‘How old are you?’ Seems like a question with an obvious answer, at first glance. It depends on what you mean. I could say, for instance, ’50’ which says something, measured in chronological years. It’s not quite that straightforward, however, because (a) 50 only stems back to the date of my physical birth, (b) it is only an approximate age and (c) it only indicates my physical age.
Strange as it may sound, notions of age are actually socially constructed. In some other cultures, a person’s birthday is based on date of conception, not on date of birth, according to which reckoning I am now 51, not 50. In other words, the answer to the question of how old I am isn’t fixed but actually depends on the cultural context within which the question is framed.
And 50 is only an approximation. I could add a certain number of months, weeks, hours, minutes and seconds to make it more precise but that still creates another difficulty. Firstly, it depends on at which specific moment in time I was technically ‘born’ as distinct from ‘not born’ and how accurate we want to make the measurement. This gets quite challenging mathematically.
The reason is that measuring time is a bit like measuring space, or distance. It’s difficult to get a precise reading because it assumes two clearly defined points, whether in time or space, and fixed units of measurement to measure the difference between them. Each unit, no matter how small, can be subdivided into smaller units which, when measuring time, weirdly makes age infinite.
Now if that’s not hard enough to get our heads around, I will try to explain what I mean. We break down years into months, months into weeks, weeks into days, days into hours, hours into minutes, minutes into seconds etc. The fact is, however, that no matter how hard we try to measure my age, we could make it more accurate still by subdividing the units...indefinitely.
If that all sounds a bit pedantic, I want to raise another issue concerning age. Why do we use physical duration as the sole or primary determinant’? After all, this paradigm or emphasis is itself socially constructed. We could conceive, for instance, a culture within which physical age isn’t regarded as at all significant, but where other features or characteristics are.
In such an imagined culture, I could answer the question along the lines of, for instance, ‘I am 20 countries old’ (using number of places I’ve visited as the unit of measurement) or, ‘I am two children old’ (using number of offspring) or, ‘I am 15 places old’ (using number of places where I have lived) etc. The unit of measurement, although appearing self-evident, is culturally determined.
So what does all this point to? That reality isn’t always as fixed or straightforward as we naturally assume it to be, that there are multiple different ways of constructing the same experience or phenomenon, that our focus and way of seeing the world is shaped largely by culture, that exploring alternatives can free up fresh and exciting possibilities for thought, feeling and action.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.