Social age generally refers to the level of a person’s social and psychological capacities while chronological age is the number of years which a person has lived since his/her birth. The difference between chronological age and biological age is that the former does not take into consideration one’s health status while the latter does[i]. Often, chronological age is discussed in contrast to social age, yet are they necessarily conflicting terms or concepts? In order for two seemingly contradicting terms or concepts to be compared and contrasted, those who discuss them have to subconsciously be aware of underlying conceptual commonalities between them[ii]; otherwise, their similarities or differences could not be discussed or explored. The following sections will discuss: (1) capacity, identity, and development and (2) relationship between chronological and social age.
Capacity, Identity, and Development
According to Setterstein and Mayer, both the chronological age and social age are thought to be components of ‘aging,’ or human development[iii]. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson proposed the theory of psychosocial development, which has eight stages of psychosocial development, based on one’s chronological age, across the lifespan[iv]. This is sometimes called biopsychosocial (i.e., biological, psychological, social) theory of development because the three dimensions of the ‘aging’ are interrelated. The table below shows the eight stages:
|Trust vs. mistrust||0 – 1 years||Hope|
|Autonomy vs. shame and doubt||18 months – 3 years||Will|
|Initiative vs. guilt||3 – 5 years||Purpose|
|Industry vs. inferiority||5 -12 years||Competence|
|Identity vs. role confusion||12 -18 years||Fidelity|
|Intimacy vs. isolation||18 – 40 years||Love|
|Generativity vs. stagnation||40 – 65 years||Care|
|Integrity vs. Despair||65 years and older||Wisdom|
The theory posits that each stage emerges as a developmental crisis occurs. Each ‘crisis’ pair shows the cognitive conflict that emerges as one grows to learn a ‘virtue’ which is supposed to be obtained with successful handling of the crisis. A similar age-based theory of cognitive development was proposed by psychologist Jean Piaget[v]. Both appeared to have thought that a person would go through the sequential developmental stages according to the chronological age, to develop certain cognitive abilities and/or psychosocial growth.
Critique on the Sequential Theories
This standpoint, however, should be viewed with care. As discussed later, social age, especially when it comes to the level of a person’s sense of self-efficacy, locus of control, and life satisfaction, has much to do with his/her individual dispositions, such as personalities, general attitudes toward life, and the level of personal growth achieved[vi]. A person’s social age may be either enhanced or stunted depending on the kinds of experiences that the person has and how they were dealt with regardless of the person’s chronological age.
Another point of debate is the cultural relevance of the theories. Although Erikson believed that these stages take place universally in all humans, it should be noted that his psychosocial development theory may have limited applicability to culturally diverse settings because, as psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued, human social and cognitive development takes place in contexts[vii]. For example, a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has grown up in chronic extreme poverty and with exposure to civil war is unlikely to follow this series of developmental pattern because of, for example, the absence of necessary parental guidance or his/her needs to ‘grow up fast.’
Relationship between Chronological and Social Age
The psychosocial development theory integrates the aspect of chronological, social, and cognitive/psychological development, but how are chronological age and social age related? First, several scholars have noted the limitations of the use of chronological age as a cause or factor of one’s social development[viii]. These arguments include that:
- Chronological age does not explain or propel a person’s social development, or development tasks by itself [ix].
- Chronological age is not an effective indicator of one’s social capacity because social age is a multidimensional concept[x].
These arguments suggest that there are other factors to be taken into consideration in order to discuss the relationship between chronological and social age. Before discussing it, it is helpful to examine the relationships between chronological age and subjective age. According to Montepare, subjective age was a useful means of understanding one’s identity, motivation, and social influence[xi] especially among those in emerging adulthood[xii], during which social role transitions occur[xiii]. Montepare conceptualized subjective age as having two subcomponents, which are: (1) biological age (not chronological age) and (2) psychological age. On the other hand, Setterstein and Mayer contended that chronological age is one component of ‘aging,’[xiv] which involve “gains, losses, reorganization, and exchange” in the following three dimensions[xv]:
- Biological functions.
- Psychological functions (e.g., psychosocial growth, cognitive development, capacity-building).
- Social functions (e.g., membership to larger communities).
Aging, according to Setterstein and Mayer, is a holistic concept, which a study conducted by Galambos, Turner, and Tilton-Weaver appears to confirm. The authors investigated the relationship between chronological and subjective age with a university-based sample (N = 190) by asking about their health status, economic pressure, alcohol use, and so forth. This study found that:
- Subjective age older than their chronological age among adolescents was associated with the participants’ problem behaviors, such as sexual relationships with multiple partners and substance abuse, which are indicative of low social age. The study, however, did not investigate the gender differences in these findings although it is often the case that male respondents report a greater number of ‘problem behaviors’ than their female counterparts (i.e., social desirability bias[xvi],[xvii]).
- Subjective age older than their chronological age in older adults was associated with poor physical and psychological health, which are indicative of lower social age (i.e., ability to manage and cope with one’s physical and psychological declines, a low level of satisfaction in aging) than socially expected.
Human development, or aging, occurs concurrently with chronological aging, social aging, and psychological aging in many individuals. As stated above, since the process of development is largely influenced by the social and psychological factors, it should not come as a surprise that culture is thought to contribute to maturation patterns specific to the cultural context[xviii]. Nonetheless, the following cross-cultural similarities in the relationships among subjective and chronological age have been found in previous studies:
- Crossover Effect[xix]: Older people feel younger than their chronological age when compared to younger people, who often feel about as old as their chronological age, or in cases of adolescents, older than their chronological age[xx].
- Some of the determinants of the perceived younger subjective age include: optimism; higher self-efficacy; internal locus of control; extraversion; higher conscientiousness; higher levels of personal growth and generativity[xxi].
- These can be good indicators of one’s own social and psychological maturation[xxii].
- Studies on self-perception of aging have shown that subjective age and a person’s satisfaction in aging are correlated[xxiii].
- Demographic characteristics, such as age, race, gender, income, education, were not associated with the subjective age[xxiv].
Taken together with the above findings, it is difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between chronological age and subjective age cross-culturally. Based on the associations and findings covered in this paper, however, it can be argued for the following:
- Chronological age and associated social and behavioral expectation can contribute to one’s desired social age, which affects one’s subjective age.
- One’s subjective age is reflective of the level of congruence between social and behavioral expectations associated with a person’s chronological age and one’s perceptions of actual social status, accomplishments, wellness, and hardships.
- Congruence between chronological age and social age may be an element of an appropriate subjective age.
- Subjective age can be a general indicator of one’s physical or psychosocial well-being appropriate for one’s life stage.
Social age and chronological age are often discussed as contrasting concepts and it may be intuitive to think that they are conceptually different. In fact, however, a number of scholars have implied associations between them. Setterstein and Mayer argued for a holistic process of aging. This is partially consistent with Erikson’s psychosocial development theory and Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory, both of which implied the mediating role of chronological age in one’s psychosocial and cognitive development, respectively. While these theories are often considered universally applicable to all humans, scrutiny must be required when applying them to culturally different contexts, where different and often complex social, economic, political factors are involved to affect a person’s social age. Obviously, in addition to cross-cultural variations, there are individual-level variations in social age even among those in the same chronological age group.
Setterstein and Mayer posited that the holistic process of aging, involving both chronological and social age, interacts with the social expectations about one’s social capacity to handle physical and/or psychosocial hardships. Dissatisfaction in this process and/or outcomes may result in older subjective age. It can be argued that the congruence between social and chronological age can be a determinant of one’s physical and/or psychosocial wellbeing, manifested in one’s subjective age.