Skip to main content

Age Norms


Hopkins (CEO of large American broadcasting company): ". . .you're at an important stage of your career. How old are you?"

Rath (Hopkins's assistant): "Thirty-three." Hopkins: "That's an important age. In the next six or seven years, you should really be on your way." (Wilson, p. 224)

Hopkins, a fictional character from Sloan Wilson's 1955 novel, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, believes age is a benchmark with which to gauge someone's career progress. Besides career progress, people may perceive appropriate ages or age ranges for numerous behaviors and life events. Social scientists studying aging take such perceptions as indicative of age norms, a focal concept in apprehending how age organizes social life. This review of age norms has several objectives: first, define age norms and distinguish between their formal and informal types; second, provide examples of age norms drawn from education, work, and family domains with an aim toward illustrating both their historical and contemporary variation; third, discuss the behavioral effects of age norms, including what it means to be on- or off-time and whether or not sanctions are brought to bear against those violating age-related rules; and finally, highlight some persistent controversies and limitations in age norm research.

What are age norms?

Age norms are a variety of social norms, which are rules for behavior and have three defining characteristics: they are shared, obligatory (i.e., contain a should or ought element), and backed by positive or negative sanctions (for classic treatments of social norms, see Blake and Davis). Age norms are commonly defined as social rules for age-appropriate behavior, including everyday actions and/or the timing and sequencing of major life events (e.g., marriage, parenthood, retirement; in sociological parlance, life events are typically role transitions). Thus, they constitute a social clock or temporal script potentially influencing attitudes and behavior (e.g., Hopkins's thinking in the dialogue above).

Formal and informal age norms

Age norms are woven into the fabric of many social institutions in both formal and informal ways. Formal age norms are codified in diverse laws and rules (Blake and Davis). They organize society by age in at least two interrelated ways: partitioning the population into general age-strata, each comprised of people assumed to possess similar capacities (e.g., using age to legally separate adulthood from pre-adulthood on the basis of presumed responsibility); and, second, using age to regulate individuals' access to assorted rights and responsibilities ranging from private to public domains (e.g., age of consent laws, obtaining a driver's license; see Cain, especially, pp. 345352, for historical examples of these efforts).

The sociologist Bernice Neugarten and colleagues pioneered inquiry into informal age norms, which are unwritten and implicit, but there is scholarly disagreement over their precise definition and measurement. "Expectations regarding age-appropriate behavior" (Neugarten, Moore, and Lowe, p. 711), the "ages at which particular transitions ought to occur" (Settersten and Hagestad, 1996a, p. 179), or the "ages viewed as standard or typical for a given role or status by the modal group of members of a social system" (Lawrence, 1996, p. 211) are three common meanings. Age norms have been variously measured in surveys by asking about ideal, best, appropriate, or even typical ages associated with a variety of role transitions and/or everyday behaviors.

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).

Age norms and behavior

Despite plenty of evidence of both formal and informal age norms, we know less about their influence on people's actual behavior. One early statement suggested that age norms operate as a system of "prods and breaks. . .in some instances hastening an event, in others delaying it" (Neugarten et al., p. 711). While intuitively plausible, several critical issues warrant consideration. Life course researchers often investigate large-scale patterns in age-related attitudes and transitions through surveys of a general population. Shared attitudes are not equivalent to shared behavior, however (Newcomb, p. 268). Nor can we assume that age norms are responsible even when we observe regularities in timing and sequencing of transitions (Marini).

To best capture the behavioral effects of age norms, we should consider smaller groups like families, peer groups, or even an organization. Indeed, studies of these concrete settings, which organize our day-to-day experience, reveal age norms' effects as the following examples attest: the age-graded nature of schools affected kids' lunchroom seating patterns (Thorne, p. 42); family "kin-scripts," in some low-income, minority communities, "expect[ed] that designated adolescent females become 'early childbearers' since grandmothers often reared these children (Stack and Burton, p. 159); and organizational employees, like Hopkins at the beginning of this entry, used shared perceptions of typical agerelated career progress to gauge their own and others' progress (including supervisors whose ratings of employees were influenced by such age judgements) (Lawrence, 1988).

Consequences of being off-time

Individuals whose behaviors/transitions meet expectations are said to be on-time while those who violate them are labeled off-time, whether early or late. Violating age deadlines may result in punishing sanctions, but evidence of this is mixed and actually mirrors the previous discussion on normative influences on behavior. While attitudinal evidence from surveys of the general public revealed that many respondents perceived few consequences to being off-time in work- and family-related transitions (e.g., Settersten and Hagestad, 1996a; 1996b), other studies of smaller groups indicated that age norm violation may be met with sanctions as ordinary as a disparaging mark to someone who is not adhering to a "kinscript" (Stack and Burton) or a poor performance evaluation for someone whose career progress lags behind the timetable (Lawrence). The latter finding suggests that age norms can actually promote ageism if age-appropriate expectations lead to stereotyping.

Being off-time may have other consequences as well, one of which is individual stress. Most difficult are those transitions which are unanticipated (e.g., widowhood at a young age) since there may be a vague script for guidance and minimal support from others. Even planned transitions, however, when off-time, may result in little social support if an individual assumes a status when others in his/her social circle do not (e.g., having children much earlier or later than one's friends). Moreover, since transitions are never accomplished in isolation from other roles, being off-time can result in role overload (e.g., early parenthood may interfere with finishing school).

Continuing controversies

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.


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 456484.

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 342368.

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): 174177.

Lawrence, B. "New Wrinkles in the Theory of Age: Demography, Norms and Performance Ratings." Academy of Management Journal 31 (1998): 309337.

Lawrence, B. "Organizational Age Norms: Why Is it So Hard to Know One When You See One?" Gerontologist 36, no. 2 (1996): 209220.

Marini, M. M. "Age and Sequencing Norms in the Transition to Adulthood." Social Forces 63 (1984): 229244.

Modell, J. "Normative Aspect of American Marriage Timing Since World War II." Journal of Family History 5 (Winter 1980): 210234.

Neugarten, B. L.; Moore, J. W.; and Lowe, J. C. "Age Norms, Age Constraints, and Adult Socialization." American Journal of Sociology 70 (May 1965): 710717.

Neugarten, B. L., and Neugarten, D. A. "Age in the Aging Society." Daedalus (Winter 1986): 3149.

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): 178188.

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): 602613.

Stack, C. B., and Burton, L. M. "Kinscripts." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 54, no. 2(1993): 157170.

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.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Age Norms." Encyclopedia of Aging. . 19 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Age Norms." Encyclopedia of Aging. . (April 19, 2019).

"Age Norms." Encyclopedia of Aging. . Retrieved April 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.