Life Course

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C. Wright Mills described the task and promise of the sociological imagination as the ability to "grasp history and biography and the relations between the two." The life course perspective takes this task seriously, providing a theoretical framework, concepts, and analytical tools for examining how lives unfold in historical contexts. This perspective views aging as a life-long process. Examples of research employing a life course perspective include studies of the influence of early or midlife events on later life outcomes, patterns and pathways in midlife that enhance healthy aging, and the timing and sequence of key events such as retirement (Elder and Pavalko; Elder, Shanahan, and Clipp; Han and Moen; Moen, Dempster-McClain, and Williams). The life course perspective also views these processes as imbedded in historical contexts, and thus expects that they will vary across birth cohorts and be influenced by historical events. Much of life course research also examines how aging differs for persons born in different historical times or who encounter different historical events.

A life course perspective on aging began to be developed in the 1960s as social scientists became increasingly interested in time, process, and variability in how individuals age. Key research programs, such as Glen Elder's work on the Great Depression and the Second World War, Matilda Riley's research on aging and social change and Bernice Neugarten's emphasis on norms for life events have provided the organizing themes that have guided life course research. Contributions from human development, demography, family sociology, social psychology and history have provided additional theoretical and conceptual development. These have been further aided by investments in long-term longitudinal data collections such as the National Longitudinal Surveys, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, and the Retirement History Survey. These are just a few of the many public data sets that allow empirical investigation of life course processes for a large number of individuals and groups.

Ktey concepts and distinctions

The life course is both a theoretical perspective and a concept (Elder and O'Rand). The theoretical perspective provides an organizing theme for research on aging, emphasizing aging as a process occurring within historical time. Because theoretical perspectives guide research questions and analysis designs, emerging perspectives such as the life course perspective are particularly exciting because they provide new ways of looking at issues and problems.

Within this perspective, the concept of the life course refers to the successive role statuses held by individuals as they age. By focusing on social roles, this concept targets the sociological dimensions of aging, viewing these life-long processes as a succession of interactions between the individual and work, family, education, and other institutions. It posits that much of what defines various life stages, such as when one becomes an adult, enters midlife, or is defined as "elderly" is shaped by these institutions and their associated roles. It is the patterns and sequences of these various roles, such as student, parent, or worker that we refer to as the life course.

The concept of the life course can be distinguished from several related terms. The term life cycle is often used interchangeably with life course, but a more strict definition of life cycle refers to distinct stages, maturation, and generational replacement. It is more applicable to populations, organizations, or groups such as the family, which undergo a series of stages (O'Rand and Krecker). The concept of life span is applicable to individuals and refers to the duration of time from birth to death. While all three concepts reference temporal processes, only the life course concept taps the changing social roles that individuals hold as they age.

Understanding the dynamics of social roles making up the life course has required new concepts. The two most important are transitions and trajectories (Elder and O'Rand). Transitions are the short-term changes in roles such as getting married, becoming widowed, or changing jobs. Trajectories are the longer-term patterns such as the work career or family history. Trajectories are made up of various transitions, but also provide the larger context that gives individual transitions their meaning. For example, an exit from a full-time job for someone in their early sixties may or may not be a major transition in the life course. Whether or not it is defined as one's "retirement" will depend on its location in the larger trajectory of the work career.

Separating variation that is due to age, historical period, and birth cohort is central to understanding individual aging in changing societies. Age variation refers to the biological or social maturation that occurs as people age, such as age-related physical changes. Variation by historical period refers to large-scale social change and events such as wars, economic downturns, and changing divorce rates. Although the influences of these macro changes are widespread, their impact on individuals may vary depending on where they fall in the person's life course. For example, Elder's research shows that the influence of the Great Depression depended on the individual's life stage in the early 1930s. These varying effects in turn produce variation across birth cohorts as each cohort develops within a unique set of historical conditions (Ryder).

While age, period, and cohort are conceptually distinct, all are marked by the passage of time. Differences across age groups may reflect maturational changes or birth cohort variation. Because both types of variation are measured by an individual's age, research designs often cannot distinguish these two types of variation. Even studies following multiple cohorts over time cannot completely separate all three sources of variation. More precise measures of at least one of these effects, such as how individuals experience a key historical event, are needed to fully separate age, period, and cohort influences (Hardy).

Contributions to aging

Life course contributions to aging have increased dramatically since the mid-1980s as questions about aging and later life have incorporated life course concepts. One example of this influence can be seen through research on retirement. Rather than viewing retirement as a single transition from full-time work to a full exit from the labor force, research from the life course perspective has directed attention to retirement as a process and questioned whether this process changes over time. While some workers do retire in a single transition, this is by no means the case for all, or even a majority of workers (Elder and Pavalko; Mutchler et al.). Comparisons across birth cohorts also indicate a trend toward workers starting the process earlier but drawing it out over a longer period of time (Elder and Pavalko; Han and Moen). Other research on retirement has shown the influence of prior earlier work and family careers on the retirement process (Han and Moen; O'Rand and Henretta).

The life course perspective has also illuminated the midlife pathways that promote successful aging in later life. For example, Phyllis Moen examines women's involvement in family and nonfamily roles in midlife and then examines the influence of those roles on later health, well-being, and survival into later life (Moen et al.). Research on men's midlife career patterns has similarly demonstrated the influence of career patterns on longevity (Pavalko, Elder, and Clipp).

Finally, emerging research on the intersection between the state and the life course raises new questions about how definitions of various life stages, including later life, change over time (Mayer and Schoepflin). One important message from this line of research is that our current definitions of different life stages are defined by larger institutional structures. We should thus expect these definitions to change as institutional structures and policies such as education, work, and pensions are transformed. Attention to these changes is important for adding context to our current understanding of various life stages but also offers a framework for thinking about how larger institutions shape the life course.

Challenges and developments in conducting life course research

Researchers adopting a life course perspective face a number of challenges in studying life course processes in specific historical contexts. Some of the greatest challenges are presented by data limitations. Answers to many life course questions require data collected over time. Researchers interested in long-term pathways must thus choose between following respondents for long periods of time before they can answer their research questions, collecting retrospective information, or using longitudinal survey data collected by others. There are strengths and weaknesses of each of these options, but the growing availability of many large longitudinal data collections has made it increasingly feasible to examine life course processes for large numbers of people.

An additional challenge for those studying the influence of historical events on the life course is that they have to depend on data collected during that time period. Thankfully, a number of long-term longitudinal studies were conducted throughout the twentieth century, but contemporary researchers using older archives must be cautious when using the data to answer very different questions than those for which the data were originally designed (Elder, Pavalko, and Clipp). Data repositories such as the Henry Murray Center at Radcliffe College that collect and store old survey archives are particularly valuable for those wishing to do historical life course research.

Growth in the number of longitudinal data collections is matched by a parallel expansion in the tools available for longitudinal analyses. Researchers are thus presented with a wide range of techniques such as event history analysis, hierarchical linear modeling, and sequence analysis for analyzing single or multiple events, patterns and sequences of roles, or more gradual patterns of stability and change. The complexity and range of available analytical tools presents both challenges and opportunities. As new approaches are developed to capture different kinds of processes, they provide greater flexibility for measuring and analyzing life course processes in multiple ways. At the same time, our ability to measure process in multiple ways, whether it be sequences, events, pathways, or more simple change, pushes us to more clearly specify the nature of the processes we are trying to study.

While challenges in answering life course questions are increasingly being met with new data and analytical tools, a persistent challenge inherent to the life course perspective is balancing attention to the complexity and variability of individual lives with a goal of generalizing patterns across individuals (Settersten). Is attention to variation in the historical and structural contexts in which lives unfold at odds with efforts to develop a more generalizable understanding of life course processes? At what point does attention to the complex dynamics of lives, such as the interlocking trajectories of family, work, and health, become so unwieldy that it threatens the usefulness of the perspective? There are inherent tensions in any perspective that seeks to understand lives in context, but they are particularly salient for life course research (Settersten).

New directions

Much of the growth of the life course perspective is likely to continue to be through its application to a variety of research areas such as caregiving, stress processes, health, and successful aging. In addition, there are several new directions that are likely to further our understanding of life course processes. For example, despite attention to the development of lives in context, we still know relatively little about how lives unfold in specific neighborhoods, work organizations, or schools. Emerging methods for multilevel analysis offer significant promise for increasing our ability to examine lives in different structural contexts. Another important new direction is likely to be the use of cross-cultural studies for addressing variability in how individuals age. Much of the theoretical development and empirical research on the life course has taken place in the United States and Western Europe and we know relatively little about how life course patterns differ in non-Western and industrializing counties. Cross-cultural comparisons of life course transitions, trajectories, and the entire organization of the life course will be critical for improving our understanding of the various paths and processes through which people age.

Eliza Pavalko

See also Age-Period-Cohort Model; Cohort Change; Longevity: Social Aspects.


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