- Emile Ratelband just asked a Dutch court to let him shave 20 years off his legal age.
- Ratelband argued that he should be able to have an age that’s as young as he feels. But he doesn’t think the privilege should extend to people who feel older than their age.
- The district court refused his request on Monday, saying there are certain rights and duties that go along with aging, and “the priority must be to ensure that the public registers contain accurate factual information.”
Age ain’t nothing but a number, but it’s not a number we can change as we see fit.
Emile Ratelband, a 69-year-old Dutch motivational speaker and author, doesn’t see it that way.
Ratelband recently sought to legally change his age to be 20 years younger than what his birth certificate says. He believes that if he feels like he’s in his 40s, he should be able to alter his official age to reflect that.
The Netherlands government doesn’t allow such a move. So Ratelband sued, asking a court in the Dutch town of Arnhem to consider his case.
"My aging has stopped," Ratelband told Business Insider by phone from Germany, as he was preparing for another in a string of TV and radio appearances related to his case. (He seemed to be enjoying the media spotlight as much as the legal battle.)
The Dutchman said he feels "condemned" by his elderly status and wants society to recognize the age he feels is most appropriate.
"I'm 69, but I like to work my ass off," he said. "I look at my biological age, and my biological age is 40, 42."
Ratelband argues that his age brings with it some unfair constraints, since being classified as a sexagenarian makes it harder for him to live an active, youthful life. It's harder for older folks to get a mortgage, Ratelband said, and near impossible to get work. He could avoid age-related discrimination, he claims, if his numbered years better aligned with the way he feels.
A Dutch district court refused his request on Monday, saying it did not find any reason in his arguments for a change in policy. The key reason why the court said no to Ratelband's request is because aging comes with special rights and privileges, like a requirement to attend school, and a right to vote.
"If Mr. Ratelband's request was allowed, those age requirements would become meaningless," the court said in a written statement on its website.
The court argued those differences in rights and privileges are what makes an age change categorically different from a name change or a sex change, and the number one reason that it shouldn't be allowed.
How Ratelband keeps himself feeling young
It's not uncommon for people whose livelihoods have age restrictions to claim they're older or younger than they really are. Actors, actresses, gymnasts and footballers have all tried to obscure their ages to qualify for competition or to save face in a culture that cares (perhaps too much) about age.
But Ratelband is not hiding his real age right now. He just claims that his strict diet, exercise routine, and mindset have given him a "different point of view."
"I don't drink coffee or tea, no alcohol, no smoking, no drugs, no dairy products, no meat," he said, adding that he takes a cold bath to wake up in the morning (a practice Silicon Valley biohackers are also embracing).
Ratelband says that ever since he worked with fitness guru and motivational speaker Tony Robbins in the late 80s, time seems to have stood still for his body and mind. (Robbins didn't immediately respond to Business Insider's requests to verify this.)
He also argues that the world has changed as he's aged - we now live in an era of joint replacements, Botox injections, and smartphones. Ratelband thinks this progress helps us feel younger and sharper, something that should be reflected in our ages.
"In Europe, they're very old fashioned, and they're not used to change," he said.
Ratelband was even ready to give up his €1,500 Euro monthly pension in return for 20 years off his official age.
But there is some merit to the idea that aging doesn't always march forward in a linear fashion.
Humans age, but not all life forms do
Earthlings haven't always aged. The earliest life forms on the planet were single-celled microbes that didn't breathe or grow old. They only got killed off by illness or injury.
Although humans can't live forever, they have demonstrably slowed down their biological aging processes by eating better, exercising, meditating, and maintaining community ties with family, friends, and spouses. Scientists think part of the way this works is by helping maintain the health of our chromosomes.
At the same time, as healthcare and sanitation conditions improve around the world, people are living longer, healthier lives than before through science and technology. Data shows that as people gain access to better toilets and vaccines, their life expectancy soars.
Some studies have also shown that getting old is about more than the passing of time. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer discovered that by putting men in their 70s into an environment that felt like it was frozen 20 years in the past, she could improve their "physical strength, manual dexterity, gait, posture, perception, memory, cognition, taste sensitivity, hearing, and vision," in just one week.
Those studies on aging suggest that the power of perception isn't something to be brushed aside when talking about longevity.
The logical holes in Ratelband's quest to change his age
At its simplest, Ratelband's argument can logically be reduced to: I feel young, therefore, I am young.
Troublingly, he has likened this fight to change his age to the transgender movement. That comparison is problematic and caused offense - trans writer Shon Faye called it pure "nonsense" in The Guardian.
But there are other flaws in Ratelband's logic. According to his concept of age, shouldn't an especially astute, learned, and mature child be able to assert that they are older than their birth years?
Ratelband balked at that notion.
"No, no, no," he said, quickly brushing aside the counterargument. "Because that's forbidden by law."
One judge hearing his case pointed out another big hole in his argument, asking: "For whom did your parents care? Who was that little boy then?"
Ratelband simply replied that his parents are dead, as if no one should care that he might erase some history if those who've seen it are already gone.
The Dutch court, issuing its ruling, agreed that people today may "feel fit and healthy" well into old age, but didn't buy that as an argument for getting rid of some years.
"Mr. Ratelband is at liberty to feel 20 years younger than his real age and to act accordingly," the Dutch court said Monday, as it refused his request. "But amending his date of birth would cause 20 years of records to vanish from the register of births, deaths, marriages and registered partnerships. This would have a variety of undesirable legal and societal implications. The priority must be to ensure that the public registers contain accurate factual information."
'Chronological' versus 'subjective' age
Ratelband thinks of his case as something of a "pre-cursor" to a future aging crisis and considers himself an age crusader.
"In 25 years, all kinds of people who are then at the age of 70 will feel like if they are 40," he said. "Everything has changed... only the government doesn't change at all."
But changes in how we define age are nothing new. One wouldn't expect people today to die of old age in their 30s, as many did in the middle ages. And while the US birth rate fell overall last year, it rose 2% among women between the ages of 40 and 44, and 3% for those from 45 to 49 - a change that would have been inconceivable in decades past.
Some experts refer to the disconnect between how we expect people to behave and feel at certain ages and the reality of how they actually feel as a conflict between "chronological age" and "subjective age."
Even Thomas Jefferson grappled with this idea.
"I have observed, that at whatever age, or in whatever form, we have known a person of old so we believe him to continue indefinitely, unchanged by time or decay," he wrote from Monticello in 1826.
Of course, that's not always the way the world works. Age discrimination has been shown to have a detrimental effect on health care, employment, and, yes, even dating prospects. Ratelband, who tried to have his eighth child using a surrogate earlier this year, jokes that's been a problem for him.
"I made a joke with the Tinder," he said of the online dating app. "If you go on Tinder, you are 69, you have no connections at all, but if you are 49, that's good."
The Dutch court didn't buy that argument either, ruling Ratelband "failed to sufficiently substantiate his claim that he suffers from age discrimination."
"In any case, there are other alternatives available for challenging age discrimination, rather than amending a person's date of birth," the court said.
Ratelband said he is planning to file an appeal in this fight for the ages.