Book Review: ‘Aging and Time’

“Time flies when you’re having fun!” is one of many carefree adages about the subjective nature of time in the English language, although others are more ominous: “Time waits for no man!” Relatedly, it is not an uncommon experience to hear colleagues (and, oftentimes, oneself) exclaim, “How quickly this semester [or year or summer recess] has gone by!” or “How X should have achieved much more by this stage in their career.” This edited volume is about the so-called “.nitude” of time. That is, how the years seem to become experientially and exponentially shorter as we pass middle age and thereafter, and how cognizant we become of our own limited time left and mortality. As such then, this edited book should be of existential value, as well as academic relevance, to all scholars, irrespective of their specialties. The physical sciences have invested in this topic, as is evident from chapters 6-9 by Uffink and Yates. We, on the other hand, as communication scholars in general–let alone those working on communication and aging more specifically–have not expended much effort after investigating temporal aspects of our subject matter (but for important exceptions in organizational settings, see Ballard & Seibold [2000, 2006]). Ultimately, this product provides little emancipation for understanding how various people of the same year can “age” so differently the curiously avowed aim of this book (given its title and theme). Yet, it is, nonetheless, a unique resource for those wishing to engage such mysteries and opens up the doors for us to begin studying the discourses of time in everyday and applied realms.

After a short introductory chapter, Baars writes a more substantive essay about the historical study of time in the west, drawing on (among others) Aristotle’s and Heidegger’s treatises. Ultimately, a case is made for personal (as well as cultural) narratives about time and aging–the so-called “autobiographical self”–as being as important as the well-heeled measures of chronological and psychological time. Chapter 3 by van der Meer provides a useful cognitive discussion of the latter concept, with due attention to subjective futures. Importantly for us, Baars makes the point that “it is apparently impossible to communicate a direct (“hyletic”) experience of time without language or concepts, which not only interfere with, but also give shape to experience” (my italics, p. 26; see also Tsuji, 2005). To press this further than even Baars’ position, it could be that how we talk about the timing of our personal (as well as group) identities through life stories may be more informative about aging than biological, physical, and psychological conceptions of time.

Dittmann-Kohli develops this focus on narrative identity and time in chapter 4, discussing important data derived from 600 younger and older adults using a sentence completion task. The two groups articulated qualitatively very different future time spans and “possible selves.” For example, older people spoke of the preservation of current states (e.g., “still”) and decline, whereas those younger spoke of hopes, goals, ambitions, and growth. The magnitude of such patterns was starkly divergent in that older people mentioned, for example, the limited duration of life 540 times and past events 564 times (see Barker [2007] on functions of painful self-disclosures), whereas their younger counterparts’ renderings were merely 54 and 57, respectively. In the next chapter, Warner-Schaie introduces different dimensions of “event time” as, for example, in its type (e.g., Vietnam War, 9/11, and gay marriage issues), impact (e.g., of Apartheid), and duration (e.g., accelerating).

The four chapters just highlighted–which comprise most of this volume anyway (pp. 15-136)–are important springboards to the study of communication, time, and age; the rest of the volume (albeit quite dense in many places) usefully directs the novice to classic background materials and ideas. The final integrative chapter by Visser lays down a multidisciplinary agenda for further exploring this most human of issues and concerns, yet seems to underplay the vitality of communication matters, despite the attention to the narratological tendrils forged in the foregoing. For me, fundamental questions arise from reading this book and in contemplating its contents. They include the following: Can we invoke narrative forms to carve up the life span as, arguably, richer independent variables than traditional chronological and subjective indicators of age? To what extent do the messages we provide others regarding human finitude and temporality–and those provided to us by others and the media–promote self-demise as we inevitably indulge in such matters more and more over the life span? What communication management strategies and processes could intervene to counter any such destructive inclinations, how, and why?

This (admittedly expensive but scholarly, cross-disciplinary) volume has chapters varying in length, and overall, they would have benefitted from a common structure and coherence. Yet, it is essential reading for those teaching and/or researching aging on the one hand; those interested in perceptions, measurement, and experiences of time on the other; and those obviously captivated by the intersection of these crucial terrains.

Howard Giles, University of California, Santa Barbara


Ballard, D. I., & Seibold, D. R. (2000). Time orientation and temporal variation across work groups: Implications for group and organizational communication. Western Journal of Communication, 64, 218-242.

Ballard, D. I., & Seibold, D. R. (2006). The experience of time at work: Relationship to communication load, job satisfaction, and interdepartmental communication. Communication Studies, 57, 317-340.

Barker, V. (2007). Young adults’ reactions to grandparent painful self-disclosure: The in.uence of grandparent sex and overall motivations for communication. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 64, 195-215.

Tsuji, Y. (2005). Time is not up: Temporal complexity of older Americans’ lives. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 20, 3-26.