To laypersons (and to many sociologists in their unguarded moments) it seems absurd to think about age as anything but chronological fact and as something every individual simply is. Like race and gender, for most people, most of the time, age is unproblematic. When asked “How old are you?” we offer the number of years since our birth. When someone directs us to act our age, we know what age is (the number of years since our birth), usually know what is being demanded of us, and often are prepared to account for our “misbehavior.” We assume that as people get older they will fulfill different roles in a predictable sequence. When the sequence or timing is altered, we linguistically mark the discrepancy (teenage mothers, nontraditional students), and we want an explanation, an account, for being “off time.”
As with race and gender, the apparently objective and factual nature of age make it ideal for sociological inquiry. Sociologists now understand race as a social construction rather than a biological “fact.” Race is defined by and constituted within social groups (How much “blood” makes one black or Native American?), and it is accomplished by individuals (What does it mean to “pass” as one race and not another?). Moreover, a sociological understanding of race has led us to appreciate more fully the relations of power and the pervasive normative ideas that create and sustain the supposedly biological “fact” of race.
Similarly, sociologists understand gender as a social construction and individual accomplishment. Gender is defined and constituted within social groups (What does masculinity entail for a heterosexual steelworker? a gay bank manager?), and it is accomplished by individuals in interaction (How does a woman in a male-dominated job “act” feminine?). Further, normative cultural ideas traditionally have equated gender with women. We view the dominant group, in this case men, as if its members had no gender.
There is much to suggest that age, like race and gender, is anything but natural and involves much more than the number of years since one’s birth. “Act your age. You’re a big kid now,” we say to children to encourage independence (or obedience). “Act your age. Stop being so childish,” we say to other adults when we think they are being irresponsible. “Act your age; you’re not as young as you used to be,” we say to an old person pursuing “youthful” activities. The sanctioned ages vary, but the command “Act!” remains the same. When we say “act your age” we press for behavior that conforms to norms. However, the saying also expresses a commonsense understanding that age is not natural or fixed, and it implies that age requires work, i.e. physical or mental effort. As such, the saying encapsulates a fundamentally sociological view of age and provides us with the useful metaphor of performance. Age is an act.