What’s in an age?

A few days ago, crouching lazily on the sofa after lunch, I watched a Ted talk by Joshua Prager, titled “Wisdom from great writers on every year of life”. He assembled 100 literary passages into a book called “100 years”, one for each year of life. His talk reminded me of a quote from the film “Lucy” which I recently watched: “Time is the only true unit of measure. Without time, we don’t exist”. Suddenly, age and time came into my awareness and attention. It reminded me that I am turning 32 in less than two weeks! I thought, what Joshua assembled was beautiful. I get to read about every age from the eyes of one (insightful) individual. But in reality, how homogeneously do humans experience age?  Is there really something that can characterize being 32? Something that is experienced by 32 year olds (plus or minus, say, 3 years), which is not experienced by 22 year olds or 42 year olds?

So I got up from my couch (after a nap actually :P), stepped into the world of social media and took a look at what 32 year olds say about their lives. Then, feeling like a mature adult, with an attitude of head-tilting awwwwww-ness,  I looked at what 22 year olds and 12 year olds say (btw, do 2 year olds use social media already?).  After that, I peeked into the lives of 42, 52, 62, 72, 82 and 92 year olds. I used the key words “I’m x years old” and gathered tweets, questions from Quora and posts on Reddit. Then I put on my thinking hat as a linguist/ data person, and tried to make sense of all these passages.

The data gathering itself was interesting. I started with twitter and used an R package to crawl the data. I requested 500 tweets containing “I’m 32 years old” and only 132 came back (it doesn’t mean there are only 132 tweets mentioning “I’m 32 years old” on Twitter. It has to do with the portion of data accessible to this API at the time of searching or something. I’m not explaining because I don’t understand how it works :P. I’d be very happy to learn if any of you is so kind and want to explain it to me :P). OK, so it looks like 32 year olds are too mature to go around shouting our ages Twitter. This trend is only magnified for more senior ages. “I’m 42 years old” only returned 78 tweets, “I’m 52 years old” returned 41 tweets, “I’m 62 years old” retuned 33, “I’m 72 years old” returned 18…

On the other side of the spectrum, when I searched for “I’m 22 years old”, I asked for 500 tweets and 500 returned. I asked for 1000 and 1000 returned. I asked for 2000 and 2000 returned… . Not surprising. 22 year olds live their entire lives on social media. Surely 12 year olds aren’t addicted yet? I requested 500 and 500 came back! I then requested 1000 and 825 returned! 12 year olds are more active on Twitter than us 32 year olds?!?!?!?!?!?! When I looked at the actual tweets I soon realized that this was not the case. Many people who said “I’m 12 years old” are not 12 years old. This turned out to be a very interesting linguistic and social phenomenon, which I will write about in another blog post :).

After cleaning out duplicated tweets, retweets and tweets that’s not about the writer being of a particular age (e.g. “I feel like I’m 22 years old”, or “when I am 82 years old…”) , I have the number of unique tweets of people talking about being x-years old in the following proportions:


Proportions of “I’m x years old” tweets by age

As you can see, the 22 year olds took the lion’s share of “I’m x years old” tweets, closely followed by 12 year olds. Us 32 year olds are clearly aging along with the more senior folks. Note that this distribution cannot be explained by Twitter user demographics, shown in the chart below (source: businessinsider.fr, accessed 26/12/2016). This chart ignores kid users, even though they clearly tweet. Look at the row for Twitter: 18-24 year olds count for only 19% of all the users, but in my data, 22 year olds posted more than half of all “I’m x years old” tweets (see my graph below, which had the 12 year olds removed for ease of comparison). So, unless the twitter demongrapics changed A LOT in the past two years, or that 22 year olds tweet five times as much per person as 32 year olds, we have to come to the conclusion that age is a big deal for 22 year olds (and for 12 year olds) in terms of self-expression :).


Social networks age distribution – businessinsider.fr


Age distribution in “I’m x years old” tweets

However, this 22-year-olds dominant pattern is unique to Twitter. In comparison (see chart below), on Quora, there were similar amount of questions about being 22, 32 and 42 years old. In Reddit, posts mentioning being 32 take the lion’s share. I’m not surprised about the more even distribution of different ages on Quora, because it is a question-answer site and it looks like every age group has questions about their lives. What I don’t understand is the dominance of 32 year olds on Reddit, and it is definitely not because there are more 32 year olds on Reddit than the other ages. According to this article (accessed 29/12/2016), 18-29 year olds are actually the largest user group on Reddit. So it seems that on Reddit, 32 year olds really like to discuss stuff related to their age, while on Twitter, 22 year olds really like to mention how old they are.


So what do people actually say? Here are some selected passages:

12 years old:

On Twitter, they introduce themselves when talking to their idols and they announce their excitement about turning 12!

hi my name is Ruby, I’m 12 years old, I live in Canada and I love your videos.
I’m 12 years old but on the 11of january 2017 I’ll be 13 you are my role model and I look up to you I LOVE U.
Well my birthday is coming up soon may 23 I will be 12 years old so I’m almost a teenager.
Crazy I’m finally 12 years old!!!!

On Quora, they ask (cute) questions about the future:

I’m 12 years old. What can I start doing right now that will help me join a top university in 5-6 years?
I’m 12 years old. How do I know if a girl likes me?
I’m 12 years old should I start investing in stocks?
I’m 12 years old and want to be a professional soccer player, how do I get into the system?
As a 12 year old how do I make myself grow taller naturally?

22 years old:

On Twitter, they write about being juvenile (#kidatheart??, but you are a kid on the outside too!):

For the life of me, I can’t seem to sleep the night before Christmas year after year. I’m 22 years old. #kidatheart.
22 years old and I’m excited to watch Lion King
At 22 years old I just watched all 3 Santa Clause movies in one day by myself and I’m not ashamed one bit.

Yet they complain about being treated like a kid:

I’m 22 years old and my mother just told me it’s bed time?
but I’m 22 years old. I’m not a kid. /huffs.I’m 22 years old and my mom still takes EVERY ACTION IMAGINABLE to make me believe in santa.
but I’m 22 years old. I’m not a kid. /huffs.

And they write about feeling old (oh come on, you are only 22!):

5 Years ago I could never understand the old people on Christmas Day who fall asleep after Christmas Dinner, Now 22 years old n I’m that Guy.
22 years old and I’m so pumped about all my Home Depot gift cards. Damn I’m getting old.

On Quora, they ask questions about planning for the future, and they are already seeking advice about one-fifth/quarter life crises:

Is 22 years old too young to start a businesses?
I am 22 years old and I am not happy with my life. What should I do?

On Reddit, they have worries about their body and their relationships:

I’m 22 years old and my skin still hasn’t cleared up, when in the hell is this going to end?!
I’m going to be a 22 year old virgin in a few days. 

32 year olds:

On Twitter, they write about being juvenile, just like the 22 year olds (perhaps #kidatheart is more appropriate now? 😉 ):

I’m 32 years old so why do I keep refreshing the NORAD Santa tracker.
I’m 32 years old, wearing a Captain America onesie, curled up in my Avengers covered bed. Self, this is why you’re single.

They feel the shock that they are 32:

holy fuck i’m 32 years old. 
32 years old tomorrow. Gross. What a weird age. Not young, not old. My hair is turning white, but my skin still breaks out like I’m 18.
Another Birthday for Me tomorrow 32 years old Ahhhhh I’m still young roll on tomorrow!

On Quora and Reddit, they post about being juvenile, they seek advice about third-life crises, they ask many questions about their romantic lives and about  career change:

This is my teddy bear. I’m 32 years old.
32 and a failure at life. Feel like I’m at my lowest point. Need advice.
I am officially a 32 year old virgin.
32 years old changing careers. Is medicine even a viable career at this point in my life?
I’m 32 – how old is too old to get into architecture?
I’m 32 years old and I’ve been floating through my career. How do I start making more money?

I just turned 32 years old. Is it too late for me to turn my career around?
If I am 32 years old, is it too late to go get a B.S. degree in computer science?

42 year olds:

On Twitter, they talk about being juvenile (still!) and about feeling the age:

I’m 42 years old and still get weepy at the end of Iron Giant when he says “Superman.”
I’m now counting sleeps until Christmas Day at 42 years old… not a word lol.
WOOOOOO! I’m just a wee baby of 42 years old. Also, the entire body falls apart after 40.
So i managed 42 years without glasses…is it time to admit i’m getting old #istilllookgood

On Quora and Reddit, they seek advice about romantic life and career changes, but surprisingly there were very few questions about mid-life crises!

I am a 42 year old man dating a 25 year old woman. Never been married and no children. We are happy early in our relationship.
I’ve never dated before and I’m 42. Is it still possible for me to date?
How should I feel as a 42-year-old returning college student?
I’m a 42 years old guy and now I’m facing a career change from graphic design to web developer. Do you have any tips for me?
I’m 42 years old and I have a desire to become a web application developer. Is it too late for me to do so at my age?

52 year olds:

On Twitter, they write about being juvenile (still!!!!! People never stop being juvenile do they?)

I’m 52 years old and not in any way ashamed to admit I bloody love The Muppets Christmas Carol!
I’m going to be 52 years old and still sit criss-cross everywhere i go.

On Quora, they ask about career change (much fewer than 42 and 32) and about planning for retirement:

Can a 52 year old learn Web building?
I’m 52. Is it too late to start over?
I’m a 52 year old man, with a 300k portfolio, and I want to have a million dollar net worth in 7 years. What should I do?

62 year olds:

There are much less data.  Some tweets about life experiences and they ask some questions about relationships (often to do with age gaps):

Tweet: @someone lol, I’m 62 years old. Everything is former for me. OAN find a life.
Quora: I’m a 62 yr old female how do I dress my age? 
Quora: Is it ok for a 62 year old woman date a man of 46?

72 year olds and 82 year olds:

I’m 72 years old offering myself as an eyewitness as to how we brought down a president and ended a war, without Twitter #PeopleHaveThePower.
I’m 82 years old and I’m still trying figure out what I wanna be when I grow up.

I categorized the passages containing “I’m x years old” into categories, and the charts below show the major categories for each age. It’s nice to see that we feel conscious about being juvenile from 20-ish, and this lasts a life time :).


So can I answer my questions I set out at the beginning? How homogenous do humans experience age? Is there something unique about each age? Yes. Unsurprisingly, there are biological experiences unique to each age, like wanting to growing taller at 12, worrying about spots at 22, and feeling the worsening eye sight at 52. However, less intuitively, I learned through my little exploration that there are indeed mental states typical of each age. At 12 years, we don’t have (real) worries and we are not yet self-aware. We look outward at the outside world and into the future. At 22 years, we are still kids in many ways, but we have developed introspection and self-awareness. We need to constantly remind others and ourselves that we have entered adulthood. By 32, we no longer need to shout that we are adults, because we ARE! At 32 we can shamelessly joke about being juvenile. We have had a solid chunk of life experiences (good and bad), and we start to worry about the future. We feel that if we want a change in life, now is the time. These thoughts are still with us at 42 years. We can still be juvenile at 42, we still think about career changes, but we also feel the age in a more real and physical way. At 52 years old, we do not think too much about major changes. And 62, 72, 82 and 92 year olds are not bothered by social media to give me enough insights :P.

And what did Joshua Prager find? He found:

The son will run away from the family not at eighteen but at twelve, emancipated by his gluttonous precocity; he will fly, not to seek heroic adventures, not to deliver a beautiful prisoner from a tower, not to immortalize a garret with sublime thoughts, but to found a business, to enrich himself and to compete with his infamous papa.
Charles Baudelaire, Intimate Journals

“[Room] 43 must be free”, said the young man who was sure he would not be killed because he was twenty-two years old.
Marcel Proust, In Search of Last Time, Volumne VI

He was not so old – thirty-two. His temperament might be said to be just at the point of maturity.
James Joyce, the Dubliners

I’m forty-two years old – which is a lot more like middle age than forty or even forty-one. Neither old nor young. 
 Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs

I picked up coffee in town, but skipped the doughnuts and scones; after fifty-two yeras, my body owes me nothing.
Amy Hempel, The Dog of the Marriage

He was turning sixty-two, not an age of life-altering shocks but only of subtle diminishments. 
Paul Theroux, The Lower River

At the age of seventy-two… he had seriousness – extreme seriousness – for others, but never for himself. Tranquility was to him.
Herman Melville, Israel Potter

The old Marquis de la Tour-Samuel, who was eighty-two, rose, and, leaning his elbow on the mantelpiece, said in his somewhat shaky voice….”I am afraid of the dark! But I would not have acknowledged that before I reached my present age. Now I can say anything.”
Guy de Maupassant, The Apparition

Aged ninety-two. The less safety the better the more curls the better, the more powder the better, the more eggs the better.
Gertrude Stein, One Sentence

I enjoyed this little trip down the time lane. Before, if you ask me what’s in an age, I’d say, an age by any number would feel as surprising – one person’s experience of being 54 could be another person’s experience of being 27. Now, I’d say that time as we experience it gives us something in common. Life is not so random after all.

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