Birthdays and Age

After yesterday’s thoughts on why someone wouldn’t know the exact date of their birthday, I thought it would be interesting to consider some of the ways a person could still register age without a date.  Some of the concepts below are likely to be things that are used in real cultures, although I don’t know enough to tell you which ones.  (If you know, please share!)

The reason to consider age, rather than date, is related to the use of the information.  The exact date doesn’t matter to everyone, but a generalized concept of how old you are groups you with people of similar age and designates your role and responsibilities in society.

Without a calendar, people may not register an actual age.  Instead, they might simply divide their lives into segments that can be marked by physical changes.  When you hit puberty, you become an adult and take on a different role in society.  When a woman goes through menopause, her role changes again.  (With men, it is harder to mark an end to breeding/productivity, but perhaps there is a way to define that as well.)  This would be most likely seen in a smaller, simpler society, perhaps hunter-gatherers or early agrarian cultures.

Another option, with or without a calendar, is to count age by the year rather than the day.  In this model, there would be one day that everyone “ages up,” perhaps tied to a cultural holiday or a special day of its own.  Everyone who was born after the previous celebration but before the current one would be considered “one” and start counting there.  It would feel a bit odd to us, especially because we tend to count age in months up to 2 or 3 years old, but it ends up working the same as far as dividing kids into cohorts.  Really, a 13-month-old and a 22-month-old are both still “one” by the way we count birthdays; they just get to “two” on different days.

None of this helps people who don’t know their age because it wasn’t recorded or told to them.  Those folks just have to guess, and they can use the people around them to figure out their general age.  And really, if they live in a world where the exact date doesn’t matter, estimating is probably good enough.