Aging as a Conversation II

By Elizabeth Russell

View the first post in this two-part series.

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

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.

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.

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.