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Are there compelling moral arguments for allowing people to legally change their age?

The curious case of Emile Ratelband opens up a heated bioethical debate on whether people's chronological age is less important than their biological and emotional age.

The Dutch “positivity guru” Emile Ratelband wants his official age, 69, to be changed to 49.

In a recent paper published in The Journal of Medical Ethics, Joona Räsänen, a Finnish bioethicist from the University of Oslo, argues that it is ethical to change your legal age. The issue became the subject to intense public debate with the case of the Dutch motivational speaker Emile Ratelband, who started a court battle to have his birth date legally changed to 20 years younger since he felt that his age was the reason for being discriminated against on the dating app Tinder. Although Ratelband lost the court case, Räsänen argues that in some cases it is morally justifiable to allow people to change their legal age.

The way we view our age is multifaceted. We have our legal chronological age, which is age measured in years. While some believe that it accurately portrays how old they feel, others like Ratelband may feel that it is a misrepresentation, because their biological and emotional age differs from their chronological age. Biological age is defined as what others perceive your age to be – it can be based on appearance, physical health, and even first impressions. Those who practice healthy habits, such as exercising and avoiding smoking, are more likely to experience age-related changes in their body later in life than those who are physically inactive. Thus, their biological age may be younger than their chronological age. Emotional age is the age you feel and identify yourself as. For instance, Ratelband feels that his body and mind are 20 years younger than his chronological age of 69 years and believes that others are often taken aback when he reveals his chronological age. If you feel that your biological age doesn’t align with your chronological age, should you be allowed to change it?

The strongest argument for permitting legal age change is made in reference to a persistent form of social discrimination such as ageism. Ageism is discrimination against someone based on their age. An example of age-related discrimination is the reluctance to hire elderly for certain jobs. If an individual feels that having their age legally changed would reduce the chances of them being discriminated, they feel that this is a valid legal case worth looking into. In Ratelband's case, despite the fact that he felt he had a younger emotional age, he was struggling with employment and dating because of his legal age. Research on ageism shows that it does indeed exist today, and it can be damaging for people who are just as qualified as someone younger than them. In 2012, a study conducted in Sweden found that between two men who shared the same qualifications applied to jobs, the younger male received more call backs for interviews and job offers. While ageism may provide a reasonable justification for permitting age change, how can we insure that people requesting an age change are acting in good faith and are indeed being discriminated against?

We must also consider potential pitfalls if we allow people to change their legal age. First, the effort to convince the public to unlearn the notion of your chronological age as the only valid measurement can be divisive. It would take time for people to embrace and learn about this new idea. We are living in a time when changes in perceptions and social attitudes are still taking place and issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia are still prevalent. Issues may also arise in the workplace, especially with jobs where your age does impact the ability to be employed, e.g. working as an aircraft pilot. An individual may feel younger, however, age-related changes that can come with time can result in unexpected complications and have a toll on your health. In cases such as this, it would be more appropriate to have a younger individual who is presumably in good health.

It is important to consider the danger of allowing legal age changes in cases when individuals seek to evade age of consent laws. While scholars weighing in on this issue, feel cautious about allowing younger individuals to legally change to an older age in order to avoid age restrictions for drinking and driving, can we not apply the same reasoning regarding the motivation of those who want to be younger? For instance, if an individual who is legally 30 years of age feels that he is over 10 years younger and aims to romantically pursue someone who is underage, permitting an age change could have some serious implications.

It is hard to determine one’s true intent with changing their age, and it would be a timely and costly process. Arthur Caplan, Professor of Bioethics at New York University, shares some of Räsänen's sentiments that chronological age is less important than biology and why some people have good reasons to seek age change. Nonetheless, he points out that legal age is more of a social or cultural measure, rather than an individual one. Imposing age restrictions is justifiable for practical reasons – societal expectations are easier to implement on an age group, rather than on a case-by-case basis.

Ratelband’s request was denied within a month, and it seems unlikely courts will find legal basis to approve similar requests in a foreseeable future. If allowing age change were to ever be considered seriously, thorough research on risks and benefits would be needed, as well as assessing individuals on a case-by-case basis. Presently, it seems that risks greatly outweigh the potential benefits of allowing individuals to change their legal age. If ageism is the main reason driving individuals to seek legal age change, we can look into more feasible policy reforms on how to appropriately address age-related discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere.

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