Age Matters


Many things in our lives are tied to age markers. Graduations, driving, starting school, working, marriage, retirement. We all take measures of one sort or another to look like or separate ourselves from the markers that people use to recognize our chronological age. We try to act our age or belie our age, to speed or slow our perceived advance.

So, in what ways does Age Matter?   I think this paragraph is probably the “thesis statement” for the chapter:

Thus, age definitely matters in contemporary U.S. society. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines age as “the time of life at which some particular qualification, power, or capacity arises or rests.” This definition previews the point of this chapter: age is a socially constructed aspect of identity based on dominant ideologies that dictate which categories in the life span we tend to privilege or penalize. First, I discuss different aspects of age. Next, I elaborate on why age matters, after which I provide an overview of how we have constructed age in the United States. Then, I describe communication issues related to age and aging.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 162). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

The American experience of  aging is based around the “deficit model of aging” that became part of our culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This in the idea that aging is a process of diminishing and decline. This negative attitude about aging, wasted resources, need for care, etc., paints old age as an unwanted condition.

At the other end of the spectrum was our concept of youth. In the early days the young were seen as an economic rather than emotional value. Children worked on farms and later factories.  It took the child labor movement to make the shift from economically useful to emotionally priceless, and created the time of “natural development” that we now know as childhood and youth.

With these bands of perceived age, there has also come the development of “birth cohorts”, groupings of people born during a specific span of years and sharing significant experiences. Members of cohorts think and react similarly to each other, and different to members of other cohorts. The study of these cohorts, and their interactions, is a significant portion of age studies today.

But what happens when you don’t fit with the responses of your age cohort (my question)? I had friends at a church where the lady looked very good in 1940s outfits and hats, and said she was really born in the wrong era. There are a lot of people who don’t belong to the stereotype of their cohort. This confuses the age expectations.

The author discusses how intergenerational communication is done:  through accommodation.  Accommodation theory is how people adapt communication to the situation. One can have positive accommodation, a convergence of styles where one mirrors the other party. One can have negative accommodation, by diverging, underaccommodating or overaccommodating.

As a small aside, the author brings up this saying twice in the chapter so far, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” without any research or knowledge about its veracity. It isn’t true. A young dog who is teachable will be an old dog who is teachable. A young dog who is not teachable won’t be any more teachable when he gets old.

It is this same sort of sentiment about ages that creates the stereotypes of ageism. BTW, the author used the “old dog” line to say that older people are teachable. It is how we learn to deal with people of all ages, and recognize their differences, how to accommodate as we communicate, that will determine how we deal with our movement through ages and the people we meet along the way.

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