Life Course and Transitions to Adulthood

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Life Course and Transitions to Adulthood

The idea of the life course is relatively new, a concept, like that of human evolution, that reflects the modern tendency to think of everything (species, nations, individuals) as developing through time in a certain irreversible sequence. Today, we think of stages of life in the same way we think of periods of history, as separate and distinct, each with its own peculiar qualities. We think of adulthood (a term that was not used until 1870) as being far removed from the ages that precede it. In the modern understanding of development through time, childhood and youth often seem like foreign counties, to which we can connect only through memory.

Nostalgia for childhood is a unique feature of modern culture. Prior to the nineteenth century, people yearned for certain places but not for certain pasts. They did not feel separated from either their own individual pasts or the pasts of the societies to which they belonged. Both life and history were imagined to be short, containing everything that had existed or would ever exist. Different stages of life were, like different eras of history, variations on a similar theme. Children and adults were simply bigger and smaller versions of one another. In the traditional representations of the ages of man, elderly people were often given childlike qualities. It was not that there was no recognition of differences between children and adults, but rather that there was no inclination to emphasize or institutionalize them in the ways that modern Western middle-class cultures have done. It is not that the biological and psychological processes of aging have changed, but rather that our understanding of what it means to age has altered.

Prior to the nineteenth century, age groups mixed together in ways that make modern age-conscious societies very uneasy. In the early twenty-first century, as the problematic character of age segregation has become more apparent, we have come to have a greater appreciation of these premodern sensibilities. We were first alerted to these by Philippe AriÈs's 1962 Centuries of Childhood. Today we are even more aware of the limitations of notions like the "life course" and "adulthood," understanding that they cannot be applied to every historical period, but belong specifically to a modern sensibility which may even now be in the process of changing. It is useful therefore to think of three distinct eras in the history of the Western transitions to adulthood: the premodern, modern, and late modern.

Premodern Transitions to Adulthood

In preindustrial Europe and North America much less attention was paid to distinctions between ages. Life was not perceived as a series of distinct, sharply defined stages organized in a certain uniform age-graded sequence. Schooling was far from universal, with pupils entering and exiting at a wide variety of ages. At the universities, young boys sat in classes alongside adult males. The sequences of a woman's life differed from that of a man's, and transitions also varied by economic status among both sexes. The age of majority, the legal transition to adulthood, varied not only by region but status group. In a world where who you were born to was far more important than when you were born, elite males assumed military and civilian office at very young ages. The age of consent differed from place to place and there were no age limits on entry into or exit from most occupations. The age of marriage varied widely and there was little sense of being "too young" or "too old" in a society where most people did not know their own age with any great precision. Precocity was honored, but so too was seniority. There were no mandatory retirement ages, but, on other hand, there were no special protections provided for either the young or the old. Everything depended on one's ability to perform rather than on age criteria.

The unimportance of age criteria was related to the demographic and economic conditions of a preindustrial society. Prior to the nineteenth century, high death rates were compensated for by high fertility rates. Average life expectancy in Western societies remained below fifty, though there was considerable variation by status. There was considerable mortality at every stage of life, but the greatest uncertainty was in childhood, where one-quarter of all children died before the age of one, and half were dead by age twenty-one. As a consequence, fertility rates remained high; and inability to control the number of living children left many parents in a situation where they could not support their surviving offspring much beyond early childhood. Rates of poverty comparable to today's developing countries contributed not only to high levels of child labor within families, but to the vast circulation of children among households, usually from the households of the poor to those of the propertied classes. In some European regions, as many as three-quarters of children had left home by their mid-teens. The notion that preindustrial society consisted of multigenerational families rooted in a particular place by a small farm or business is a nostalgic fantasy with no basis in reality.

The preindustrial, prewage economy was household rather than family based. The possession of an economically viable household was a virtual prerequisite for marriage. Couples waited for a household to become available, one of the reasons the age of marriage was relatively late and rates of marriage relatively low by modern standards. Slaves and those too poor to acquire a household were often prevented from marrying, though many cohabited clandestinely. But only those with the status of a master or mistress of a household were accorded the full status of maturity. The other members of the household, even those who were of the same or older ages, remained "boys" or "girls," terms that defined their subordinate place in the household hierarchy rather than indicated their actual age. Indeed, in a society that saw itself as a static great chain of being organized in spatial terms of high and low rather than in temporal terms of early and late, an aged retainer addressing the teenage head of the household as "sir" or "madam" made perfect sense.

The uncertainty of life, together with extremes of economic and social inequality, account for the lack of universal age categories in the premodern West. Space rather than time organized generational relations inside and outside households. Furthermore, there were no powerful organizations interested in, much less capable of, organizing society by age criteria. European states still depended on mercenary armies, so there was no need to set ages of military service. Political power was a privilege of the propertied, so age was irrelevant to it as well. It would not be until the introduction of universal male citizenship during the American and French Revolutions that voting age became the issue it has remained ever since. As long as literacy remained a luxury, largely irrelevant to the functioning of the economy, states had no interest in organizing schooling. Sumptuary laws that is, laws governing what certain classes and groups of people could and could not wearexisted, but they were aimed at maintaining the existing social hierarchy rather than maintaining the order of age groups. Children and adults drank, ate, smoked, worked, and played alongside one another without heed to the age and gender distinctions that modern society later learned to regard as natural and therefore sacrosanct. In such a world, transitions from one age to the next were rarely marked and the terms for childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age were vague and general. Before the nineteenth century only the elites marked birthdays, and then only toward the end of life. Both boys and girls passed into youth without specific rites of passage.

Religious ceremonies like confirmation and bar mitzvah were of much less significance then, and were not tied so closely to specific ages. In the absence of schools, there were no graduation ceremonies; in the absence of the draft, no age-related military rites of passage existed. The one great rite of passage was marriage, publically celebrated by the community on the occasion of the creation of a new household. It clearly marked a momentous transition for both the man and woman involved, but it was less age than status related. It was less a transition to a stage of life called adulthood (the word itself did not yet exist) than an elevation to a higher place in the social hierarchy, a spatial rather than a temporal realignment. The new bride and groom were perceived not as older, but higher, the thing that mattered most in a world still organized by space rather than time.

Modern Transitions to Adulthood, 18701970

The concurrent industrial and democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century not only changed the course of history but placed change at the center of modern consciousness. Older notions of a static great chain of being gave way to a dynamic view of the world in which individuals, nations, and species were seen as developing through linear time, following certain universal irreversible sequences. In a process which Martin Kohli has called chronologization, a normative life course, with certain set stages and turning points, came into being, first among the middle classes and ultimately for society at large. By the middle of the twentieth century, not only the clocks and calendars, but the lives of Europeans and North Americans had become synchronized to a remarkable degree.

The lowering of the death and birth rates made chronologization possible. With the lowering of mortality, life became more predictable and for the first time in human history longevity became a reasonable expectation for everyone. Now aging became a personal responsibility, yet another of life's many challenges. With an extended horizon of expectation, men began to plan their lives around a series of distinct stages leading from childhood to school, adult careers, and eventual retirement. Women's lives were planned around marriage and child rearing. Once child mortality rates fell, fertility also declined. This, combined with the conquest of poverty, allowed families to dispense with child labor.

In the course of the Industrial Revolution, the household ceased to be a productive unit. Men's work in urban areas moved outside the household, which now took on the characteristics of the modern "home," a separate sphere associated with women and children. Adequate wages and salaries brought home by male breadwinners meant that children no longer circulated from the households of the poor to those of the rich. Children stayed at home for longer periods and went to school, which became compulsory in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the first half of the twentieth century, their dependency on home and family was extended still further, creating the stage of life we now know as adolescence. Middle-class males were the first to experience adolescence, but by the twentieth century a female variation had come into being. After World War II, when university education became more general, yet another new stage of lifeyoung adulthoodbecame normative in the Western world.

Chronologization meant not only fixed ages for school entry, but age-graded curricula, classrooms, and promotion procedures. Children not only learned their time tables, but began to "act their age" as defined by new theories of child development, which established norms for each stage of life from infancy onwards. Birthdays became for the first time an important family occasion. In the course of the twentieth century, both childhood and adolescence were increasingly subjected to scientific and medical inquiry. In the age of new mass education, both precocity and retardation were stigmatized; and in the era of the nation-state, male adolescence moved in lock step through school into the cohort of drafteligible youth. While it was not until World War I that states commandeered women's time, the female life course also underwent its own form of chronologization. By the twentieth century, marriage was becoming not only more universal, but virtually compulsory. Women of all classes and ethnic groups began to feel the pressure to marry and have children at a certain age. To marry too early or too late was to forfeit their claim on true womanhood.

In the modern era, the stages of life became increasingly marked by official and unofficial rituals. Schools provided an increasingly complex set of entry and graduation ceremonies. Religions provided confirmation and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies to mark the transition from childhood to the newly invented status of adolescence. For boys going away to school furthered the process of both maturation and masculinization, but becoming a man often involved even more rigorous tests involving sports and military service. Upper-middle-class girls remained longer in the feminized orbit of home, making their transition to young womanhood through a series of rites culminating in the coming-out ball, placing them in the category of marriageable females. But the ultimate test of true womanhood was marriage leading to motherhood. Those who failed it, childless wives as well as spinsters, were condemned to feel inadequate and immature. The single male could still prove his masculinity in the world outside the family, but for women biology was regarded as destiny.

In industrial society, access to maturity had been democratized. No longer associated exclusively with heads of households, maturity was now seen as a time of life rather than a place in a social hierarchy. Yet it had its own norms and locales, notably the suburban single family home, the symbol of male earning power and female domesticity. By the 1950s marriage and home ownership had come to be the major transition to adulthood. For females, it was the wedding itself which formed the horizon of expectation; for males, it was the first mortgage which confirmed maturity. In any case, never before had marriage meant so much to so many as it did in the 1950s and 1960s, when marriage rates reached a historic high throughout the Western world. Equally telling is the fact that cohabitation was at an all time low, an indication of just how important being married was to the adult sense of self at the time.

By this time, Western societies had become extraordinarily age segregated. Class, gender, and ethnic life-course differences remained, but what is striking is the degree to which the life course had been divided into a series of discrete age groups, set apart not just temporally but spatially from one another. Children were now confined to their own worlds, complete with their own special foods, clothing, and forms of play. They were kept apart from adolescents, who now had a distinctive youth culture, complete with its own dress and music. Marriage automatically separated men and women into yet another set of separate worlds, identified with the suburbs, while for the growing body of elderly people there were now separate retirement communities. These novel forms of age apartheid were reinforced by a variety of laws regulating age-appropriate behavior and by the current psychological and medical theories of the life course, which defined anything but the prescribed sequence of life stages as abnormal. Those who did not conform to the strictly gendered and sexed rules of child development were stigmatized as deviant and consigned to the newly invented categories of the "retarded," "juvenile delinquent," or "homosexual."

The division of life into a series of radically different stages generated among adults a sense of being cut off from their own pasts. The yearning for "lost" childhood appeared first among middle-class men and gradually spread across class and gender to become a part of modern popular culture. Having failed to locate paradise in remote parts of the world, Western culture relocated it to the time of childhood. In a secular age which had ceased to believe in eternity, childhood became proof of immortality, the one thing that remained the same when everything else was constantly changing. Childhood became the most photographed and memorialized of all life's stages. "We fend off death's terrors, snapshot by snapshot," observes Anne Higonnet, "pretending to save the moment, halt time, preserve childhood intact" (p. 95). Even though families had fewer children, they became ever more child-centered. Family time came to be organized around children's meals, birthdays, and school holidays. The calendar was restructured in a similar way, with Christmas, Easter, and Hanukkah becoming child-centered holidays. While ostensibly organized for children, these occasions reflected adult desires to preserve their own remembered childhoods. By the mid-twentieth century, this effort to connect with and preserve an imagined past had become a driving force of Western consumer cultures. Ironically, the cult of childhood only reinforced the distance between adults and children, thus intensifying the nostalgia for "lost" childhood.

Late Modern Lives, 1970s and Beyond

From the late 1960s onward, the rules and institutions of chronologization began to be questioned. Young people chafed against age restrictions on consumption and voting; older folks balked at mandatory retirement, or sought to retire early. This was partly the result of changing demographics: the average life span had been extended by as much as twenty-five years since the beginning of the century, radically raising the proportion of elderly people while reducing the proportion of children and juveniles. The three stages of lifechildhood, adulthood, and old agethat once seemed natural and immutable were now challenged. Earlier maturation of children was reflected in the emergence of the "pre-teen," and adolescence was extended by education and late marriage into the twenties and even early thirties. At the other end of the life course the term "young-old" has appeared, and we distinguish between those still capable of living an active life (what Laslett calls the Third Age) from those who are not (the Fourth Age). The concept of adulthood itself has come under pressure with evidence of the increasing occurrence of the so-called midlife crisis.

Changes in the economy were also at work in the post-1970 reassessment of the life course. Western capitalism had begun to restructure itself by moving its industrial processes to Third World countries, reserving for itself the key managerial and service-sector occupations. Deindustrialization of Europe and North America meant that many well-paid traditionally male jobs disappeared. In order to maintain family standards of living, married women moved into full-time work in massive numbers. But most of the new jobs were not lifelong careers. To remain employable, adults now had to retrain, which meant going back to school. Education, once something associated with the young, became a lifelong affair, with huge implications for the structure of the life course and age relations. But the new economy, organized around consumption as well as production, has also affected children and adolescents. They have been drawn into consumption at ever earlier ages, encouraged to emulate older age groups in everything from food and drink to fashion and leisure activity, including sexuality. Precocity is once again encouraged, producing what one psychologist has described as the kinderdult, half child/half adult, who no longer belongs to any conventional age category. To pay for these new tastes, juveniles have also been drawn into employment in numbers that have not been seen since the nineteenth century. In an era when the gap between the rich and poor has increased dramatically, more children are also working out of necessity. Indeed, in many impoverished Third World countries the vast majority of children have no experience of a childhood free from labor.

Childhood has lost its association with innocence as experiences once associated with older age groups become more accessible through the electronic media to very young children. The boundaries of adolescence have also been blurred, moving both earlier into the so-called preteen years and later into the extended period of semi-dependency that characterizes young women and men whose educations now extend into their late twenties through professional training and graduate school. Over the past twenty years the average age of marriage has been delayed by several years for both men and women. Women are staying in school longer and establishing themselves in careers before deciding to marry. Men who once had the earning power to marry early are also delaying the decision. Rates of cohabitation have shot up over the past thirty years, and marriage and parenthood have been decoupled as the rate of single parenthood grows and married couples postpone parenthood to ever later ages. Marriage, which was once the universal gateway to adulthood, can no longer serve that purpose. The markers of maturity have become more various, as single mothers contend with married women for adult status in an era that is much more tolerant of unwed parenthood. In a similar way, gays and lesbians claim adulthood with marriage and partnership rituals once reserved only for heterosexuals. The very notion of adulthood has been called into question, transformed from a state of being into a series of passages, and thus, like other late modern stages of life, a state of perpetual becoming. Even old age has lost its static character, becoming plastic and performative. Older people are urged to think and act young. Rules of good aging, such as retirement at a designated age, that only a short time ago seemed so natural and self-evident are being challenged at every age level.

The institutions which once policed the boundaries of age no longer show much interest in doing so. Schools are not as rigorous about ages of entry and exit as they once were. The curriculum is less age-graded and students are more likely to be allowed to learn at their own pace. Young offenders are now more likely to go to adult jails as the ages of criminal responsibility become less rigid. Religions still offer a range of rites of passage, but they do not insist that their members go through them. Even marriage rites are not so strictly enforced as they once were and some churches even offer ceremonies adapted to homosexual partners. The state has also ceased to regulate age in the ways that it once did. It still polices sumptuary practices with respect to reading, movie-going, drinking, and smoking, but has deregulated retirement and rules of seniority to a considerable extent. Furthermore, nation-states have come to rely on professional armies, making draft age much less important than it once was. And since the military services are no longer sex segregated, joining the army or navy is no longer the mark of manhood it once was.

In this era of globalization, with its massive migrations of people, the cultural standards of aging have become much more diverse. A whole new raft of rites of passage have been introduced by new immigrants to both Europe and North America. Our calendars are now full of new holidays which underline the heterogeneity of our current understandings of what it means to be a child or an adult. In short, the notion of a single universal life course is no longer viable. The notion that aging is culturally and socially variable, that it is a system of meaning rather than a set of natural facts, is now increasingly accepted in the social and psychological sciences as well as in popular culture. People may hold firmly to notions of childhood or adulthood that seem right for them, but they have also come to accept that other versions of the life course may be right for other people. But while aging has fallen into that realm of personal preference, it is still seen as the personal responsibility of each person to age well. The late modern period has also seen something of a convergence of the male and female life courses. With so many women entering into higher education and full-time employment, their lives have become more closely synchronized with those of men.

Women typically delay marriage and motherhood, waiting until they feel settled in careers before bearing children. The arrival of the first child need not disrupt women's careers if there is sufficient maternal (or paternal) leave and if good child care is available, as is the case in many European countries, especially Scandinavia. But older differences linger where these child-care supports are missing, as in the United States, where the working woman is faced with many difficulties. While men have become somewhat more involved with household and parenting in the late modern period, it is still rare that they become full-time housekeepers or parents. Even in Scandinavia, fathers have been reluctant to take the full parental leave they are entitled to because they fear losing their place on the career track. Thus men's and women's lives tend to go out of synch when children arrive. The problem is worst in the United States, but gender differences are still evident everywhere, reflected in the startling growth of single parent families across the Western world.

The Future of the Life Course

Since the 1970s, notions of universal human development have been challenged. It is no longer possible to think of all societies as developing through time in the same linear sequence, some ahead, others behind. Modernization theories, which assume a backward "underdeveloped" world which must model itself on supposedly more advanced "developed" Western countries in order to achieve modernity, are now discounted in favor of notions of multiple paths and multiple modernities, although globalization also produces uniformities. In this global age, we have the opportunity to under-stand societies on their own terms, recognizing spatial differences and thus avoiding the fallacy of organizing everything into dichotomies of traditional versus modern, backward versus advanced, early versus late, infantile versus mature.

In a similar way, it is now possible to see that individual lives do not develop in a uniform linear manner. We accept a greater range of variation in terms of physical, mental, and psychological growth, but equally important we no longer segregate age groups as rigidly as we once did. While it is true that many of the old age-segregated institutions still exist, we can expect them to be challenged in the future. Schools without walls and college internship programs are evidence of how temporal as well as spatial boundaries are eroding. The notion of the old-age home and the segregated retirement community are also being questioned. The suburb, once a ghetto for families with children, is becoming more diverse as well. There are many walls to break down before our society becomes as age-heterogeneous as pre-modern society, but the process of rethinking age segregation has begun in both the United States and Europe.

In the era of the service economy, seniors rub shoulders with teenagers at work as well as in leisure activities. Adults going back to school find themselves sharing classrooms with younger people. Sports have become a good deal less age segregated as well. Older people are not only allowed but encouraged to remain physically active. As the distinctions between different ages become increasingly blurred, we can expect many of the old rites of passage to change and even disappear. This may already be happening at the boundary between childhood and adolescence, but it is surely the case at the borderland between youth and adulthood. Yet, it would be unwise to announce the demise of such things as the wedding ceremony, for, while this may not take the same uniform character as it did a few decades ago, people are finding a whole raft of new rites to express the meanings of their lives. In addition to the traditional wedding ceremony there are now a variety of rites suitable to cohabiting men and women as well as to gay and lesbian partners. As adulthood is now more a state of becoming, punctuated with frequent changes, a whole series of rituals dealing with mid-life crises (including divorce) have appeared on the scene. This should not surprise us, for it is in those moments of life that are the most ambiguous and uncertain that people have always turned to ritual to reassure them of the meaning of what they are doing. As the life course becomes ever more fluid, it is safe to predict a proliferation of rituals meant to deal with this condition.

We have come to see that what we call the life course is a product of culture rather than nature. Life is not so much a script we follow as one we as individuals and as societies write as we go along. The premodern script was a religious one; the modern script was dictated by the social and medical sciences, but today we are encouraged to craft our own life narratives. This freedom brings with it great responsibilities, however. We need to acknowledge that people not only think about age, but think with age, giving meaning to lives that would otherwise seem hopelessly confused. We need to listen carefully to the ways other cultures, including those of our own past, talk about aging, for this constitutes an invaluable source of wisdom from which we can draw in facing our own existential dilemmas.

See also: Age and Development.


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John R. Gillis

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Life Course and Transitions to Adulthood

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