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Age Norms - Continuing Controversies

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Several controversies still surround the study of age norms despite their continuing significance to aging (see the useful, brief summaries of some of these issues in Dannefer, 1996). First, conceptualization and measurement difficulties continue. For example, if sanctions are a critical dimension of norms, then they ought to be measured (Marini; for an alternative view, see Lawrence). Yet few researchers have captured this essential component. Second, age norms' status in explaining behavior needs greater scrutiny. While role transitions have received the bulk of attention, age norms might be most visible in their obligatory sense (and backed by sanctions) in people's daily interactions and behavior (e.g., being admonished to "act your age"). Such data might also inform another debate over how strongly society is currently organized by age norms (and age more generally). Many scholars agree that American society became increasingly age graded and age conscious through the last half of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, but some argue that late-twentieth-century America became more age irrelevant, that is, transitions and behavior are less age defined than previously (e.g., Neugarten and Neugarten). If the latter is the case, then we would expect greater diversity in aging outcomes, yet it is precisely this diversity that the age norm tradition often historically missed given its conceptual emphasis on consensus and resulting methodological search for modal patterns (Dannefer). Historical and subcultural variation is critical for reminding us that particular age expectations do not reflect natural or universal aging outcomes (e.g., adolescents are rebellious), but rather are both cause and effect of particular societal arrangements. Undoubtedly, further exploration into these dynamics of age norms will continue to bear fruit in our study of aging.

JEFF LASHBROOK

See also AGE; AGEISM; LIFE COURSE.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BLAKE, J., and DAVIS, K. "Norms, Values, and Sanctions." In Handbook of Modern Sociology. Edited by R. E. L. Fairs. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964. Pages 456–484.

CAIN, L. "Aging and the Law." Edited by R. H. Binstock and E. Shanas. In Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1976. Pages 342–368.

CHUDACOFF, H. P. How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

DANNEFER, D. "The Social Organization of Diversity, and the Normative Organization of Age." The Gerontologist 36, no. 2 (1996): 174–177.

LAWRENCE, B. "New Wrinkles in the Theory of Age: Demography, Norms and Performance Ratings." Academy of Management Journal 31 (1998): 309–337.

LAWRENCE, B. "Organizational Age Norms: Why Is it So Hard to Know One When You See One?" Gerontologist 36, no. 2 (1996): 209–220.

MARINI, M. M. "Age and Sequencing Norms in the Transition to Adulthood." Social Forces 63 (1984): 229–244.

MODELL, J. "Normative Aspect of American Marriage Timing Since World War II." Journal of Family History 5 (Winter 1980): 210–234.

NEUGARTEN, B. L.; MOORE, J. W.; and LOWE, J. C. "Age Norms, Age Constraints, and Adult Socialization." American Journal of Sociology 70 (May 1965): 710–717.

NEUGARTEN, B. L., and NEUGARTEN, D. A. "Age in the Aging Society." Daedalus (Winter 1986): 31–49.

NEWCOMB, T. M. Social Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1950.

SETTERSTEN, R. A., JR. and HAGESTAD, G. O. "What's The Latest?: Cultural Age Deadline for Family Transitions." The Gerontologist 36, no. 2 (1996a): 178–188.

SETTERSTEN, R. A., JR. and HAGESTAD, G. O. "What's the Latest? II: Cultural Age Deadline for Educational and Work Transitions." The Gerontologist 36, no. 5 (1996b): 602–613.

STACK, C. B., and BURTON, L. M. "Kinscripts." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 54, no. 2(1993): 157–170.

THORNE, B. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

WILSON, S. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955.

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