In life, Albert Einstein was appreciated as a formative influence on theoretical physics. In death, he has become something of a leading light in philosophy—thanks to posthumously published letters (and Pinterest).
“I want to go when I want to. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share; it is time to go. I will do it elegantly,” is reportedly how the physicist defended his decision to not undergo surgery the day before his passing of internal bleeding at the age of 76.
While Einstein appeared to be at peace with his circumstance, recently released letters intimate a frustration on his behalf with the cognitive effects of aging. Writing to his son Eduard, on April 10, 1936, he explains:
“I hardly get around to reading books. Scientific work is practically eating me up, especially once the elasticity of your youth is gone. When I am losing steam, I just need to look, from my giant window to the meadows with flowers and trees, and in the distance, I can see the top of the tall tower of the university buildings.”
Those university buildings belonged to Princeton, and the author doting on them was only 57 years old.
Despite Einstien’s success and the fact that he would go on to live an additional 19 years, he later refers to himself with the words “delicate” and “fossil” in the same address to his son. He also expressed anxiety, albeit in a joking manner, about younger colleagues doubting his prowess.
This demonstrates how omnipresent ageism truly is. Irrespective of pedigree, social status, and even health, we can’t help but grade our usefulness with a scale comprised of years.
Ladders recently covered a letter strikingly similar in tone penned by author, Virginia Woolf a year before she would publish one of the most important contributions to 20th-century literature.
“And I ought to be writing Jacob’s Room; and I can’t, and instead I shall write down the reason why I can’t—this diary being a kindly blank-faced old confidante. Well, you see, I’m a failure as a writer. I’m out of fashion: old: shan’t do any better: have no headpiece: the spring is everywhere: my book out (prematurely) and nipped a damp firework.”
Woolf and Einstein had more reasons to be hyper-aware of their ages than we do, considering all the access we have to dietary guidance, clinical care, and cosmetic pharmaceuticals. However, aging is and always has been defined by more elements than the passing of time alone.
“Aging is a complex biological process with a poorly understood mechanism of its regulation. Although numerous theoretical and experimental reports were dedicated to this interesting problem, it is doubtful that a single theory or mechanism can explain the nature of aging,” the National Institute of Health writes.
The amount of time one has existed says some things about the physical and mental conditions that they ought to be on the lookout for but it speaks much less meanly about the vitality of one’s purpose.
In fact, when we hone in on the thing that seemed to concern Einstein and Woolf the most—output—research provides compelling arguments in favor of workers with more years behind them than ahead.
“Are you afraid that the 20-something junior associate will get your job? Being an older employee can give you a leg up, believe me. Confidence and maturity in the workplace go a long way. Just keep demonstrating to yourself and others that you bring expertise that comes only with years of doing the gig, and continue to upgrade your skills and evolve as your company or position does,” Gail Saltz, MD wrote in a recent paper.
“If you’re living well, you’re in your prime at 40. Perhaps you’re more worried about losing your lucidity. True, some mental and physical decline is part of the natural aging process—everyone will go through it. Still, if you’re taking care of yourself on all fronts (exercising, eating right, saving money for retirement), you are already controlling what you can to live your best life long-term. So don’t waste your days ruminating over what might happen down the line healthwise.”
The research literature suggests that the majority of the population begin to feel old around the age of 38. One’s interpretation of “feeling old” is decided by the kind of thinker they are.
From the report:
“Experimental innovators work inductively, accumulating knowledge from experience. Conceptual innovators work deductively, applying abstract principles. Innovators whose work is more conceptual do their most important work earlier in their careers than those whose work is more experimental. Our estimates imply that the probability that the most conceptual laureate publishes his single best work peaks at age 25 compared to the mid-50 s for the most experimental laureate. Thus, while experience benefits experimental innovators, newness to a field benefits conceptual innovators.”
Age, like any other existential pillar, is contextual.
Einstein continued to write (both scientific and recreational pieces) up until his death in 1955.