Old Age Is Always Fifteen Years Older Than I Am

Francis Bacon? Bernard Baruch? Mary Gordon? Nina Wilcox? Walter A. Clark? John W. Carswell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One witty and vibrant individual who maintained a youthful outlook throughout a long life uttered a statement in the following family:

  • Old age is always 15 years older than I am.
  • Old age is always ten years ahead of us.
  • Middle age is always fifteen years ahead of us.

This saying has been attributed to pioneering philosopher of science Francis Bacon and U.S. financier and political consultant Bernard Baruch. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Francis Bacon employed this saying. There is good evidence that Bernard Baruch used the expression by 1948. However, the quip was circulating decades earlier in 1909.

Bacon may have received credit because his name is close to Baruch’s name within an alphabetical ordering. See the discussion of the 1997 citation further below for an explanation of this potential error mechanism.

In 1909 Walter A. Clark published “A Lost Arcadia: Or, The Story of My Old Community”. A chapter about John W. Carswell credited him with the saying. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Over the gulf of nearly fifty vanished years I can recall today some of his terse, sententious sayings. Talking to my father one day on the matter of their accumulating years he said “old age is always ten years ahead of us.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1924 a short piece appeared in multiple newspapers describing a group of dinner companions who discussed the question “When does old age really begin?”. A periodical in France was acknowledged: 2

To establish a formula was proving rather difficult, when one lady, who did not look her years, found the following:

“To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.”—Cyrano, Paris.

The same piece appeared in some newspapers with “fifteen” instead of “15”. 3

In 1929 columnist Mary Gordon writing in a Lincoln, Nebraska newspaper printed a letter from a correspondent that included a variant about “middle age” instead of “old age”: 4

Nina Wilcox Putnam tells us that middle age is always fifteen years ahead of us; to high school students I must seem to have crossed the threshold already but to those who have passed the half century mark I am still young.

In 1948 the Sunday newspaper supplement “This Week Magazine” credited the saying to Bernard Baruch: 5

ON KEEPING YOUNG. “To me old age is always fifteen years older than I am!” — Bernard Baruch.

In August 1955 “The Observer” of London printed an extended version of the quotation in a section called “Sayings of the Week”. 6 In December 1955 the remark was reprinted by the paper under the title “Sayings of the Year”: 7

I will never be an old man. — To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.—Mr. Bernard Baruch

In 1957 newspaper supplement “Parade” printed a variant statement with “ten years” ascribed to Baruch: 8

Park philosopher and financier Bernard Baruch, on his 86th birthday: “To me, old age is always 10 years older than I am.”

In 1958 a member of the Senate of the State of Mississippi employed an anonymous instance of the saying during a speech: 9

Someone has observed that old age is always ten years ahead of us.

In 1997 “Famous Lines: A Columbia Dictionary of Familiar Quotations” printed a section on the topic of “Old Age” which included adjacent statements attributed to Francis Bacon and Bernard Baruch. Each quotation appeared above its attribution, but an inattentive reader might have believed that a quotation appeared below an attribution. Thus, some reader who consulted this reference might have mistakenly reassigned the saying under examination to Francis Bacon: 10

Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success.

FRANCIS BACON, (1561-1626) British philosopher, essayist, statesman. Essays, “Of Youth and Age’ (1597-1625).

To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.

BERNARD BARUCH, (1870-1965) U. S. financier. Quoted in Observer (London, Aug. 21, 1955).

In conclusion, John W. Carswell received credit from Walter A. Clark in 1909 for a version of the expression using the time interval “ten years”. Clark stated that he heard the quip spoken by Carswell decades before he recorded it in the 1909 book, but QI has not yet found any earlier evidence. A version from a French periodical using “15 years” achieved wide circulation in 1924. Bernard Baruch employed the joke in 1948 and in later years. The linkage to Francis Bacon is spurious.

Image Notes: Illustration depicting clock faces from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Tiger Webb of ABC (Australia) whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Webb was skeptical of the Francis Bacon attribution.)

Notes:

  1. 1909, A Lost Arcadia: Or, The Story of My Old Community by Walter A. Clark, Chapter: Judge John W. Carswell, Start Page 149, Quote Page 149, Chronicde (Chronicle) Job Print, Augusta, Georgia. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1924 October 22, The Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Charming Thought, Quote Page 10, Column 4, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1924 November 29, Tyrone Daily Herald, Her Optimism, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Tyrone, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1929 March 5, The Lincoln Evening Journal, Your Problems by Mary Gordon, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1948 August 15, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune (Star Tribune), Section: This Week Magazine, Sidelines, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1955 August 21, The Observer, Sayings of the Week, Quote Page 3, Column 3, London, Greater London, England. (The microfilm image is degraded and truncated; hence, only the first the first nine words are visible. Quotation was reprinted in December 25, 1955 issue of “The Observer”) (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1955 December 25, The Observer, Sayings of the Year, Quote Page 2, Column 2, London, Greater London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1957 June 15, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Section: Parade, Look Who’s Being Funny Now, Start Page 16, Quote Page 17, Column 2, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1958, Journal of the Senate of the State of Mississippi, Regular Session in the City of Jackson, Mississippi, Date: February 17, 1958, Speech by Senator Alexander, Published by Authority of the Senate of the State of Mississippi, Printed by Hederman Brothers, Jackson, Mississippi. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  10. 1997, Famous Lines: A Columbia Dictionary of Familiar Quotations Edited by Robert Andrews, Section: Old Age, Quote Page 344, Column 1, Columbia University Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)