Monday Jul 16 2007
By Elizabeth Russell
View the first post in this two-part series.
The conversation about age begins when we are born and continues throughout life. It may be written or spoken. It may come from our mothers (who heard it from their mothers) or it may come from people who have studied other people in order to make profound pronouncements. Whatever the source, it is all conversation. And labels are one element of the conversation—labels we give to everything, labels that carry weight and are endowed, over the years, with meaning such as young, old, immature, stodgy, etc.
Those who engage in the conversation don't make it up. It is a given, running through all the channels—parents, peers, school, television, advertising, public and private institutions. From this conversation we learn there are things we can do at five that we can't do when we are seven, responsibilities we have at 15 that we don't have at 10, privileges we acquire at 21 we don't have when we are 17.
Social norms define what we're supposed to do by certain ages, like starting school, getting married, beginning our careers, having children, retiring. Laws establish minimum age limits for entering the school system, for driving, drinking, voting, marrying or serving in the military. The conversation that labels periods of life with descriptive categories also defines behavior appropriate to those periods and sets up expectations, either explicit or implicit. Life seems to be about looking ahead to the next stage or looking back to the last, depending on where you are on the chronological spectrum.
One of the most destructive labels in the aging conversation is the word 'adolescence'. Webster defines it as the period from puberty to adulthood but doesn't tell us how to define adulthood, so the period of adolescence is vague and undefined. In developed countries, such as the United States, particularly in affluent families, youth sometimes linger in this ill-defined state of adolescence into their twenties.
Adolescence is a product of the 20th century. In 1900, only 13% of people between the ages of 14-17 were in school (according to the authors of Lifetrends); by 1995, that had risen to 95%. Yet, by 2004, the numbers had started declining again. We tend to think of the 1995 number in terms of a positive trend, but the state of our youth today calls that thinking into question. It may be that school isn't the best place for everybody between the ages of 14 and 17. Perhaps some of these youngsters would be better served by being apprenticed to a craftsman, a farmer, a shopkeeper or a businessperson.
In some countries, young people still have rites of passage that define this shift from childhood into adulthood. In Turkey, for example, the sunnet ritual involves circumcising a boy at the age of 11 or 12. The boy, in enduring the pain of this act, becomes a man. Boys in their mid-teens act as ticket-takers on buses, delivery persons for stores. Only a small percentage are in school. The majority have taken on the responsibilities of manhood. Some countries require a year or two of community/government service at the age of 18, thus contributing to the process of maturation.
For the most part we, as a society, engage in silent conversations that limit what is possible at any age. Conversation provides a set of preconceptions for nearly every stage of life and, though these preconceptions may not fit our experience of ourselves, they do affect how others relate to us. Unless we are aware, it is easy to allow ourselves to be diminished. This is particularly true for those we label 'adolescents'. Becoming aware of the conversation and the way it affects our thinking is the first step in altering our own position about aging. For those young people, this first step is vital to moving on.