As we traverse the path from birth to death, chronological age (CA) provides a simple and convenient signpost for all that happens along the way. Birthdays have assumed the form of a personal holiday for almost everyone, marked with pleasure in the earlier stages of life, and often with regret and ill humor in the later years as the life span approaches its end point. This CA end point, however, may be considerably lower than human biological potential. Recent scientific demonstrations of longevity extension in rats through caloric restriction have opened up the future possibility of vastly extended CA limits for humans, raising utopian hopes as well as a host of ethical questions.
Along with sex and race (or ethnicity), CA is a visibly salient attribute of all human beings. This does not imply complete accuracy in identifying individuals on the basis of those attributes. Androgynous appearing individuals may be difficult to categorize as male or female, and visual cues of race (or ethnicity) are sometimes misleading. In the case of age, it is not the precise CA that is recognizable, but rather the broad age category to which the person belongs (e.g., preadolescent, adolescent, mature youth, middle aged, and elderly). Finer differentiation of such categories almost certainly occurs, with preadolescents divisible into preschool and primary school children, for example, and the elderly readily separable into the young-old and the old-old.
At what point in development do these differentiated age categories emerge? The evidence indicates that preschoolers in the CA range between 3 and 4 years of age link CA to height. This implies that such children would be quite incapable of making age distinctions within the adult range. By age 5, however, almost all children have become sensitized to the physiognomic features associated with aging (e.g., wrinkles and hair color), and their age ranking of photographs of people ranging across the life span closely matches the corresponding ranking of adults. Furthermore, when children have learned to make these CA differentiations, their liking and attractiveness rankings of the photos begin to follow the age rankings, with the more elderly photos found less attractive and least liked. One can discern the beginning of age stereotyping and ageism in these data.
CA is a simple marker for noting the passage of time in a person’s life. Yet CA has profound meanings for everyone. These meanings are reflected in the research on age norms—the indication that various important life events are expected to take place within a circumscribed CA range. Events such as formal completion of education, marriage, birth of first child, and retirement elicit relatively narrow CA ranges for being “on time.” The implication is that an event falling outside of the designated acceptable age range is “off time” or deviant, and possibly maladaptive, for the individual concerned.
This idea of CA as a constraint was contested in subsequent research, where it was demonstrated that the effects of being “on time” versus “off time” revealed few differences. On the basis of such outcomes, Bernice Neugarten (initiator of the tradition of age norm research) advanced the radical proposal that we had become an “age-irrelevant society.” However, more recent replications of the original age norm studies have made it clear that age norms are currently looser (the acceptable CA range for various life events has considerably widened), but there is no indication whatever that age norms have essentially vanished.
Age norms represent but one aspect of the cognition of age. Other aspects include the spontaneous tendency to categorize individuals on the basis of their CA (rather than other attributes of the person) and judgments of the CA onset of the various age stages cited earlier. As research along these lines has proceeded, there has come the realization that age cognitions might well be influenced by gender, both that of the respondent and that of the target person evaluated. The claim that the meaning of CA is moderated by gender was given prominence by the essayist Susan Sontag in an article entitled “The Double Standard of Aging.” Sontag argued that the physical attributes of aging (e.g., wrinkling, graying hair) are positively evaluated as signs of virile maturity in males, but are negatively evaluated as signs of loss of youth and attractiveness in females. These distinctively different evaluations are attributed in part to the mass media subscribing to the values of a patriarchal Western culture. Experimental efforts to test Sontag’s claims with both verbal and photo materials yielded suggestive confirming evidence that CA is a more salient dimension for males than for females when judging others. Furthermore, males exhibit a stronger youth bias, particularly in their affective preferences for females.
Although there is empirical support for a double standard of aging, the interpretation of the phenomenon remains controversial. Arguing against the sociocultural view that the Western media promote the double standard, evolutionary psychologists have examined CA in mate preferences (as well as actual marriage data) in cross-cultural investigations. Comparable effects are observed across Western and non-Western cultures, males preferring females younger than themselves, and females preferring males older than themselves. Interpretation has stressed males’ sensitivity to cues of reproductive value or potential in females (linked to youth) and females emphasis on male resources (linked to an older CA). Most dramatic are the CA preferences provided by middle-aged and older males who generally prefer and select mates as much as a generation younger than themselves.
In sum, the implications of chronological age cut across the developmental, socio-psychological, and biological sciences. CA is much more than a simple demographic descriptor.
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