Ageing and Society

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Ageing and Society (2009), 29:883-901 Cambridge University Press
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

Research Article

Writing about age, birthdays and the passage of time


a1 Centre for Ageing and Biographical Studies, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.
Article author query
bytheway b [PubMed]  [Google Scholar]


How do we experience ageing, how do we interpret changes in our lives and what do we say about the passage of time? The aim of this paper is to present longitudinal evidence about the personal and social significance of birthdays in adult life and, in particular, how birthdays contribute to a sense of ageing. The primary source of data is the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex. Members of its panel of ‘ordinary’ people living in the United Kingdom were in 1990 invited to write anonymously about celebrations, and in 2002 they were invited to write more specifically on the topic of birthdays. A total of 120 accepted both invitations and 55 included accounts of their last birthday in both submissions. As a consequence, it is possible to compare what they wrote on the two occasions and how this reflects their unfolding experience and changing feelings about age. The analysis reveals the personal salience of the date of a birthday and of continuity in how birthdays are celebrated. Who remembers birthdays and who participates in their celebration reflect the generational structure of families and age-related patterns of friendship. Birthdays are used to celebrate collective continuity more than individual change.

(Accepted February 17 2009)

Key Words:chronological age; change; annual cycle; anniversary; celebration; family; friends


c1 Address for correspondence: Bill Bytheway, Faculty of Health and Social Care, The Open University, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, UK. E-mail: