; now I do 50-60. Time is cruel. For those who are concerned about a person’s activity levels, age is clearly a relevant factor and provides a reasonable basis for not dating an older (or younger) person that is neither an error nor a prejudice. However, an older person can be far more fit and active than a younger person—so that is worth considering before rejecting an entire category of people.
Life expectancy is also part of the health concerns. A younger person interested in a long term relationship would need to consider how long that long term might be and this would be quite rational. To use an obvious analogy, when buying a car, one should consider the miles on it. Women also live longer than men, so that is a consideration as well. Since I am fifty-year-old American living in Florida, the statistics say I have about 26 years left. Death sets a clear limit to how long term a relationship can be. But, life expectancy and quality of life are influenced by many factors and they might be worth considering. Or not. Because, you know, death.
The second broad category is that of interests and culture. Each person is born into a specific temporal culture and that shapes her interests. For example, musical taste is typically set in this way and older folks famously differ in their music from younger folks. What was once rebellious rock becomes a golden oldie. Fashion is also very much a matter of time, although styles have a weird way of cycling back into vogue, like those damn bell bottoms. Thus people who differ in age are people from different cultures and that presents a real challenge. An old person who tries to act young typically only succeeds in appearing absurd. One who does not try will presumably not fit in with a younger person. So, either way is a path to failure. Epic failure.
There is also the fact that interests change as a person gets older. To use some stereotypes, older folks are supposed to love shuffleboard and bingo while the youth are now into extreme things that would presumably kill or baffle old people, like virtual reality and Snapchat. Party behavior also differs. Young folks go to parties to drink, talk about their jobs and get laid. Older folks go to parties to drink, talk about their jobs and get laid. These are radical differences that cannot be overcome. It could be countered that there can be shared interests between people of different ages and that a lack of shared interests is obviously not limited to those who differ in age. The response is that perhaps the age difference would generally result in too much of a difference in interests, thus making avoiding dating people who differ enough in age rational and reasonable.
The third broad category is concerns about disparities in power. An older adult will typically have a power advantage over a younger adult and this raises moral concerns regarding exploitation (there is also a reverse concern: that a younger person will exploit an older person). Because of this, a younger adult should be rightly concerned about being at a disadvantage relative to an older person. Of course, this concern is not just limited to age. If the concern about power disparity is important, then it would also apply to disparities in education, income, abilities and intelligence between people in the same age group. That said, the disparities would tend to be increased with an age difference. As such, it is reasonable to be concerned about this factor.
The fourth broad category is what could be called the “ick factor.” While there is considerable social tolerance for rich old men having hot young partners, people dating or attempting to date outside of their socially defined age categories are often condemned because it is seen as “icky” or “gross.” When I was in graduate school, I remember people commenting on how gross it was for old faculty to hook up with young graduate students. Laying aside the exploitation and unprofessionalism, it did seem rather gross. As such, the ick argument has considerable appeal. But, there is the question of whether the perceived grossness is founded or not. On the one hand, it can be argued that grossness is in the eye of the beholder or that grossness is set by social norms and these serve as proper foundations. On the other hand, it could be contended that the perception of grossness is a mere unfounded prejudice. On the third hand, the grossness could be cashed out in terms of the above categories. For example, it is icky for an unhealthy and weak rich man to date a hot, healthy young woman with whom he has no real common interests (beyond money, of course).
Fortunately, this is a problem with a clear solution: if you do not die early, you get old. Then you die. Problem solved.