Age As A Variable
Although age is central for research on aging and old age, researchers are ambivalent about chronological age as a variable. The simplicity of age as measured in years is very attractive. Because nearly all participants in such research know their birth years, it is subject to comparatively few measurement errors. At the same time, we may not know what the number of years lived really means. Age has been challenged as an "empty" variable because it is one-dimensional, a number indicative of duration, and has little relationship with events in a social world. Additionally, objections are raised against chronological age because of the way it is used in industrialized societies to regiment life and to unevenly distribute resources and privileges by age. This especially applies to education, work, and leisure. Education is for youth, work is a responsibility of adults, and leisure is a reward for older people.
Age will be an empty variable unless we acknowledge the cultural basis and reasons for knowing about it and use this knowledge to construct theories of aging. Numbers make for robust variables because numbers are relational (Crump). In addition to being numeric, chronological age is also linguistic. What is encoded in language is meaning. Age has the double meaning of disability and time. It is the temporal meaning of age that has the greatest potential as a variable. The continuities and discontinuities constituting time are nearly infinite. For human lives, the sidereal time calibrating chronological age is uninteresting. However, why humans use it and what meanings are assigned to years lived is interesting. Also, the multitude of events that happen to and within humans simultaneously in this time is precisely what we want to know about human aging. We identify these phenomena as different kinds of time. Organisms and genetic codes have biological clocks. Psyches have developmental schedules, especially in childhood. Societies have social clocks. The latter are rooted in the institutional structure of the social world in which people live. Life courses are made up of the intersections of the diverse parts of a social clock. Family cycles, work schedules, career trajectories, education, leisure, and even health all are calibrated by temporal norms. Norms are not just rules individuals follow. Norms are used to negotiate a complex world and other humans. Norms are knowledge of what should happen and as such are a form of currency used to understand, transact, and change the circumstances that comprise experience. It is the plurality of norms, of historical circumstances, of cultural context, that makes age such a powerful variable. With an expanded view of age and the cultural meanings of time, we create a full as compared to an empty variable.
CHRISTINE L. FRY
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