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Age As Time

Age—as an indication of the passage of time and the length of time something has been in existence or has endured—appears to be culturally neutral. Time is a physical aspect of our universe. Time and light are properties of our habitats. Humans use culture to interpret what happens in time. Although this is true, time is not culturally neutral. Time is a subject of cultural interpretation.

If time is relative and cultural, then how do we comprehend it? For time to be measured and understood, we need to recognize three issues. First, no human or any other organism has a specialized sense to measure time. Time is not directly perceptible by the senses through which we perceive the world. Secondly, because we cannot directly sense time, we must recognize time passage indirectly through events that happen in the world we can experience. Finally, continuities and discontinuities in these events enable us to recognize time. Continuity provides the experience of duration. Discontinuity interrupts stretches of stability with change and periodicity. Without continuity and discontinuities, time would be impossible to tell.

Time is calibrated through experiences of continuity and discontinuities. Age is the ordering and measuring of the time of life. Chronological age is the most common way of conceptualizing age. The ability to record and document a date of birth and then to ascertain the temporal duration from a present date is not all that obvious. Chronological age is a cultural invention. Only in the last half of the twentieth century did chronological age come to be used on a global basis. Yet, even in the twenty-first century there are still people who do not know their age. This ability to know one's age is the result of an incredible multicultural effort to measure time. The crown jewel of this effort is the Gregorian calendar (Duncan).

The Gregorian calendar is a device that measures and objectifies time. The invention of chronological age rests on three elements anchored in the Gregorian calendar. First, time is seen as extra-societal. Second, the sequence of days is not in the hands of religious specialists or rulers. Third, the time line is anchored in a specific temporal point. Although maintained and nurtured by the church throughout the Middle Ages, increased secularization stripped the calendar of its sacred significance. Priests and kings no longer manage calendrics. Days, months, and years are no longer a temporal march of saints' days. The workings of the year are understood by nearly everyone and are accessible to most with published calendars. The Gregorian calendar also employs the remarkable invention of a fixed point to begin the numbering of years. In the sixth century a little known monk, Dionysis Exiguus (Little Dennis), modified the Christian calendar to begin with the birth of Christ. Previously, the yearly count began with the installation of the current ruler. For instance, the year 2001 in the Gregorian count would be the first year of the rule of President George W. Bush in the United States and the forty-second year of the rule of Queen Elizabeth II in the United Kingdom. With the fixed point of a year one (zero had not been invented in the sixth century) the Christian world counts forward the years classed as A.D. (anno Domini, in the year of the Lord) and backward the years labeled as B.C. (before Christ).

With this long time line, which is extrasocietal but not extracultural, the calculation of chronological age is quite simple. All that is needed is knowledge of the present year number and subtraction of the birth year number. However, knowledge of one's birth year also requires considerable cultural data. Without written records, the past becomes imprecise and blurred. Certainly, in Europe, the earliest records were church recordings of baptisms, weddings, and deaths. Later, primarily in the nineteenth century, vital statistics (birth and death certificates along with marriage licenses) were routinely gathered, along with national census data. For these societies, chronological age had become one of the important items of information a state needed about its population. Likewise, individuals needed to know their age because age defined the rights of citizenship (working, voting, marriage, and entitlement to pensions and social security).

From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to imagine a world without years and without chronological age. Yet humans survived for millennia without precision in temporal measurement. Calendars and chronological age are inventions of large-scale societies that appeared as early as five thousand years ago. Small-scale societies are not bureaucratically organized and work instead within a domestic framework. In these simpler societies, individuals have extensive personal knowledge about nearly everyone with whom they interact.

Age as a chronological number is irrelevant in small-scale societies. Instead age is a combination of biological and social maturity plus seniority. Kinship is the language of age with generational differences demarcating any division or age class. Generations are notably imprecise as indicators of time. With long periods of reproduction, children can be born more than twenty chronological years apart. Sometimes uncles can be chronologically younger than their generationally junior nieces and nephews. Generations simply define a line of descent with birth orders indicating relative age (senior and junior).

Age as numbered years is an index. Although useful for some purposes, indexes can be limited in meaning, that is, in years lived. Consequently, age also refers to stages of life. When one "comes of age," one enters adulthood, a life stage of full legal rights. Most commonly age refers to the last part of a normal life, or "old age."

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