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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

The Dubious Grouping of Ages


I ASSUME THAT he who sees a cup as half empty will try to conserve what he has, while he who sees a cup as half full will proceed to fill it further. I also assume that those who have lived longer tend to be more conscious of what has been lost than of what is available, while the young, not having lost much, tend to be more embracing of new things.

At the same time, those who have had to deal with endless changes in life may often be more prepared to fill the half-full cup while those who have not dealt with great changes may remain contented with their half-empty cup.

Whatever the case, it is hard to make a clear-cut statement about people in general. We do hypothesise though; we need to, or the world would remain too complicated for us to manoeuvre.

But then, there are hypotheses and postulations, and then there are biases and prejudices. The difference

between them is vital. The former assumes tentativeness while the latter function as axioms.

Tentativeness Is Key

The greatest contribution of the Social Sciences to human knowledge is exactly the promotion of the tentative attitude in the formulation of statements about society and humanity, for the sake of ascertaining causal relations in an observed or assumed collective characteristic.

So, when one postulates, for example, that “The natives are lazy,” one has to explore what is meant by “natives”, and what is meant by “lazy”, and then come up with a formulation that consists of terms that are as objective and neutral as

one can manage. Then one constructs a testable procedure to ascertain whatever one then wishes to learn. If the wish to learn is missing, then one is most probably being axiomatic with one’s statement.

Apart from ethnicity (or race, if one wishes to be more 20th- century-ish in one’s approach), some categories that have been very troublesome in recent decades relate to gender, age, religion, sexual preferences and, perhaps, class.

Reading these terms one after the other, one should immediately see what they have in common. They are all essentially multi-dimensional, multi-faceted and multiaxial in meaning, and yet most individuals can easily place themselves within them, at least officially. More intriguingly, they are social categories that are useful to the exercise of political power and to the regimentation of society, and that are furthermore in official contexts reduced into either/ or queries or single-dimensional definitions.

But what are we humans outside of these pigeonholes? How individuals experience themselves outside of social categorisations is the domain of philosophers, artists and eremites, I suppose, but that is also where humans – as individuals – get interesting.

Experiencing All the Ages

I find the issue of Age especially fascinating in that the individual human, health allowing, will throughout his life run the whole gamut, from being infant to being infirmed, as it were. It is also a category for which our answer changes almost every time we are asked.

Perhaps it was the Age of Consumerism that first heightened the relevance of age grouping. The teenager came into being in the 1940s, for reasons cultural and commercial, after the Second World War had reset the Western world. In fact, age soon became a cultural denominator for all cultures more than it had ever done in human history.

We see that most clearly now, when Gen X, Y and Z are used to describe, ascribe or prescribe patterns of behaviour as distinctly as ethno-cultural ones are blatantly used to do. And as with these latter exercises in exclusion and inclusion, age grouping can breed misunderstandings, envy and aversion as well. How scientifically viable these terms actually are, outside the world of marketers and psychologists, is very unclear.

The biasing of age groups happens up and down the age dimension, simplifying human experience and behaviour and dismissing the diversity of human individuality in the process, often for no good reason.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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