We have names for different ages. We talk of the “terrible twos” or “sweet sixteen”. We use age to set norms. At 10 children should be in School and at 75 people should be retired. Sixteen is too young to be married and 49 too old to have children. We emphasize certain ages, 18 or 21, 40 , 65. These convey an expectation of behaviour. We even have names for people who transgress the social norms. We talk of “cradle snatchers” or “cougars”. We have expectation of who can fall in love with who, based on age. Our world is organized and categorized by age. How and when did this happen?
The Social Meaning of Age.
Age has not always had social meaning. Until the early part of the nineteenth century most people did not know their birthday. Formal registration of births did not exist. There were “rights of passage” in all Societies. In most cases, these were a simple celebration of becoming an adult. Before the middle of the nineteenth century there is no reference to age with social meaning in the literature. It is not used as a descriptor and there are certainly no norms associated with particular ages.
Within the family age had little meaning. Families were large and women would have children throughout there lives. Many children died. The parish register of a church in New York showed that between 1786 and 1796 42% of the registered deaths were children under two. Families were always changing. Growing with births. Declining with multiple infants deaths or older children leaving home. Age was not an issue in these groups of inter dependent people. Everybody did what they could. If mother died, the eldest daughter took the role.
If children went to School there was no definition of when you should start or stop. Those classrooms were a mixture of ages from eight to sixteen. Churches and clubs did not segregate children. The work or poor houses did not make a distinction on age. Whole families were jailed for their debts
Bureaucracy and Age
Starting around 1850 institutions started to replace the “rites of passage”. Age was a convenient way to define the rights and duties of citizens. Chronological age is a very focused way of defining someone. It started in many places in the Schools. In the 1860’s many US communities were sending delegations to Europe. Their job was to understand the “Prussian” schooling system. This required children to be in School from the age of 8 to 14. Those schools were state sponsored. They organized children into classes based upon age.
Reform movements started to define children as vulnerable and in need of protection. If you are to prohibit child labour then you need a definition of a “child”. Age was clearly a good way of doing it. When pensions first arrived a system was needed to define entitlement. By the turn of the twentieth century categorization by age had become normal. All driven by administrative convenience.
With categorization came norms. For children that meant expectation of performance based on age. Even though they develop at different rates. For retirees it meant a fixed date to stop work irrespective of ability, desire and indeed need. Today young refugees destroy their passports and claim to be children.
Age Band Categorization
Once age was established as a metric it was used to summarize populations. It was broken in to groups 20-30, 50-60 etc. We could then count how many people in each. The problem is that once we create a category we tend to assume that everyone in that category is the same. That is an issue even with a 30-40 age category. It is much worse with an “Over-65” category. That category contains everyone from 65 to 100. Ageism takes hold and defines a homogeneous "old".
The celebration of “birthdays” takes off in the first quarter of the 20th century. The “Happy Birthday to You” song was not copyrighted until 1935. The melody and words had been written separately at the turn of the twentieth century. The cynical would attribute the take-off of birthdays to the purveyors of cakes, parties, balloons and of course presents.
One birthday may seem like any other. They are a measure of time elapsing. Perhaps this is why we attribute more significance to certain ages. They come to represent a change of role. Do we celebrate the fortieth birthday party as a rite of passage? Are we moving from being “young” to being “middle aged”. Is that why we have special, larger Fortieth Birthday Cards?
The Ageism of Birthdays.
One of the early definition of ageism was:
“ Ageism is the notion that people cease to be people, cease to be the same people or become people of a distinct and inferior kind by virtue of having lived a specified number of years”.
It is the ultimate social value of age. Margaret Simey was the Chair of the Merseyside police. In 2002 she describes the impact of a surprise birthday party to celebrate her 90th birthday:
“Until then I had been as active as any of them, deeply involved in voluntary work, committee meetings, consultations. Suddenly it occurred to them that I was old.
The transformation was stunning. I was no longer one of them. I was an outsider, I seemed to be in a foreign country. I didn’t speak the language. I did not know the rules. I was no longer Margaret, very defiantly my own person. Now I was simply one of a mass of clones, a stereotype, a number, not an individual. I was old and that was all they needed to know”
Think carefully before organizing that surprise birthday party!