Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

"It's about Time": Applying Life Span and Life Course Perspectives to the Study of Subjective Age

Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

"It's about Time": Applying Life Span and Life Course Perspectives to the Study of Subjective Age

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Subjective age, a component of subjective aging, has received growing empirical attention locally and globally. Reflecting the age individuals perceive themselves to be, subjective age involves the experience of time along multiple dimensionsincluding lifetime, marked by movement through developmental life stages and socially structured, historically contextualized life course transitions. However, issues of temporality have received limited attention in studies of subjective age. We address this limitation by considering subjective age through the lens of two theoretical perspectives that center on temporality: the life span and life course perspectives. The life span perspective illuminates variation across and within life stages by pointing to developmental processes and age triggers that drive age identity. The life course perspective highlights other temporal issues that shape age-related patterns in subjective age, pointing to social, cultural, and historical factors that impact developmental processes. We employ these perspectives to organize what is known about subjective age and to suggest new contexts and connections for further research. Our analysis calls attention to the importance of considering the multidimensionality of subjective age across broad spans of time as well as the need to explore intersections among developmental processes, life course trajectories, and historical contexts.

INTRODUCTION

Subjective aging entails a constellation of age-related constructs, one of which is subjective age, or the age an individual feels (Diehl et al., 2014). Also referred to as "age identity," subjective age has been the focus of growing empirical interest, as illustrated by the inclusion of subjective age measures in large-scale national and international surveys of aging and adult development (e.g., Midlife in the United States [MIDUS], Health and Retirement Survey, Berlin Aging Study, German Aging Survey). This interest has sparked discussions about the components and measurement of subjective age, along with investigations of diverse demographic and psychological correlates in an attempt to pin down factors fueling age identity. Although informative, existing research has not fully exploited two prominent theoretical frameworks that consider temporal processes: life span developmental and life course perspectives. Our chapter shows the use of these frameworks for organizing what is known about subjective age and suggesting new connections and contexts for future explorations.

Both perspectives address the unfolding of human lives across time, but they have different vantage points. The life span developmental perspective focuses on the psychological processes generating change and continuity among individuals across their lives (Baltes, 1987). Although this perspective takes the individual as the starting point, the more sociologically oriented life course perspective begins with the age-related structuring of social life across intersecting domains, such as paid work, family, and education (Elder, Johnson, & Crosnoe, 2003). Life span and life course perspectives can inform the study of subjective age, given its link to the experience of time across multiple levels. At the individual level, subjective age is shaped by the passage of lifetime, marked by movement through life stages with unique developmental challenges as well as socially structured transitions constituting the life course. Subjective age also has a transient temporal dimension influenced by fleeting, everyday experiences-for example, the momentary, situation-specific feeling of being "old." In addition to reflecting the passage of individual lifetime and daily temporal rhythms, subjective age operates at a social level, entailing sociocultural and structural dimensions. It is influenced by social meanings of age that often are embedded within social institutions-for example, views of 65 as the start of old age, deriving from Social Security criteria. …

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