3 Conceptions of Age

Martha Lally; Suzanne Valentine-French; and Dinesh Ramoo

How old are you? Chances are you would answer that question based on the number of years since your birth, or what is called your chronological age. Ever felt older than your chronological age? Some days we might “feel” like we are older, especially if we are not feeling well, are tired, or are stressed out. We might notice that a peer seems more emotionally mature than we are, or that they are physically more capable. So years since birth is not the only way we can conceptualize age.

Biological age: Another way developmental researchers can think about the concept of age is to examine how quickly the body is aging, this is your biological age. Several factors determine the rate at which our body ages. Our nutrition, level of physical activity, sleeping habits, smoking, alcohol consumption, how we mentally handle stress, and the genetic history of our ancestors, to name but a few.

Psychological age: Our psychologically adaptive capacity compared to others of our chronological age is our psychological age. This includes our cognitive capacity along with our emotional beliefs about how old we are. An individual who has cognitive impairments might be 20 years of age yet has the mental capacity of an 8 year-old. A 70 year-old might be travelling to new countries, taking courses at college, or starting a new business. Compared to others of our age group, we may be more or less adaptive and excited to meet new challenges. Remember you are as young or old as you feel.


Crooked beak of heaven mask
Figure 1.4 Crooked Beak of Heaven Mask
Figure 1.3: Crooked beak of heaven mask used in the Hamatsa ceremony

Social age: Our social age is based on the social norms of our culture and the expectations our culture has for people of our age group. All communities have had certain coming of age rituals that indicated a transition from one stage of life into another. For example, Judaism had bar mitzvah ceremonies for boys at the age of thirteen to indicate a transition to adulthood. In modern Judaism, we also find bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls. At this age, individuals are supposed to be responsible for their own actions while before their parents were held responsible. In Western Christian churches, a young person goes through a sacrament of confirmation (usually between the ages of 12 and 15). In some denominations this also involves taking on a confirmation name.

The indigenous peoples of North America also had a number of ceremonies to initiate adolescents into the adult sphere. The Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) of the Pacific North West have the Hamatsa ceremony where an initiate acts out his transformation into a wild cannibal spirit which is tamed and transformed into a socially responsible human by other dancers. The dancers wear elaborate masks (such as the one seen in Figure 1.3) which depict supernatural man-eating birds including “Raven at the north end of the world” (Gwaxgwakwalanuksiwe), “Huxwhukw of heaven” (Huxhugwaxtawe), and “Crooked Beak of Heaven” (Galugada’yi). The initiate also undergoes fasting as well as periods of isolation in the wilderness.

The Sikhs in India go through a “nectar ceremony” of Amrit Sanskar where they are initiated into the Khalsa or Sikh Brotherhood. Those who go through the initiation rituals are known as Amritdhari or “nectar taker” and dedicated to the Sikh teachings.

In our culture we also have certain social conventions such as when we can legally drive (at the age of 16) and when we are legally considered to be adults (at the age of 18). There are also provincial differences as to when you can purchase certain products such as alcohol or tobacco which is 19 in most provinces but 18 in other (Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec). We are often reminded whether we are “on target” or “off target” for reaching certain social milestones, such as completing our education, moving away from home, having children, or retiring from work. However, there have been arguments that social age is becoming less relevant in the 21st century (Neugarten, 1979; 1996). If you look around at your fellow students in your courses at college you might notice more people who are older than the more traditional aged college students, those 18 to 25. Similarly, the age at which people are moving away from the home of their parents, starting their careers, getting married or having children, or even whether they get married or have children at all, is changing.

Those who study lifespan development recognize that chronological age does not completely capture a person’s age. Our age profile is much more complex than this. A person may be physically more competent than others in their age group, while being psychologically immature. So, how old are you?

Media Attributions

About the Authors


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Conceptions of Age by Martha Lally; Suzanne Valentine-French; and Dinesh Ramoo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book