The Social Significance of Age
“How old are you? is is one of the most frequeitly asked questions in the United States. Beyond medicating how old or young a person is. age is socially significant because it defines what is appropriate for or expected of people at various stages. ur example. child development specialists have identified stages of
cognitive development based on children’s ages: [W)e do not expect our preschool children. much less our infants, to have adult like memories or to be completely logical. We are seldom surprised when a 4-year-old is misled by appearances; we express little dismay when our 2’Il year old calls a duck a chicken …. But we would be surpnsed if our 7-year-olds continuer’ tc ~ll;••K segmented routes were shorter than other identical routes or if they continued to insist on calling all reasonably shaggy looking pigs “doggy.” We expect some intellectual (or cognitive) differences oetw-en oreschoolers and older children. (Lefrancois, 1996: 196)At the other end of the age continuum. a 75-year-old grandmother who travels through her neighborhood on in-line skates will probably raise eyebrows and perhaps garner media coverage about her actions because she is defying norms regarding age-appropriate behavior. When people say “Act your age.” they are referring to chronological age-a person’s age based on date of birth (A tchley and Barusch, 2004). However. most of us actually estimate a person’s age on the basis of functional age-observable individual attributes such as physical appearance, mobility, strength, coordination, and mental capacity that are used to assign people to age categories (Atchley and Barusch, 2004). Because we typically do not have access to other people’s birth certificates to learn their chronological age. visible characteristics-such as youthful appearance or gray hair and wrinkled skin-may become our criteria for determining whether someone is “young” or “ald.” According 10 the historian Lois W Banner (J 993: 15), “Appearance. more than any other factor. has occasioned the objectification of aging. We define someone as old
because he or she looks old:’ In fact. feminist scholars believe that functional age is so subjective that it is evaluated differently ‘ women and men-as men age. they are believed to become more distinguished or powerful. whereas when women grow older, they are thought to be “over-the-hill” or grandmotherly (Banner, 1993).