Redefining Aging: What It Means to Grow Old

As older Americans redefine what they want from life, new concepts of aging are emerging.


The Sloan Center for Aging & Work at Boston College regularly interviews groups of employees to better understand the impact of an aging population on workplace and societal roles. A facilitator asks people to gather into different groups related to multiple aspects of aging, explains Sloan director Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes.


An initial grouping, for example, might be to divide along generational lines—think millennials, Gen Xers, and baby boomers. "Then we ask them to divide themselves into groups in terms of their careers stages," she says, "and these groups are different than the generational groups." Yet more groupings are suggested, such as asking people to organize according to their experiences with significant life events such as marriage, parenthood, being a grandparent, and so forth.

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"And people again regroup" into different configurations, Pitt-Catsouphes says. The benefit of the exercise is to powerfully illustrate that "the kinds of perceptions that we associate with age really may not be true for us or for other people." Developing new and more open ways of thinking about aging can alter not only how older people view themselves, but how younger people view their elders. And both perspectives can help change traditional views of what it means to be old.

Sloan's work is closely related to workplace behaviors and relationships but has broader social implications. Widespread longevity gains have "changed what people's expectations are and what their desires are for what they will be doing" in the later stages of their lives, Pitt-Catsouphes says. "Things have been shaken up enough that truly there's this opportunity on the horizon for reinventing the idea of what it means to age."

The center recently issued a report called "The Prism of Aging" that discusses numerous concepts of aging in addition to a person's chronological age. Factoring them together can yield a person's subjective age, which may be either much more or much less than the number of years they've actually been alive.

Two 65-year-olds, for example, can share birth years but actually have wildly differing profiles that define their subjective ages and thus their approaches to life. Recognizing and understanding these differences can improve the ways such people are treated by others, as well as their own internal assessments of what's important to them.

Here are Sloan's different concepts of age. See which ones apply to you and to people you know.

"Chronological age"—the simplest indicator of age—refers to the number of years lived since birth. Longevity gains have already stretched out stages of life—many people are marrying later, having children later, extending their careers, and becoming grandparents at later times in their lives. Many other people, of course, have not altered the time horizons of these decisions. Groups that share many similarities thus may contain people with a broad range of chronological ages. The point is that chronological age is becoming less meaningful as a core definition of age.

"Physical-cognitive age" refers to physiological changes occurring over time that affect people's ability to function. Some 60-years-olds are physically beat-up while others run marathons. "It is easy to understand why there might be differences in the age at which a carpenter fits the description of an older worker compared to a scientist," the Sloan report said.

"Socioemotional age" reflects an understanding of human maturation. Some people do seem to behave as if they're "65 going on 40" and vice versa.

"Social age" measures the age that others gauge a person to be. This can be a source of age discrimination among those who associate various limitations with advancing age. But it also can affect biased views that a younger person's capabilities are solely a function of their chronological age.

"Career stage" (sometimes called career age or occupational age) assigns a person's age in the context of his or her career or occupation. This measure of age calibrates the person's acquisition of knowledge, competencies, and experiences against a developmental yardstick. It often differs greatly from chronological age.

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"Tenure" is commonly understood to be the length of an employee's relationship with an employing organization. "Organizational age," a more expansive concept, looks at the relationships an employee may have also had with a supervisor and possibly a department or team.

"Normative age" takes into account a society's expectations of age-appropriate roles and transitions. "Age-related expectations and norms are woven into the fabric of societies

around the world," the report said. "Varying from culture to culture, there are both explicit and unspoken expectations about the 'right' age for certain experiences, transitions, or roles."

"Generational age" cohorts are determined by birth years, and thus linked closely to chronological age. Beyond baby boomers and other generational groups defined by their chronological ages, there also can be generational groupings formed by the shared experiences of powerful events and trends. The Depression is one such formational force, Pitt-Catsouphes says. More recently, so is "9/11."

"Relative age" acknowledges that we may compare our own aging experiences with the aging experiences of those around us, such as members of our work group. In the workplace, the Sloan report noted, "Employees who see themselves as old, regardless of their chronological age, may feel less effective than those who perceive themselves to be young or even middle-aged."

"Life events age" refers to important transitional experiences that shape the roles we assume. Because being a spouse or parent strongly influences social roles and activities, these shared characteristics can bond people of varying chronological ages.

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"Subjective age" is the overall assessment a person makes of his or her age and can translate into a feeling of being young or old. You may arrive at a subjective age that differs a lot from your chronological age. This decision may be yours to make, but it is influenced by any number of ways you are judged and treated by the people and institutions with whom you interact.