views updated May 23 2018


It is difficult to imagine a world without age. Children would not grow up and then grow old. Humans would not have lives. Age is so central to the experience of living, that we have little reason to question the phenomenon. In the scientific study of aging, we scrutinize the ways we conceptualize the targets of our investigations (Schroots and Birren). In the English language age has two meanings. The first connotes time. Simply put, this is the time a person has existed since birth. The second meaning refers to specific stages of life, especially adulthood and old age. This will (1) examine the temporal meanings of age; (2) consider how age organizes human lives; and (3) reflect on age as a variable.

Age as time

Ageas an indication of the passage of time and the length of time something has been in existence or has enduredappears 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."

Age organization and life courses

Aging embraces far more than old age. Aging is the entirety of life from conception to death. Lives as lived are also far more than a cycle of days, months, and an accumulation of years. Age as a measurement of time is only a chronometer measuring temporal duration similar to the way an odometer gauges distance traveled. When we examine lives through time, it becomes apparent that lots of things are happening in the same temporal interval. The life course is a perspective that takes as its unit human lives to comprehend situational complexity and what meanings and expectations societies have about the course of life.

Age organization has been a challenge to researchers, especially when they encountered societies where chronological age was not in use, but where age is important in social life. To clarify potential confusion a distinction between "age grades" and "age sets" was coined (Radcliffe-Brown). Age grades are divisions of life from infancy to old age. An age grade is a category of people in the same part of the life course. Age sets or age classes are not to be confused with age grades. Age classes are corporate, bounded groups of individuals, almost always men, who are of the same age grade. Once initiated, a man will pass through adulthood in an explicitly agestratified system. When his age class makes its transition to the next life stage, he will advance with his peers. All societies have a classification of age grades, only a few have age classes. Age grading categorizes individuals by similarity of agelinked criteria and in so doing the life course is partitioned into stages defined by age norms. How this is done and for what purposes results in different life courses.

Comparative research indicates that there are at least three kinds of life courses (Fry). These are (1) staged life courses, (2) generational life courses, and (3) age-classed life courses. These differ by the way age is measured and used (chronological or generational), and by the type of society (large scale and industrialized or a small-scale, domestic organization).

  1. Staged life courses. The staged life course is the accepted definition of a life course and is usually referred to as the institutionalized life courses. It assumes that age grades are life stages with which people plan their lives. The "age" in the age norms defining the stages are anchored in a social clock calibrated by chronological age. The institutions, legal norms, and state enforcement delimit these norms. Age grades divide this life course into three distinct segments: childhood/adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Life plans in this life course are ones of preparing and then launching oneself into adulthood. Adult status is a long period of working, nurturing children, and launching them, in turn, into their adulthood. Old age is a period of withdrawal from the world of work and of benefiting from state-supported entitlement and the accumulation of one's prior resources (financial and otherwise).
  2. Generational life courses. A generational life course is not as widely recognized, simply because a life course in small-scale societies has not received as much attention. A notable exception is the study of kinship. Generational life courses are defined in the web and language of kinship. Here, the social clock is calibrated by physical abilities that come with maturation (not chronology). Age grades are not sharply defined as we have seen generational calibration usually result in ambiguity of boundaries. A life plan in this life course is to mature into adulthood, have a family, work in subsistence, and live.
  3. Age-classed life courses. As we noted above, life courses based on age classes attracted the attention of comparative researchers. Ethnographically, these have been well documented (Bernardi), but are not recognized as a decidedly different life course. For the few societies where age is formalized into classes, it is very difficult to argue that it is age per se that defines the classes. Again it is kinship. Age-classed life courses are a variant of generational life courses. In spite of variability, a minimal rule governing class membership is that father and son must belong to a different class. Hence, the generational calibration determines membership. Unlike informal age grades, age classes have sharp boundaries through the recruitment of membership and the closed corporate structure of the class. A life plan in one of these life courses (for example among the Massai) is for a male to enjoy the initial sets by fighting and attracting the attention of women; then to settle into being a householder, herding cattle and raising a family; then to ascent into eldership, and influence. Then one moves closer to and finally joins one's ancestors in death.

Although it is always possible to divide life into stages, it is unclear if people actually do and to what extent this impacts their lives. Of the three kinds of life courses, it is only the ageclassed life courses that have explicit stages. We have little knowledge of those based on generational differences. The tripartite division of staged life courses is an artifact of assumptions that the state and social policy make about what citizens should be doing. Laws that use age as a criterion to define adulthood are norms that deny privileges to adolescents. Most obvious are those regulating work, marriage, driving, voting, and the consumption of alcohol. Adolescents should be completing their education. At the threshold to old age are laws defining entitlements that encourage exits from the labor force. Beyond these three divisions, people can and do make further refinements. For adulthood and old age, these range from two to eleven divisions with most ranging between three and five divisions in the nations studied, United States, Ireland, Hong Kong, and Botswana (Keith et al.). These are informal, variable, and are not institutionalized.

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

See also: Age Norms; Aging; Age-Period-Cohort Model; Cohort Change; Gerontocracy; Life Course; Status of Older People: Ancient and Biblical World.


Bernardi, B. Age Class Systems: Social Institutions and Polities Based on Age. Translated by David I. Kertzer. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Crump, T. "The Experience of Time." In The Anthropology of Numbers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Pages 8191.

Duncan, D. E. Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. New York: Avon, 1998.

Fry, C. L. "Anthropological Theories of Age and Aging." In Handbook of Theories of Aging. Edited by V. L. Bengtson and K. W. Schaie. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1999. Pages 271286.

Keith, J.; Fry, C. L.; Glascock, A. P.; Ikels, C.; Dickerson-Putman, J.; Draper, P.; and Harpending, H. The Aging Experience: Diversity and Commonality Across Cultures. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. "Age Organization Terminology." Man 21 (1929).

Schroots, J., and Birren, J. E. "Concepts of Time and Aging in Science." In Handbook of the Psychology of Aging. Edited by J. E. Birren and K. W. Schaie. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1990. Pages 4164.


views updated May 29 2018


Smoking has always been a pleasure associated with adult males and, as such, it has always held attractions for the young and a range of connotations for women. Young boys have always experimented with tobacco, and its use in certain initiation ceremonies in Native American culture confirms the link between smoking and adulthood. Countless examples exist of women smokers and takers of snuff , especially in the courts of early modern Europe, but smoking remained a largely adult male pastime until the end of the nineteenth century. It was with the introduction of the modern, machine-made cigarette from the 1880s that new demographics of smoking emerged, or at least societies perceived a new problem among smoking youths and women.

Demographics in the Early Twentieth Century

The sight of poor, urban boys smoking cheap, mass-produced cigarettes gave impetus to several antismoking groups around the world, principally in France, Britain, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Early opposition came from Frances Willard's Woman's Christian Temperance Union and later from such luminaries as Henry Ford and the health advocate and cereal producer, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Most zealous of all was Lucy Page Gaston, the self-styled "extremist of extremists." In 1899 she created the Anti-Cigarette League of America, an organization that eschewed the education and reform of the sinful smoker and advocated instead outright prohibition.

The Anti-Cigarette League's medico-moral rhetoric, which connected smoking with a whole range of degenerative vices and illnesses, proved popular among Anglo-Saxon Protestants who associated cigarettes with immigrants and urban delinquent youth. By the outbreak of World War I, the movement had succeeded in outlawing cigarettes in thirteen states, with bills in six others pending (virtually every state had already banned the sale of cigarettes to minors). Similar legislation was enacted in Britain in 1908, where cigarettes were blamed for the supposed deterioration of the nation's racial stock and their increase in sales to an apparent effeminacy in a generation eschewing the more manly pipe and cigar. The legislation was, however, largely ineffective and World War I quickly put to an end the critique of young men's cigarette smoking. Cigarettes were easier to smoke than pipes in the trenches of the Western Front and tobacco companies, the military, governments, and newspapers organized the constant supply of cigarettes to the troops, an official recognition of the importance of tobacco in offering immediate relief to physical and psychological stress. By 1918, for participating states, the cigarette had emerged as the normal tobacco initiation for teenage boys.

The war too witnessed the growth of smoking among women. Prior to 1914, women's smoking was associated with actresses and prostitutes, an image fixed in popular imagination through the literary and artistic portrayals of Prosper Mérimée's and later Georges Bizet's gypsy factory girl, Carmen, as well as images of scantily clad music hall and vaudeville stars featured on the very first cigarette cards. Various metropolitan "new women" of the 1890s smoked in defiance of respectable codes of femininity, though their numbers were relatively small and it was only in New York in 1908 that city legislators were sufficiently shocked so as to ban women smoking in public. In the interwar period, cigarette smoking rates across Europe increased as women experienced much less resistance to their habit.

By 1929, women in the United States were estimated to consume 14 billion cigarettes, or 12 percent of total consumption. Advertisers were quick to take advantage of this new smoking trend and Philip Morris introduced their Marlboro brand in 1925 targeting the emerging female market. More often, however, advertisers recognized that women were far more likely to smoke the same brands as men. Therefore, Chesterfield's, in 1926, urged women to "blow some my way" and Lucky Strike, in 1928, suggested they "reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet." Certainly, advertising was of some influence—and manufacturers were prepared to pay approximately 20 percent and more of the total cost of the product on promotion—but women, men, and youths took the lead offered by peers, parents, and cinema stars such as Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall.

Later Trends

By 1950, around half the population in most western states smoked (between 44% and 47% in the United States), though such averages hide the fact that in countries such as the United Kingdom up to 80 percent of adult men were regular smokers. Following the smoking and health controversy of the 1950s, smoking rates fell, but far from equally for men and women. The first antismoking health campaigns tended to direct their message to adult men and it is indeed in this demographic that smoking rates have fallen most persistently. In the 2000s, smoking rates are roughly equal for adult men and women in both the United States and Europe (between one-quarter to one-third of the adult population in Europe) but many commentators still argue that smoking is a feminist issue since women are seen to smoke more often "when life's a drag."

Moreover, in the late twentieth century, smoking among youths increased, first among girls, and then among boys. While the health risks of smoking may be reasonably well known across all demographics, popular culture still promotes smoking as a cool, sophisticated adult activity. One study of Hollywood films, for example, found that smoking images had increased fourfold between 1990 and 1995 and that smoking was more often associated with rebellion and sophisticated individualism.

See Also Consumption (Demographics); Film.



Goodman, Jordan. Tobacco in History: Cultures of Dependence. London: Routledge, 1993.

Kiernan, V. G. Tobacco: A History. London: Hutchinson, 1991.

Klein, Richard. Cigarettes Are Sublime. London: Picador, 1995.

Kluger, Richard. Ashes to Ashes. New York: Vintage, 1997.

Sobel, Robert. They Satisfy: The Cigarette in American Life. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1978.

snuff a form of powdered tobacco, usually flavored, either sniffed into the nose or "dipped," packed between cheek and gum. Snuff was popular in the eighteenth century but had faded to obscurity by the twentieth century.

cigarette cards paper trading cards sometimes featuring sports personalities or movie stars packaged with cigarettes and offered as an incentive for purchase.

individualism an independence of spirit; the belief that self-interest is (or should be) the goal of all human actions.


views updated May 14 2018

age / āj/ • n. 1. the length of time that a person has lived or a thing has existed: at the age of 51 he must be nearly 40 years of age. ∎  a particular stage in someone's life: children of primary school age. ∎  the latter part of life or existence; old age: with age this gland can become sluggish.2. a distinct period of history: a child of the television age. ∎  Geol. a division of time that is a subdivision of an epoch, corresponding to a stage in chronostratigraphy. ∎ archaic a lifetime taken as a measure of time; a generation: Nestor is said to have lived three ages when he was ninety. ∎  (ages/an age) inf. a very long time: I haven't seen her for ages it would take an age to tell her everything.• v. (ag·ing) [intr.] grow old or older, esp. visibly and obviously so: you haven't aged a lot. ∎  [tr.] cause to grow, feel, or appear older: he tried aging the painting with coffee. ∎  (esp. with reference to an alcoholic drink) mature or allow to mature: [intr.] the wine ages in open vats. ∎  [tr.] determine how old (something) is: we didn't have a clue how to age these animals.PHRASES: act (or be) one's age [usu. in imper.] behave in a manner appropriate to someone of one's age and not to someone much younger.come of age (of a person) reach adult status. ∎  (of a movement or activity) become fully established.through the ages throughout history.


views updated Jun 08 2018

3. Age

See also 77. CHILDREN ; 299. OLD AGE .

ageism, agism
discrimination on the basis of age, especially against older people.
the process of making antiquated or the condition of being antiquated.
coevalneity. coetaneous, adj.
the state or quality of being alike in age or duration; contemporaneity. Also called coetaneity . coeval, aadj.
the condition of being junior, as in age, rank, or position.
the state of being in ones forties. quadragenarian, n., adj. quadragenary, adj.
the state of being in ones fifties. quinquagenarian, n., adj. quinquagenary, adj.
the state of being in ones sixties. sexagenarian, n., adj. sexagenary, adj.


views updated May 08 2018

1. The interval of geologic time equivalent to the chronostratigraphic unitstage’. Ages are subdivisions of epochs and may themselves be subdivided into chrons. An age takes its name from the corresponding stage, so like the stage name it carries the suffix ‘-ian’ (or sometimes ‘-an’); the term ‘age’ is capitalized when used in this formal sense, e.g. ‘Oxfordian Age’.

2. An informal term to denote a time span marked by some specific feature, e.g. ‘Ville-franchian mammalian age’.


views updated May 11 2018

1. The interval of geologic time equivalent to the chronostratigraphic unit ‘stage’. Ages are subdivisions of epochs and may themselves be subdivided into chrons. An age takes its name from the corresponding stage, so like the stage name it carries the suffix ‘-ian’ (or sometimes ‘-an’); the term ‘age’ is capitalized when used in this formal sense, e.g. ‘of Oxfordian Age’.

2. An informal term to denote a time span marked by some specific feature (e.g. ‘Villefranchian mammalian age’).


views updated May 18 2018

1. An interval of geologic time that is a subdivision of an epoch and may itself be subdivided further into chrons. An age takes its name from the stage that is the corresponding chronostratigraphic unit and carries the suffix ‘-an’ or ‘-ian’. When used formally, the word is capitalized (e.g. Givetian Age).

2. An informal term denoting a period marked by some specific feature (e.g. Carboniferous coal-swamp age).


views updated May 21 2018

age sb. XIII. — OF. ëage, äage, age (mod. âge) :- Gallo-Rom. *ætāticum, f. L. ætās, ætāt-, earlier ævitās, f. ævum age of time (cf. AEON).
Hence age vb. XIV. aged XV; after F. âgé.


views updated May 21 2018

AGE Admiralty Gunnery Establishment
• aerospace ground equipment
• Associate in General Education
• automatic guidance electronics


views updated May 14 2018

AgE Agricultural Engineer