Age is not just a number

It’s not uncommon for people to say “age is just a number.” But there are at least two different meanings for the phrase.

It is quite conceivable that a middle-aged person could say the phrase “age is just a number” and either be a hero because they just ran a marathon, or be a sex offender because they’re hitting on a teenager after school.

And in both cases, the phrase is right. And wrong. Age is just a number, in the sense that any measured quantity is just that — a measurement. The classic grade school math scenario, “John has 4 apples…,” is just about applying an arbitrary number system to a random, human situation. It doesn’t really matter if John has 4 apples. Or .278 pounds of apples. But it does matter if John has zero apples. And he hasn’t eaten today.

Measuring things is necessary. We can’t function as human beings if we can’t communicate quantities to one another. So the real question is how important is it to measure age.

In the strictest practical sense, measuring age is entirely unnecessary. Biologically speaking, there is nothing you can or cannot do because you are a certain age. Yes, your body matures over time; your body becomes more capable and then less capable so as it gets older. But there’s no fixed rule that says that you are able to reproduce at age 13, strong enough to fight in a war at 18, or incapable of driving a car at 80. Perhaps those numbers hold true for a majority of humans, but they certainly don’t apply to everybody.

Who’s to say that you’re an adult at 18 instead of 21? That you can be married at 13, but not 12? Are you inherently a better driver at 16 years old than you are at 15 years and 364 days?

The simple fact is that age, as it applies to real world situations, is an artificial construct that we’ve decided upon as a society. We, collectively, have decided that levels of maturity must be delineated. That we can’t just allow individuals to decide for themselves that they are “old enough” in a given situation. Chronological age is a reflection of how we have decided to judge one another.

When you turn 18, you are automatically capable of making your own decisions. You are automatically responsible for the consequences. If you commit a crime as a 17 year old, you might get punished as an adult. But if you commit a crime at age 18 years and 1 day, then you will never benefit from a juvenile sentence.

Under the formal strictures of our society, if you’re 18, that’s it. But in everyday life, we’re more flexible.

If we’re dealing with our own children, or somebody we feel sympathy for, we’re more likely to treat somebody younger than they actually are. We’re more likely to call our misbehaving child a teenager, even if he’s 19. If we’re making excuses for somebody, we can go as high as mid-twenties and still consider them to be young.

Similarly, if we’re talking about an older person, than we can exaggerate in our minds how mature we believe that person to be.

“He’s 34? Oh, he should’ve known better.”

“He died at 72? Oh, he’s lived a good life.”

There are no factual bases for making these distinctions. Nobody is interviewing the perceived “old” people to determine the reality of their lives. We are judging these people in our minds based purely on the number of years that our calendar determines they have lived.

Imagine a scenario where violence happens between an 18 year old and a 26 year old. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the two people’s perceived ages would be reversed. If the 26 year old is seen as a victim, observers could easily comment on his/her youth, even though the other person is much younger, chronologically speaking. There have certainly been times when an 18 year old suspect was identified as a “man” when he could have been more thoughtfully defined as a “teenager” or even a “high school student.”

So should we not even consider a person’s chronological age when we go about our daily lives? Perhaps not. But in many situations that is probably an impossible task. There are undoubtedly scenarios where we must size up a person, and determining their age could factor into our decision making process. If you were hiring a person to do a job, you would rightly consider their experience level. Likewise, if you needed to decide whether or not you could trust a person to complete a task, you could use their perceived maturity to gauge their reliability.

But in other situations, it’s just not relevant. And more to the point, we should make sure it’s relevant before we act on the distinction. If we wouldn’t care that a victim was 18 or 26, then it shouldn’t matter to us whether the perpetrator was 18 or 26. And vice versa.

If we find ourselves mitigating a person’s culpability (“But he’s only 24”) then we should ask ourselves why that person’s age actually affects how we feel. Is it more tragic that a person is relatively young? Is more disappointing that a person was unable to act more maturely?

Or are we just making excuses? Are we just looking for reasons not to stick to our core beliefs?

And in those situations, is age a true measure of that person? Or is age just a number?