I didn’t know there was a maximum age at which a person is expected to have completed their education. I was made aware of this recently when someone blatantly responded with: ‘….and you’re still studying?!’ after they learned my age.
I evaluated his response as one based on generational expectations – he was an elderly man who was perhaps held to a strict timeline that dictated the course of his own life while growing up and consequently has maintained those ideals overtime. He was also male and perhaps his response reflected a subliminal gender stereotyping about the expected educational goals of women. Perhaps for him, further studies ‘at my age’ are a perversion of the traditional male-female roles and educational attainment patterns.
But he was also Dutch, and suddenly I wondered whether this encounter was another aspect of Nederland’s culture that I would have to contend with in order to understand and fully appreciate it. I was made to re-evaluate this line of thinking, however, after meeting the German stepmother who announced to her stepdaughters that it was time to cut their idiomatic ‘apron strings’ even though they were still full-time university students. Her belief was clear: that late twenties was too old for parental dependencies, even while one is still unemployed and navigating the emotional and financial battlefield of higher education.
But my internal musings took another turn after meeting the Jamaican mother, raised in Europe, who unreservedly told her daughter at twenty-one, that it was time for her to move out of the family home. Now, that same Jamaican daughter, raised in Europe and now in her late forties, confesses that much of her life’s goals were put on indefinite hold because at each juncture of her life she felt that she was too old to pursue them.
These encounters made me realise how unfamiliar I was with this seemingly Eurocentric ideal about when higher educational milestones are to be met. Coming from a society where educational attainment and independent living are based largely on socioeconomics, a family’s main concern is less about when these achievements are met and more so that they are met.
Compared to European countries where education is heavily subsidised, the path from high school to university in developing countries is not as smooth. Consequently, it is the norm that high school graduates may be required to find employment for several years after high school before pursuing university studies.
On the other hand, these experiences made me realise how alive and well the spirit of ageism in Europe really is – and not just in the expected direction of young against old. Nevertheless, having lived outside the cultural, societal and generational rubrics of education to date, my response to: ‘…and you’re still studying?!’ is ‘Yes! And I’ll still be at it when I’m 100.’