Another Year Closer to Death.

Why birthdays lose their magic as we grow older.


A few years ago, on my birthday, while volunteering in a kindergarten class taught by my mother’s friend, I made the mistake of asking a group of five-year-olds how old they thought I was. Never ask a group of young children how old they think you are. You will not be happy with the result. At the ripe old age of 20, I was informed that these kids thought I was anywhere from 40 to 109 years old. Obviously, young children have absolutely no idea how to judge the age of anyone older than they are, but ever since then I think of those kids on the anniversary of my birth and how I’m yet another year older and another year closer to the ages they thought I was.

Today just so happens to be my 24th birthday. Next year, I will have officially been alive for a quarter of a century. That thought scares the living crap out of me.

A few years ago, I stopped making a big deal of celebrating the anniversary of my birth. I never really realized it though, until a few days ago when I was asked what I was doing for my birthday. My answer was, “Nothing special really. It’s just another day.”

Then it hit me- when did the day I was born become just another day?

When I think about how others in my life celebrate their birthdays — my parents, my siblings, my boyfriend, my friends, my nephew and so on — I was struck by the notion that adults just don’t get excited about their birthdays the way that kids do. Most kids seem to live for their birthdays. In fact, when I was little, I remember counting down the days beginning immediately after my “half birthday” in March, and compared to some of my friends at the time, I was a late countdown starter.

Emily Meyer, 5, who will be starting kindergarten this year, was born on December 31. Meyer already knows exactly how many days until her 6th birthday.

“There are 114 days until my birthday!” Meyer said. “It’s special because I’m the only one Santa Claus visits twice. Once on Christmas, and once again a few days later on my birthday.”

Meyer said that Santa Claus makes a special trip to her house on the night of December 30 and leaves her birthday presents under the Christmas tree, which is left still standing. Meyer said that Santa also brings her a birthday cake every year in exchange for the cookies she leaves him on Christmas Eve.

“My birthday is my favorite day ever,” Meyer said. “It’s even better than Christmas.”

Like Meyer, as a child my birthday was my favorite day of the year. As I’ve grown up though, my birthday has become more akin to the way I remember my parents always “celebrated” theirs. Less of a celebration and more of just cake and ice cream after dinner following a relatively ordinary day. I’ve noticed that as my friends have turned into adults, the the way they celebrate their birthdays is relatively similar. Why do we stop celebrating the anniversary of the day we entered the world with the same zest that most of us did as children?

There are various reasons for this phenomenon. As adults we get busy with work, and family obligations. Our birthdays tend to take a back seat to our everyday commitments. An article which appeared on The Thought Catalog suggests a reason that may be a bit more depressing.

The article suggests that our birthdays remind us of our mortality and that we are all getting older. Aging is one of the most pervasive fears in American society. We are bombarded with ads for seemingly magical potions and lotions that will delay, or hide, the inevitable changes in our appearance that come with age. The message is painfully clear — young is good, old is bad and we must do whatever is in our power to hold onto our fleeting youth.

Adam Valenzuela, 31, journalism major, says that insecurity may be also be a reason why people stop celebrating their birthdays.

“One slightly annoying thing people tend to do is get self-concious and say something like ‘OMG! My birthday is coming up? Don’t remind me!’” said Valenzuela.

Ted Nitta, 42, who works as a non executive director for the Japan-based company Kabushiki Kaisha Mikutay, attributes the less than enthusiastic approach to birthdays in adulthood to the fact that there are more milestones to be reached when you are young.

“When you are young, you go through many milestones stipulated by age,” Nitta said. “[The] legal age to drive a car, age to purchase your very first lottery ticket, the age you can have your very first legal drink….Once you reach a certain age, say, around your early 30’s, your life is no longer dictated by your age. There are no laws to prevent you from doing things in your 30’s that were outlawed in your 20’s and teens. As your activities are no longer dictated by age, you pay less attention to it,” Nitta said.

This may explain why many 16 year olds throw lavish “Sweet 16” birthday parties, as the legal age to drive a car in California is 16, and why many spend weeks planning their 21st birthday parties, making sure they have such a good time they won’t remember it come the next morning.

Adrienne Dominguez, anthropology major, turned 21 on July 1 of this year. Dominguez said that, while she and her friends went all out for her 21st birthday celebration, she no longer sees the purpose in doing so in the future.

“My 21st birthday was a weekend in Vegas,” Dominguez said. “I’ll be honest — I don’t remember much of it. That’s how I know it was awesome. But I don’t really think I’ll do big celebrations for my birthday from now on. What’s the point? I can legally drive, vote, get married and drink. Besides retirement, I can’t really think of anything I can’t do because of my age.”

It goes without saying that once you are legally permitted to do all adult activities, most people tend to do so. The average age American adults get married is 26.9 years for females, and 29.8 years for males. The first child produced in these marriages tends to come along about 3 years later. As any parent can probably attest to, once you have a child your own needs become less important, as your focus shifts to the new life you have created and making sure they are as comfortable, happy, and well adjusted as possible.

Parents tend to place less importance on their birthdays because, to them, their child’s birthday is more important than their own.

Maria Diefenbach, 25, married her husband, Adam, on Nov. 8 2014 and became pregnant with their first child earlier this year.

“I had my first ‘whatever’ birthday this year,” Diefenbach said. “After getting married and becoming pregnant.”

Jason Dubois, 26, graphic design major, said the day his son was born was the day he realized he was no longer the most important person in his own life.

“When Isaac was born it was just like ‘Wow. I’m responsible for this little person now.’ And ever since then, it’s been all about him and less about me. His mom and I went all out for his first birthday because, to us, it wasn’t just commemorating the day our son was born, it was celebrating the anniversary of the day our family was born. Our own birthdays have just seemed less important,” Dubois said.

Still for others, though, it seems the magic stops well before marriage and a family are even on their radar. BreeAna Spaven, 24, an assistant at the Spaven Property Management Company located in Riverside, Calif. says her birthday became less of an event to her when her family stopped celebrating her birthdays with the same vigor as they had when she was a child.

“I think that’s when it happens,” Spaven said. “At least for me, it was after my 21st birthday because that’s when my parents stopped making a big deal about it. This year they were kind of like ‘you’re 24, you shouldn’t be excited about your birthday anymore.’”

For Spaven, the pressure placed on her by those around her to “grow up” and treat her birthday like any other day permanently stomped out the excitement the day once held for her.

“When your little, your parents plan parties for you and it’s really fun,” Spaven said. “But when you’re an adult it falls on you and your friends to make the plans. Everybody is super busy in their 20’s — it’s just hard to plan things, so things like birthdays become less of a big deal.”

However, there are some who have refused to conform to societal pressure to treat their birthdays like any other day.

My mother, Paula Sandy, 59, an instructional aide at Grace Yokely Middle School in Ontario, Calif. says birthdays become a bigger deal once again in your 60’s.

“62 to 65 is retirement age,” Sandy said. “If that’s not something to celebrate then I don’t know what is.”

Arnold Hernandez, 62, a retired military veteran, says he still celebrates his birthday every year.

“I think it’s important to celebrate another trip around the sun,” Hernandez said. “You never know how many more you have left. I think every birthday is a blessing no matter how old you are — it’s certainly better than the alternative.”

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. Last year, the program moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.