The Life Cycle

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Sherri Klassen

A society's vision of the life cycle plays a major role in determining the life choices individuals make and how they portray these choices to others. Drawing together social and cultural history, a history of the life cycle examines both behavior and its relationship to ideas about aging and the structure of life. Demographic, economic, political, religious, and technological change all influenced the way Europeans understood their lives. The experiences Europeans anticipated in their various life stages and the relationships they formed with their contemporaries and with people in differing life stages depended on their life-cycle expectations.

Between the Renaissance and the late twentieth century, three major changes occurred in Europeans' perception of the life cycle. First, the passage of time within a human life came to be viewed less as cyclic than as progressive: whereas once life and lives were imaged as continuous, following cyclic patterns through time, lifetimes came to be seen as finite and involving an individual's passage through rising and declining status. Second, Europeans saw a growing stratification of the stages of life and an effort to define these stages more precisely. This feature of the life cycle developed slowly over the course of the early modern period, reaching its apogee in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Finally, European history has seen a slow disappearance of diversity in life-course patterns, a trend that began reversing itself in the latter half of the twentieth century.


In both the early modern and modern eras, Europeans recognized that the span of human life involved some elements that were best understood in terms of repeating cycles and others that were better understood as linear development. While the two models coexisted, the circular model predominated until the seventeenth century, after which the model of linear progress and decline came to the fore. These developments are apparent in artistic representations of the life cycle, narratives of individual lives and biography, and behavior as seen in demographic and notarial records.

Circles and stairs in art and theory. The term "life cycle" reflects an understanding of life as continuous and circular. Seen in late medieval pictorial representations of the life cycle, this appreciation of life depicts all ages as equal before God and influenced more by divine intervention than by the sheer passage of time. Paintings and prints from before the sixteenth century show different epochs of life along the spokes of a wheel with no apparent hierarchy of ages. Predictable differences exist between the epochs, but the differences are not shown as essential and do not appear to have emerged from experience or development. The appearance of Christ in the center of some of these wheels confirms the place of Providence in holding together the different ages of the life cycle. Other paintings feature women and men of different ages brought together to demonstrate contrast and also the continuity and fullness of time.

Theoretical writings of the Renaissance toy with the meaning of cycles as well. Niccolò Machiavelli's writings, for example, discuss cycles in political lives. Other prevalent notions show fortune as a wheel in which periods of prosperity follow upon periods of misfortune. Fortune governs both the individual's life course and the course of human history. These cycles allowed premodern thinkers to draw analogies between the individual and the societal.

Prints portraying the life cycle became both more common and more linear after the sixteenth century. Rather than the purely circular image, these representations display the increasingly familiar image of the life cycle as an ascending and descending staircase. Middle age stands firmly at the apex of the staircase, showing a clear indication of the hierarchy of ages—individuals ascend through time to middle age and then descend toward death.

By the time prints of the life cycle gained widespread popularity, they had also become much more secular in their content. The images show domestic and professional developments up and down the stairway, only occasionally portraying spirituality. Divine orchestration no longer controls the life cycle. Instead, each step follows upon the earlier in a progression determined by the passage of time, accumulated human experience, and biological change.

The secular life cycle as portrayed in these prints gained popularity in the eighteenth century as Enlightenment thought began to see aging as a primarily biological process. As fascinated as their forebears with the passage of time, the Enlightenment writers saw the distinctions between life-course stages as rational and natural distinctions that contrasted with the irrational social distinctions of rank. The secular life cycle emerging in the eighteenth century saw life's turning points as predictable and rational, as necessarily following one another, and as developing not from divine intervention but from human experience or laws of nature.

Scientific developments over the course of the nineteenth century show a tension between the tendencies to see the life course as linear progression and as cyclic continuity. Medical science before the eighteenth century accepted elements of progression alongside the cyclic reversals of human aging. The hope for progress in the medicine of the Enlightenment at once encouraged a more linear vision of the life course and set medical minds seeking a cure for aging. Theorists intent on overcoming aging emphasized the regenerative capabilities of the body, seeing life not as one large cycle but as a conglomeration of many small cycles of decay and regeneration. In 1788 James Hutton described the geological notion of deep time by comparing the earth's history with the human body and claiming that both followed continuous cycles of decay and regeneration—evidenced in the body by the circulation of the blood and the body's capacity to heal itself after injury. In commenting on Hutton's theories, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould was able to mock them since twentieth-century approaches to the life cycle assert that aging brings necessary, and irreversible, elements of change.

Cycles and progression in narrative forms. Biographical writings were rare before the modern era, but those extant, especially the lives of the saints, demonstrate the circular-life course model. The thirteenth-century collection of saints' lives known as the Golden Legend contains two major life-course patterns. One pattern shows a lack of change. The saint's miracles and unusual virtue begin at an early age and continue throughout his or her life. Neither the passage of time nor the saint's many experiences effect either growth or regression. The second life course pattern involves conversion from a life of sin to one of sanctity. One such case of a major change in lifestyle is St. Mary of the Desert, a woman who converted from a prostitute to a hermit because of a miraculous act of the Virgin Mary. The change in her life occurs not out of accumulated experience, tempered by the passage of time, but rather from providential revelation. St. Mary of the Desert's life fits with an awareness of life as a circle of redemption where a soul is brought from a state of sinfulness back into one of grace. The saint's life is embedded within a circle of grace that began with creation rather than with the saint's life on earth and frequently continues after the saint's bodily death.

Although these patterns remained evident after the sixteenth century, the linear model of the life course grew more common in various forms of biographical writings. Thomas Cole (1992) traces these developments to a competing ideology in Christianity that envisioned life as a pilgrimage or journey. As the idea of the pilgrimage gained popularity in the later middle ages, so did the idea of life as a pilgrimage. Written in 1678 by John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress represented the fruition of this development by depicting life as a spiritual journey in which an individual achieved salvation by learning from experiences along the pathway. Saints' lives written after the sixteenth century likewise demonstrate an awareness of personal development, often portraying a more gradual progression toward sanctity.

Emerging narrative forms such as novels, memoirs, and biographies also demonstrate a growing appreciation of life as structured by development across time. Starting in the seventeenth century, these genres depicted individual lives that changed as a result of influences and human experiences. The narrative form itself came to force a structure onto the telling of human lives such that life stories became chronological arrangements of events with clear beginnings and conclusions (a structure that had very rarely been in place in pre-Reformation life stories). The trend toward life narratives structured to show linear development across time continued with the explosion of publishing in these genres in the nineteenth century. While biography writing, and to a large degree memoirs, continued to hold to this structural form in the twentieth century, fiction showed a greater latitude in its portrayal of time's role in the life cycle.

Linear growth in lived experiences. The full impact of an ideological switch from life as composed of recurring patterns to life as composed of linear progression was not felt by the majority of Europeans until the early twentieth century. Many of the changes were gradual, affecting child-rearing practices, the regard for seniority in work environments and institutionalized retirement, the treatment of the elderly, and consumption habits.

The growth of the social welfare state facilitated the spread of some of these changes. Mandatory primary schooling for children, first introduced as legislation in seventeenth-century Germany, instilled the notion that childhood was a period for growth. The idea of legislation of this sort spread well before it could truly be implemented or enforced. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, such legislation existed in most of Europe and dictated childhood education as a life-cycle choice for whole populations. Through pension legislation, the state also spread the notion that old age represented a period of decline. Poor laws from at least as early as the seventeenth century had recognized old age as a condition precipitating want, but age was only one of many factors. Universal oldage pensions affirmed a belief that old age in and of itself marked decline.

The effects of industrialization on the life course are still debated. They were most certainly gradual, as older patterns persisted despite the demands of a new work schedule that drew workers out of a familial setting. Elements of progression in working lives had been prevalent in some aspects of the economy well before the modern age. A successful master artisan developed from a lowly apprentice and was rewarded for skill and hard work. As industrial enterprises began to specialize the tasks performed, workers could move from one position to another along a progressive career path. The industrial workplace may have discouraged older workers because the tasks could not be modified to fit individual needs, but at the same time industrial employers sought to reward seniority as a means of retaining workers. Autobiographies of working men and women from the industrial era suggest that men quickly saw their lives as containing progressive career trajectories whereas women saw their working lives as containing different but non-progressive segments.

The changing perceptions of life-cycle patterns affected the tenor of family dynamics as well. A model of life emphasizing cycles and repetition encouraged a sense of reciprocity between parents' care of young children and the care of parents by those children as adults. A common folk tale told of a young child observing his father mistreat an elderly parent. The child then innocently proclaims his intention to follow his father's example and the father, chagrined, mends his ways. Popular as a moral tale, the story also demonstrates the cycles upon which care for the elderly rested. Individuals cared for their elderly parents because the next turn of the cycle would require that they receive care. Likewise, parents instilled in their children a sense of indebtedness that would be called upon when they required care as elders.

By the end of the eighteenth century, duty toward children and the elderly came to be based less on indebtedness than on personal attachment. Treatises on education and child rearing attest to the belief that care of children was important in that it affected their developmental capacities. A parent, therefore, had the important task of steering the child's development into a responsible adult. Child-rearing beliefs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries heightened the role of personal attachment; this emotional context then grew as the basis for filial duty toward the elderly. Only this context of personal attachment could serve the needs of the family within the paradigm of the linear life course as perpetual generational indebtedness had once served those needs in a worldview based on cycles and repetitions.

The linear life course, in addition to revamping the family and workplace, also created new consumer preferences. A fascination with youth was not new in the modern era, but previously Europeans were more interested in seeking elixirs that would allow them to return to a period of youth after old age than in forestalling the affects of aging. Tales of fountains of youth or special elixirs that could transform an elderly individual into a youthful one reflect a popular dream of perpetuating the cycles within a single lifetime. Common from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century, the dream of repeating the cycle of youth inspired both serious inquiry and fantasy. By the twentieth century, neither medical science nor fantastic literature was exploring the possibility of returning an old body to its youthful state. Beginning in the eighteenth century, elixirs claimed more frequently to prevent the onset of old age than to reverse the process. The twentieth-century cosmetics industry continued a tradition of selling a dream of postponing the linear process of aging. With the ascendancy of the linear life-course model, the idea of complete rejuvenation lost credibility. Yet the dream did not completely fade; while many of the "anti-aging" cosmetics are aimed at postponing the affects of age on the skin, others claim to reverse the process. Furthermore, drugs that induce hair growth or stimulate male virility reflect a hope of returning to an earlier phase rather than simply preventing the onset of age.


As conception of the life cycle grew linear, it also became more highly stratified in the eighteenth century. Placed along a hierarchy, each life stage grew more distinct from any other and the transitions that marked the changes more highly ritualized. Numerical age grew more significant in determining life patterns as the modern era advanced, and in combination, the separation of life stages and the heightened importance of age led to a shift from communal and task-related rites of passage to familial and age-related ones.

Age awareness. Age grew more important in signaling transitions from one life stage to another as Europeans grew more aware of their own ages. The simplest means of gauging the extent of this awareness is to analyze the precision of ages, which individuals were asked to supply, reported in census, civic, and church records. Research in this area has been less than systematic, but it suggests that both governments and individuals increasingly valued precise numerical ages from the seventeenth century onward. Previously, ages were reported infrequently in death and marriage records. Through the course of the seventeenth century, ages came to be recorded regularly in death registers, and in the course of the eighteenth century, marriage registers began to include the precise ages of the spouses.

Even in the eighteenth century, however, the numbers supplied in the records were often inconsistent and imprecise. Demographers use the term "age heaping" to describe the pattern of age recording that could be found in premodern Europe (see figure 1). Examined in the aggregate, each year shows certain ages being reported far more frequently than others. Premodern Europeans appear to have rounded their ages to the decade, half decade, or less. While the ages reported might have approximated the chronological age, they may also have been used as an indication of status. If this was the case, the numerical age was descriptive rather than causative: one did not become old by turning sixty years of age; by turning old, one became sixty. A decrease in age heaping over the course of the eighteenth century suggests that Europeans had begun to award greater significance to age and were interpreting it more literally.


Stéphanie Felicité Ducret de St.-Aubin, comtesse de Genlis wrote her memoirs shortly after the French Revolution. Here she remembers her encounter with a man she believed to have found a cure for aging. She was twelve years old at the time of her meeting.

I was persuaded—and my father believed it firmly—that M. de Saint-Germain, who appeared to be forty-five years old at most, was in fact over ninety. If a man has no vices, he can achieve a very advanced age; there are many examples of this. Without passions and immoderation, man would live to be a hundred years old and those with long lives would live to one hundred and fifty or sixty. Then, at the age of ninety, one will have the vigor of a man of forty or fifty. So, my suppositions regarding M. de Saint-Germain were in no way unreasonable. If one admits as well the possibility that he had found, by means of chemistry, the composition of an elixir (a particular liquor appropriate to his temperament), one would have to admit that even without belief in a philosopher's stone, he was older than I had thought. During the first four months I knew him, M. de Saint-Germain said nothing extraordinary.... Finally, one night, after accompanying me to some Italian music, he told me that in four or five years I would have a beautiful voice. And, he added, "And when you are seventeen or eighteen, would you like to remain fixed at that age at least for a great number of years?" I answered that I would be charmed. "Well then," he replied seriously, "I promise it to you." And immediately spoke of other things.

Source: Mémoires inédits de Madame la Comtesse de Genlis, sur le 18ème siècle et la Révolution Française. (Paris, 1825), 109–110. (Translation is my own.)

Not only were Europeans reporting their ages to bureaucrats with greater precision in the eighteenth century, they were also making note of the ages of their friends and relatives. Individuals writing memoirs in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries show a fascination with chronological age, making special note of the specific ages of their friends and family members. They frequently commented on individuals who appeared younger than would be expected for their age and on people who acted "inappropriately," and took care to mention the exact age of the person they were either deriding or praising. Numerical age had a meaning apart from, and sometimes at odds with, the physical and social characteristics of aging.

Age awareness emerged unevenly across the European landscape. Both France and England saw heightened age awareness in the course of the eighteenth century. Russian documentation, on the other hand, suggests that age awareness there was spotty even at the end of the nineteenth century. Regions with high levels of age awareness also displayed high levels of literacy and stronger government bureaucracies than the parts of Europe with low levels of age awareness.

Atomized life stages and age grading. Europeans combined their earlier notions of a life cycle composed of many equal stages with their new awareness of precise age differences by envisioning the stages of life as composed of categories of precise ages. Age became the determining factor for passage between a rapidly increasing number of stages.

The prints of the life cycle that portrayed a double staircase not only show the move from a cyclic to a progressive life course but also demonstrate the growing stratification between stages. As a step along the life span, each life stage was as distinct as it was dependent on the one before it. In the nineteenth century these prints showed a greater number of distinct life stages and greater distinctions between the life patterns of men and women.

Developments in medicine helped to partition the population according to age. As physicians developed specialties in the nineteenth century, they created two—pediatrics and geriatrics—that were defined by the age of their patients. Pediatrics emerged as its own discipline in the early nineteenth century, with children's hospitals opening in Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Vienna. While geriatrics did not develop as a discipline with the same speed as pediatrics, treatises, booklets, and pamphlets devoted to medical discussions of the ailments of the elderly proliferated in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Even more than medicine, the national schooling systems that emerged in the nineteenth century encouraged stratification according to age group. Two models of education dominated the European public schools in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first, the monitorial system, mixed ages of children in a classroom, utilizing the skills of the more advanced students to assist in teaching the others. This model was largely overtaken in the nineteenth century by schools modeled on the theories of the Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827). Pestalozzi argued that children developed in clearly definable stages and that an educational system should anticipate these stages. Rather than mixing children of various ages and achievements, Pestalozzi proposed placing all pupils of the same stage together and separating them from other children. Given the same educational influences, the children would develop as a cohort from one stage to the next. Compulsory ages for school attendance quickly linked age to academic developmental stages. The Prussians were the quickest and most diligent pupils of these theories, and the Prussian school system became a model that other European states emulated.

If age grading within the schools defined the ages in childhood, old age pensions and retirement legislation instilled age grading at the other end of the life cycle. Entitlement to the earliest pension schemes depended on work status and disability as much as old age. The pensions became strictly age graded when governments universalized the pensions in the early twentieth century. Once the pensions included middle-class as well as working-class recipients, need and ability to work were dropped from the qualifications for receipt, and age alone stood as the definition of the appropriate time for retirement.

While many of the trends in age stratification accelerated throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of novelists, scientists, and theorists at the turn of the century critiqued atomized life stages and universalistic understandings of time. In literature, the works of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf saw an individual's personal past conflated with the present and portrayed the passage of time as elastic rather than rigidly divided into parcels. The writings of Sigmund Freud, on the one hand, theorized universal stages of human development but, on the other, weighed the stages disproportionately. Instead of neatly ordered, equal divisions of time, Freud saw the first step in the double staircase of the life course as overshadowing all the others that would follow it. Education reformers in the early twentieth century saw the stages as highly variable, arguing that individual children progressed along their own paths of development, which could not be easily compiled into universal stages of educational development.

Life course transitions and rites of passage. Rituals marked life-stage transitions in both the premodern and modern European experience, but in the nineteenth century age played a heightened role in defining the timing and content of the rites of passage—a trend that began to be reversed only in the last three decades of the twentieth century. Rituals of life-course transition also became family occasions rather than religious or institutional rituals in the course of the nineteenth century.

The rituals of pre-Reformation Christianity marked several of the life-stage transitions. Baptism marked the entrance of a child into the world and into the Christian community of souls; marriage marked adulthood for the majority of Europeans. Extreme unction and funeral rites marked death as a transition in the spiritual life cycle. With the exception of extreme unction, both Protestant and Catholic churches retained religious rituals to mark these lifestage transitions. Confirmation grew in importance as a ritual in seventeenth-century Catholicism and in the Church of England, marking a transition into youth.

In addition to church rites, work status played a role in defining life-course transitions. Both peasants and city dwellers passed from youth to adulthood when they either inherited land or accumulated enough wealth to allow them to establish independent households. In many areas marriage marked the transition to adulthood largely because it had marked the couple's economic independence. The life-course transitions of artisans also grew out of guild and city regulations. City and later royal governments dictated the minimum age for apprenticeship in the early modern period. The duration of apprenticeship varied more widely. Rituals marking the passage from apprentice to journeyman or journeyman to master signaled work transitions. Retirement was generally ad hoc and frequently gradual; the transition out of the workplace often blended physical infirmity with plans to prepare the next generation for its inheritance.

In the nineteenth century, religious work, and education rites developed a more familial character than had previously been the case. Marriage, for example, remained a religious occasion but developed a very strong family component in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Weddings emerged at this time as events of enormous emotional and financial expenditure on the part of families. Likewise, graduations and retirements became occasions for family celebration as they became more regular, predictable, and associated with specific ages.

Work and family life-cycle transitions became occasions for family rituals especially when they represented movement from one sphere of activity to another. The life cycle that emerged in the nineteenth century placed different spheres of activity clearly in different epochs of the life cycle. If early childhood was nurtured within the private, domestic sphere, the next phase of childhood and adolescence was assigned to education. Work for economic gain in the public sphere, rather than marriage, marked adulthood for men while the older pattern of marriage as a transition marked adulthood for women through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Age marked numerous transitions that signaled acceptance into diverse spheres of social and occupational activity. Once property and gender qualifications were eliminated, voting rights became a strictly age-graded transition. Limitations on child labor caused the beginnings of paid employment to stand as an age-graded transition as well. While these two cases show transitions allowing youths to move out of the domestic sphere and into the public, the age of retirement signified a move out of commercial space and into the private sphere.

The celebration of the birthday is perhaps the most illustrative of life-course rituals in that it demonstrates both the importance of chronological age and the value of the family as the site for modern rituals of life-stage transitions. The birthdays of kings and nobles were celebrated from at least as early as the seventeenth century as festivals that reiterated the honor due to the individual and reinscribed the loyalty of the subjects. Before the eighteenth century, nonruling people rarely celebrated their birthdays; the events were not occasions on which to dwell upon the passage of time and levels of accomplishment.

For many Europeans before the modern era, only one birthday—that which marked the age of majority—held significance. In a land-based economy, this age marked the date of inheritance, allowing the young adult to establish an independent household. The passage of inheritance could depend upon proof that a minor heir had come of age. The proof came in the form of testimony from village elders. In these cases elders oversaw the passage from youth to adulthood within their communities. The age of majority was important as a rite of community recognition of adulthood as much as it was recognition of age as relevant in defining status.

In the eighteenth century literary works first began to mention ordinary birthdays. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe thought enough of the coincidence of sharing a birthday with his rival in love to refer to the birthday in his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), in part based on his experiences. Goethe apparently celebrated his birthday together with his rival in 1772. In her memoirs of her bourgeois Paris girlhood, Mme Roland recounts celebrating the birthdays of her grandparents with visits and gift exchanges in the 1760s. Gifts passed in both directions at the elders' birthdays, but she makes no mention of her own birthdays. Queen Victoria is credited with having brought the custom of family celebrations of the birthday from her German relations to England and with popularizing it there, but the origins of the traditions in France and Germany remain obscure.


The conditions that prefigured these developments in the meaning of age and the life cycle were gradual and manifold. Altered perceptions of time, religious change, a growing state bureaucracy, and the spread of literacy in European society all contributed to the emergence of a linear life course stratified by age. Developments in the perceptions of time can be traced back to the invention of the mechanical clock in the fourteenth century. The growing efficiency and mass production of the clock beginning in the seventeenth century accelerated the process whereby Europeans thought of time as finite, composed of uniform parcels and proceeding in a uniform manner.

Religious change and the invention of the printing press are the most plausible causes for the distinct shift toward a life-course model emphasizing linear rather than cyclic patterns. The message of religious reformers in sixteenth-century Germany was heavily laden with eschatological references that stressed the apocalypse as the completion of a linear development of history rather than the fruition of a cycle. Protestantism, moreover, argued against a vision of the individual's life as composed of cycles of sin followed by absolution. In arguing that good works were irrelevant to grace, Martin Luther removed the cycles involved in human salvation. The printing press propagated Protestant thinking as well as the pictorial representations of the life cycle, stimulating thought and awareness of life cycle images.

The printing press also encouraged the spread of literacy, which seems to have influenced the development of age awareness. A correlation between the two developments has been found in numerous societies, and early modern Europe was no exception. The reasons for this correlation have not been explored extensively; it may be that age awareness relied more on an ability to read numbers than actual literacy but that this ability accompanied literacy in the cultures studied.

Some of the credit for a heightened awareness of age of the populace as a whole must also go to the record keepers themselves, who made strong efforts at keeping accurate records that included precise ages. The growth and rationalization of state bureaucracies ensured that the population was frequently asked to report ages and, thus, that specific chronological age entered more deeply into the consciousness of the European population.


The dominant shifts in life-cycle attitudes reflect the dominant sectors of society. Both individual life-cycle patterns and the ideology that frames them vary for peoples who were not dominant in their societies because of gender, class, or race. Research has begun to look at the impact of gender or class on attitudes toward aging and life-cycle decisions in Europe's past. Historians of twentieth-century Europe will need to pay greater attention to racial diversity to understand the development of life-cycle patterns in Europe's increasingly multicultural population. The late twentieth century marked a growing awareness of diverse life patterns. This awareness may break apart the notion of a dominant life-course pattern that had become seemingly less diverse in the early twentieth century.


By the end of the nineteenth century, the celebration of birthdays was an established ritual for marking the passage of time, especially in childhood. At the same time, scientists and literary figures alike were questioning the nature of time and its impact on human lives. When Lewis Carroll created a world with inverted temporal and spatial laws, he included several discussions of the meaning (or lack of meaning) of age and one discussion of birthday gifts. In the looking-glass world, one particular day could have no more meaning than any other; dividing time in this fashion was, in itself, complex mathematics.

"They gave it to me—for an un-birthday present."

"I beg your pardon?" Alice said with a puzzled air.

"I'm not offended." said Humpty Dumpty

"I mean what is an un-birthday present?"

"A present that's given when it isn't your birthday, of course."

Alice considered a little. "I like birthday presents best," she said at last.

"You don't know what you're talking about!" cried Humpty Dumpty. "How many days are there in a year?"

"Three hundred and sixty-five" said Alice.

"And how many birthdays have you?"


"And if you take one from three hundred and sixty-five, what remains?"

"Three hundred and sixty-four, of course."

Humpty Dumpty looked doubtful.

"I'd rather see that done on paper," he said.

Alice couldn't help smiling as she took out her memorandum book, and worked out the sum for him:


Humpty Dumpty took the book and looked at it carefully. "That seems to be done right—" he began.

"You're holding it upside down!" Alice interrupted.

"To be sure I was!" Humpty Dumpty said gaily, as she turned it around for him. "I thought it looked a little queer. As I was saying, that seems to be done right—though I haven't the time to look it over thoroughly just now—and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents—"

"Certainly," said Alice.

"And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!"

Source: Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice (New York, 1974), 267–268.

Until the mid-twentieth century, the female life cycle held certain marked differences from the male. Evidence of women's life-cycle patterns from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shows a divergence from the vision of a progressive life-course pattern. Rather than advancing to midlife and then retreating, women slowly increased their activities and social networks into advanced old age. Neither cyclic nor linear, this pattern reflects a vision of the life course as expansive or elastic. Nineteenth-century women defined their life-cycle transitions more frequently by biological events such as childbirth and menopause than by strictly age-graded events. Supported by scientific biases that emphasized the power of the physiological on women, women developed their own rituals surrounding female biological transitions. The life-cycle patterns of working women were functions of both gender and class. Working women tended not to see movement in and out of the workplace as marking significant lifecourse transitions. The significant points, instead, were related to family dynamics and composition: marriage, the death of parents, or the activities of children among the transitional life-course events.

The life cycles of the working classes and peasantry were consistently more variable and less age stratified than the pattern set by the bourgeoisie and elites. Adult family life for members of all classes before the nineteenth century involved the presence of small children for approximately twenty years—between a relatively late marriage and the woman's menopause. Middle-class patterns over the nineteenth century abbreviated the childbearing period by limiting family size at the same time as they lowered the age of marriage. Working-class women and men also got married at lower ages when industrialization opened up new avenues of independence, but they bore larger families, each member contributing to the family economy. Childbearing, then, became a trait associated with youth for middle class women and remained more variable for peasants and working-class women until the twentieth century. Economic prosperity relied on a smaller number of children for the middle classes and a larger number for the workers since, in all stages of childhood, children in middle-class households were economic dependents, whereas older children were economic assets in working-class families. Working-class families, thus, deeply resented the introduction of child labor laws.

While middle-class couples passed from youthful parenthood into a period of childless independence, working-class couples saw their households expand to include both young children and much older unmarried offspring. Education drew middle-class adolescents from the family hearth to boarding schools that offered discipline but independence from parents. Working-class youths, on the other hand, remained in their parents' homes longer in industrialized Europe than before as apprenticeship and domestic service declined in the late nineteenth century. Previously, youth employment in these two sectors had required the youth's residence in the place of employment. Once industrial labor offered better opportunities, youths resided with their parents. The spread of mandatory education had a much smaller effect on working-class and peasant adolescents than on the members of the bourgeoisie. Though they complied with the law, children of both the peasantry and the urban working classes ceased studies at the earliest legal age. Though mandatory school attendance lengthened childhood by delaying work, economic employment, rather than schooling, continued to define the life-stage transition. While the middle class recognized adolescence as a period of transition between childhood incompetence and adult work responsibility, working-class youths assumed adult work responsibilities as soon as they were able. The creation of adolescence occurred for the working class only after World War I, half a century after the middle class had initiated it.

On the other hand, working-class autobiographies demonstrate patterns consistent with a linear life-course model. Workers aimed at advancing their careers and generally present their lives as cohesive narratives. Turning points in their lives acted as catalysts for linear growth rather than revelations resulting in a cyclic return or rebirth. By the mid-twentieth century, the working class and the middle class accepted the same basic traits in the life course, both agreeing on the various life stages—that they were based on chronological age, that the family life course was distinct from the workplace, and that life progressed along a trajectory. For a brief period, one model prevailed.

The late twentieth century, however, heralded the onset of the postmodern life course, which is defined not by any unifying factors but by a diversity of patterns and a shift away from using age as a criterion for status. Ages of first marriage and childbearing grew more variable, and work involved less a single career trajectory than several trajectories following upon each other. Early retirement practices and a resistance to mandatory retirement resulted in an increasingly imprecise definition of retirement age. Rejecting sharp stratification, the postmodern life course is neither linear nor cyclic. It defies the temporality of the life span by dismantling the chronological, socially constructed stages of life upon which both the life cycle and the life course models have for so long rested.

See also other articles in this section


Abbott, Mary. Life Cycles in England, 1560–1720. London and New York, 1996.

Bell, Rudolph, and Donald Weinstein. Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000–1700. Chicago, 1982.

Cole, Thomas R. The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America. New York and Cambridge, U.K., 1992. Chapter 1 discusses European material.

Day, Barbara Ann. "Representing Aging and Death in French Culture." French Historical Studies 17 (spring 1992): 688–724.

Foner, Anne. "Age Stratification and the Changing Family." American Journal of Sociology 84 supp. (1978): S340–S365.

Gillis, John. A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values. New York, 1997.

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The Life Cycle

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