May you stay
WHEN Dutchman Emile Ratelband in 2018 sought to change his legal age from 69 years to 49 years in a bid to reduce discrimination against him and improve his dating prospects, it attracted headlines around the world.
It’s not clear how Ratelband thought a change to his legal age would affect his success on Tinder, a platform not renowned for honesty about such things, but he believed it would help him score more dates.
“What is time? Time is just a figure,” he told the Washington Post. “I say it is not fixed.”
The Dutch court, however, dismissed the case, ruling, as the Post put it, “in favor of the fourth dimension”.
Ratelband’s bid to become legally younger was widely assumed to be an attention-seeking stunt. He may perhaps also have had a darker agenda of mocking transgender people seeking a legal change to their sex, though he has denied that is the case.
Whatever Ratelband’s motivations, his bid has sparked debate about the idea of legal age change in, of all places, the Journal of Medical Ethics.
Finnish bioethicist Joona Räsänen seeks to make a moral case for people’s right to change their legal age if they meet three conditions: they believe their age differs significantly from their chronological age, their biological age is significantly different from their chronological age, and the change would prevent or reduce age-based discrimination against them.
I initially took this article to be a spoof, in the grand tradition of Richard Bentall’s proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder or this groundbreaking (sorry) randomised controlled trial of parachute use when jumping from aircraft.
Räsänen, however, appears to be in earnest when he argues it would be “ethically permissible for people to change their legal age so that it matches their biological and emotional age – even though this would be contrary to their chronological age”.
Other ethicists responding to his argument are less convinced.
Some raise legal and administrative problems with such a change – “imagine a [job] candidate who graduated college before [they were] legally born”, writes William Simkulet.
Others focus on the fuzzy nature of concepts such as emotional, or even biological, age.
“It seems one could claim to possess almost any emotional age and attribute to it any number one wishes, and it would be impossible for someone else to verify this claim,” writes Toni Saad.
But the most profound objection to Räsänen’s argument is its assumption that discrimination should be addressed by changing the person experiencing it, or at least concealing their relevant characteristics, rather than requiring those practising the discrimination to change.
In support of his argument, Räsänen uses the analogy of Moslem immigrants in Europe who experience discrimination when seeking employment.
“Studies in Sweden have shown that when immigrants have changed their names, they have faced less discrimination in hiring and their annual earnings have increased substantially,” he writes. “That is because discrimination was reduced after the name change.”
Really? Is that the best we can do?
I’m not criticising any migrant who might choose to change their name to avoid discrimination – it’s been a long tradition in this country, going back to at least German settler descendants who changed surnames as a result of 20th-century wars – but it’s more band-aid than solution.
Age-based discrimination is real, but allowing people to pretend to be younger is hardly the best way of addressing it. Rather than fostering a more open, less prejudiced, culture, Räsänen’s proposal would leave the edifice of discrimination unchanged, perhaps even strengthen it.
Mind you, I kind of like the idea of fixing my age at, say, 30. I might need to get some legal advice …
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.