Age and Self-Esteem
“It takes a long time to become young.”
– Pablo Picasso, prolific and influential Spanish artist
“You feeling the chill?”
“A little,” I replied.
Johnny reached over and manipulated the controls of the old truck. Warm air erupted from the dash along with a helping of grain dust and a couple brittle poplar leaves.
It was late autumn, 1972 and I was helping Johnny with some work on his farm.
We were heading into town to pick up some feed supplement. We were only a few kilometres away when we noticed the old man: a grey figure on a grey afternoon moving slowly along the roadside.
He barely took notice of us as we drove past him. He was dressed in a long, grey woolen coat with a ragged scarf wrapped around his neck and a tattered brown tuque pulled down over his ears.
“Cold day for a walk,” noted Johnny and I nodded in agreement.
Johnny stopped the truck, backed up and rolled down the window.
“Hey, old-timer,” Johnny yelled. “Where are you bound for?”
The old man turned to face us. He looked tired – worn out.
“Nowhere in particular,” he replied.
“You live around here?”
He nodded and pointed in the direction of town.
“What’re you doing wandering the countryside?”
“Looking for work — with a threshing crew.”
“Threshing crew?” Johnny looked at me, perplexed. Threshing crews had been a feature of the early half of the century. Once farmers began to purchase their own combines, threshing crews slowly disappeared and, by this point in time, had disappeared entirely.
“Get in,” said Johnny, motioning for me to get over. “I’ll give you a ride back into town.”
After a moment of consideration, the old gentleman nodded and climbed into the cab next to me. He smelled like sweat, old socks, strong liniment and Wintergreen Skoal.
We dropped the old man off at the coffee shop on the corner. Johnny gave him a couple of bucks. As we drove away, I couldn’t forget the look of resignation on the man’s face.
“Sad when a man’s talent no longer serves him,” said Johnny.
The other day someone posed an interesting question: does our level of self-esteem diminish as we grow older? I asked him to define “older,” and he responded with retirement age and beyond.
I have often written about self-esteem in children but I had never stopped to ponder the impact of self-esteem on older adults and whether it wanes with the passing years.
It appears that our eyesight and mobility aren’t the only things that diminish as we grow older.
A new study suggests that self-esteem also declines once we pass retirement age.
The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cites a long-term study on self-esteem in which researchers followed over 3,600 individuals ranging in age from young adult to senior citizen between the years of 1986 and 2002. Researchers contacted and interviewed each participant approximately four times over the span of the study.
The goal was to determine how the average person’s self-esteem changes over time. Ulrich Orth, lead author, summarized the results by noting that self-esteem was lowest in the younger ages and steadily increased as people aged.
In the study, self-esteem levels plateaued as participants moved into their 60s and declined steadily as individuals moved beyond. Most surprisingly, study results revealed that women typically displayed lower levels of self-esteem than men across all the age ranges.
One theory suggested by study co-author Richard Robins as to why self-esteem would peak at middle age is that “midlife is a time of highly stable work, family and romantic relationships.
People increasingly occupy positions of power and status, which might promote feelings of self-esteem. In contrast, older adults may be experiencing a change in roles such as an empty nest, retirement and obsolete work skills in addition to declining health.”
It’s also interesting to note that for mature adults, health and wealth were factors for raising and maintaining self-esteem.
Individuals with higher incomes, ample pensions and in good physical condition found it easier to maintain high self-esteem as they aged.
There is no conclusive evidence that health and wealth are directly linked to higher self-esteem, but researchers surmise that feeling well and being financially secure provide individuals with a sense of independence and security that ultimately leads to higher self-esteem.
The study also revealed that people of all ages in satisfying and supportive relationships tended to have higher self-esteem.
Love, companionship and a sense of belonging appeared to contribute greatly to a more positive outlook and a healthier, more balanced sense of self.
“With medical advances,” said Orth, “the drop in self-esteem might occur later for baby boomers.” Being healthier, Boomers will likely be able to work and earn money longer.
“To preserve an unclouded capacity for the enjoyment of life is an unusual moral and psychological achievement,” wrote Canadian psychotherapist and best-selling author Nathaniel Branden.
“Contrary to popular belief, it is not the prerogative of mindlessness, but the exact opposite: it is the reward of self-esteem.”
Perhaps the best way to forestall declining self-esteem in our later years is to build and maintain a healthy and grounded self-image today.
That and a concerted effort to remain physically, emotionally, spiritually and yes, financially fit throughout our lifetime.
I wondered what my talent might be and if someday — like the old gentleman — mine would no longer serve me. For the old man, his talent — working with a threshing crew — was no longer relevant or required. He felt obsolete, desperate and no longer of value. I’ll never forget what he said to me on that ride back to town — on that cold, late autumn day in 1972.
“I know there ain’t no more threshing crews,” he admitted under his breath. “I was just hoping there might still be one somewhere looking for a man – one more good man.”
“Never tell me the sky’s the limit when (I know) there are footprints on the moon.”
– Author Unknown