The primary definition of the word regard is “a feeling of respect or admiration for someone” but in its secondary sense, it conveys the idea of looking or gazing. Throughout our lives, when other people look upon us with respect or admiration, it supports our sense of self-worth.
In later life, when others stop looking, we naturally experience it as a narcissistic injury, as if it means that we are no longer “beautiful” and important. Even people who have never traded on their looks will find this experience painful to some degree.
The many articles on the subject of increasing invisibility with age tend to blame a superficial, ageist society that places supreme value on youthful sex appeal. While valid, this social critique ignores the fact that getting older inevitably involves a kind of narcissistic injury: with the changing of the generational guard, it is no longer “our turn.” The locus of social interest shifts to much younger men and women, now going off to college and launching their careers.
For those of us who married and reared children, we watch as they wed and start families of their own. It’s no longer about us, not in the same way. As we pass our prime, we may continue pursuing goals and ambitions, but it is with a growing awareness that other, younger people coming after us haven’t yet reached their peak.
On a biological level, this is all in the natural order of things, but many of us nonetheless find it a painful fact that our personal passions and concerns no longer take center stage, that we’re now more often in a supporting role than playing the lead. In his seven stages of psychosocial development, the psychologist Erik Erikson identifies the “crisis” of middle age as a conflict between generativity and self-doubt. Generativity means we come to place increasing value on guiding the next generation—as parents, educators, artists, or social activists. A person who instead remains self-centered, unable to accept the changing of the generational guard, grows increasingly dissatisfied and stagnant.
People who make contributions to the younger generation and to society at large tend to feel good about themselves at this stage and find it a consolation for the loss of top billing. They will grow old with a sense of grace and acceptance. Those who can’t bear the shift to a supporting role may become increasingly narcissistic in the unhealthy sense of the word. Even adults who haven’t seemed particularly narcissistic for most of their lives may become so as they age. They will ape the behaviors, clothing, and attitudes of the young, trying to preserve their sexual appeal. They may opt for plastic surgery. Socially, they become more self-absorbed and insensitive, demanding to remain the center of attention.
Such behavior is undoubtedly encouraged by a world that places decreasing value on wisdom and experience, historically the social currency of those who are older. In the work force, for example, older employees (those who earn more due to seniority) are commonly replaced with young people who may know less but also cost less to employ.