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Age Norms

Variation In Age Norms

Differences in definition and measurement notwithstanding, selected age norms are presented to document their historical and subcultural variation since age norms are properties of social systems, and the latter are not constant across time and social space. Examples include formal norms from education, work, family, and domains.

Historical work suggest the United States grew increasingly age-conscious and regimented in both public and public and private domains beginning in the late 1800s and continuing well into the 1900s. For example, witness the transition from early school's age-heterogeneous classrooms to the strongly age-segregated nature of U.S. schools that gathered momentum at the turn of the nineteenth century as elementary and junior- and senior-high schools became institutionalized (Chudacoff). At work, people's labor force participation was circumscribed on one end of the life cycle by child labor laws (passed chiefly in the second half of the nineteenth century) and retirement and pension eligibility age prescriptions on the other (policies passed in the mid-1930s).

Age norms for family-related transitions have also changed over time. An 1889 advice manual written for women set the ideal age range for marriage between eighteen and twenty-six, based on the manual's author having consulted some distinguished physicians about what they deemed to be the proper timing of marriage (Chudacoff, p. 50). Attitudinal data from the 1940s through the 1980s through the 1980s show that the perceived ideal age for marriage dropped in the aftermath of World War II (early to mid-twenties) compared to previously (Modell), but has risen more recently. In the late 1980s, a majority of respondents thought that the appropriate age was the mid- to late-twenties (Settersten and Hagestad, 1996a).

Importantly, age norms not only change over time, but other research documents contemporaneous subcultural variation. For example, the above studies on marital timing revealed that expectations for women's marital timing remained consistently two to three years younger than that of men's throughout this time period. Besides gender, age norms also vary by age cohorts, education, occupation, and race/ethnicity (Settersten and Hagestad, 1996a).

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