“How old are you?” is a question I have always found mildly confusing. What is my interlocutor trying to learn about me? Age can mean many things — whether you can vote, drive, drink — but it’s also used as an indicator of where you are in life, what you may or may not have experienced, your political views, your values.
That’s a problem.
These days, given the broader variety of educational models, higher mobility and more possibilities for autonomy, age does not convey what it used to. It used to be that one could assume almost with certainty that a 17-year-old is a high schooler living at home, maybe with a bit of working experience, but whose main worries were social life and grades. Now, 17-year-olds are activists or own businesses or live an ocean away from their parents, worry about grades, social life, college, internships, building a “brand” and so much more. It’s also true that 25-year-olds may never have left their childhood homes and can be connected to the world from their living rooms.
Granted, age has never been an accurate way to evaluate someone’s life — there have always been children with adult concerns and adults who go about the world like children. But with the power of today’s technology and the expectations of our society, age has become even more inexact. It still stands for something — but that mostly pertains to law (whether you can see an R-rated movie, drive, drink, vote, join the military, etc.). When it comes to maturity, work and life experiences, even political views, age today gives few indications.
A college campus is a perfect example of how little age can matter. I was born in mid-2000, which means that until mid-spring last year, I could not even sign basic waivers. And yet I’m a sophomore in college, living on my own, with a job, across the country from my family. There are sophomores turning 18 this year and others turning 22. On campus, I’ve met people from all walks of life, from all levels of professional and cultural backgrounds, from the entire breadth of the political spectrum.
At Stanford, frosh, other undergraduates and graduate students can socialize, join similar clubs, take the same classes. In a place like this, age doesn’t matter as much as experience, curiosity, socioeconomic and cultural background, personality and interests. That is a great thing. Age never comes up at the beginning but rather as a casual “Oh wait, how old are you again?” sometime down the line.
We’ll never stop asking how old people are. But even if we do, we should take the age for what it is, a number, and focus instead on asking the person what they’ve lived, where they are now and what matters to them.
Contact Axelle Marcantetti at axellem ‘at’ stanford.edu.