Life Course, The

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The study of lives represents an enduring interest of sociology and the social sciences, reflecting important societal changes and their human consequences. Most notably, developments after World War II called for new ways of thinking about people, society, and their connection. In the United States, pioneering longitudinal studies of children born in the 1920s became studies of adults as the children grew up, thereby raising questions about the course they followed to the adult years and beyond. The changing age composition of society assigned greater significance to problems of aging and their relation to people's lives. Insights regarding old age directed inquiry to earlier phases of life and to the process by which life patterns are shaped by a changing society.

This essay presents the life course as a theoretical orientation for the study of individual lives, human development, and aging. In concept, the life course refers to a pattern of age-graded events and social roles that is embedded in social structures and subject to historical change. These structures vary from family relations and friendships at the micro level to age-graded work organizations and government policies at the macro level. Lifecourse theory defines a common domain of inquiry with a framework that guides research in terms of problem identification and formulation, variable selection and rationales, and strategies of design and analysis. Beginning in the 1960s, this theoretical orientation has diffused across substantive domains and disciplinary boundaries in the social and behavioral science.

It has uniquely forged a conceptual bridge between developmental processes, the life course, and ongoing changes in society, one based on the premise that age places people in the social structure and in particular birth cohorts. To understand this conceptual bridge, it is useful to distinguish among three levels of the life course and their interplay over a person's life: (1) institutionalized pathways in society, as established by state policies, education, the workplace, and so on; (2) the individual life course that is formed by the individual's choices and constraints, frequently in terms of a career or trajectory; and (3) the developmental or aging trajectory of the individual, defined, for example, by intellectual functioning or self-confidence.

Each of these levels are illustrated by Spilerman (1977) in terms of work. He used the concept of "career line" to refer to pathways that are defined by the aggregated work histories of individuals. Career lines are patterned by industry structures and the labor market. A person's work life is one part of the individual life course, and it varies by the career requirements of firm and marketplace. At the psychological level, changes in work life have consequences for personal feelings of efficacy (Bandura 1997).

In this essay, I first take up concepts that have been used interchangeably—the life course, life cycle, life history, and life span. Then I turn to the emergence of life-course theory since the 1960s and its paradigmatic principles.


A number of concepts have been applied interchangeably to lives (life course, life cycle, life history, and life span), but each makes a distinctive contribution that deserves notice in mapping this domain (Elder 1998). The concept of life course is defined by trajectories that extend across the life span, such as family or work; and by short-term changes or transitions, such as entering and leaving school, acquiring a full-time job, and the first marriage. Each life-course transition is embedded in a trajectory that gives it specific form and meaning. Thus, work transitions are core elements of a work-life trajectory; and births are key markers along a parental trajectory. Multiple marriages and divorces are elements of a marital trajectory.

Multiple roles of this kind become interlocking trajectories over time. These linked trajectories may define the life course of a parent and her child. Goode (1960) argues that an individual's set of relationships at any point in time is both "unique and overdemanding," requiring strategies that minimize demands by rescheduling transitions (such as entry into work, the birth of a second child), where possible. The synchronization of role demands may entail a spreading out of commitments or obligations, as in the transition to adulthood or in the family formation years. Among dual-earner couples, the timing of retirement has become a synchronization issue in working out an appropriate action for each partner and their relationship (O'Rand et al. 1991). The synchronization of lives is central to life-course planning in families.

Major transitions in the life course typically involve multiple life changes, from entry into the diverse roles of adulthood (Modell 1989) to later-life changes in work, residence, and family (Hareven 1978; Kohli 1986). These transitions may also entail a sequence of phases or choice points. The transition to unwed motherhood thus involves premarital sexual experience followed by decisions not to have an abortion, not to give the child up for adoption, and not to marry the father. Causal influences vary across choice points. Early transitions can have developmental consequences by affecting subsequent transitions, even after many years and decades have passed. They do so through behavioral consequences that set in motion cumulative disadvantages or advantages, with radiating implications for other aspects of life (Furstenberg et al. 1987). For example, early teenage childbearing may curtail education and work-life prospects.

The social meanings of age give structure to the life course through age norms, sanctions, and age-graded relationships. In theory, a normative concept of social time specifies an appropriate time or age for marriage, childbearing, and retirement (Neugarten and Datan 1973). This concept also provides a guideline on the meaning of career advancement, whether accelerated or lagging relative to one's age. Empirical findings are beginning to cumulate on event timing, sequences, and durations, although the knowledge base is thin on causal mechanisms (Shanahan in press). Beyond these social distinctions, age has historical significance for the life course as it locates people in historical context according to birth cohorts.

Family connections invariably place the life course in a broader matrix of kinship relationships, one that extends beyond the boundaries of the immediate family to in-laws, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins (Rossi and Rossi 1990). Within the life course of each generation, unexpected and involuntary events occur through life changes in related generations. Thus, a thirty-year old woman becomes a grandmother when her adolescent daughter has a first baby. People lose their status as grandchildren when their grandparents pass away, and their roles as sons or daughters when their parents die. They become the oldest generation in the family. Ties to family members are part of the normative regulation of life-course decisions.

The life-cycle concept is frequently used to describe a sequence of life events from birth to death, though its more precise meaning refers to an intergenerational sequence of parenthood stages over the life course, from the birth of the children to their own departure from home and childbearing (O'Rand and Krecker 1990). This sequence, it should be noted, refers to a reproductive process in human populations. Within a life cycle of generational succession, newborns are socialized to maturity, give birth to the next generation, grow old, and die. The cycle is repeated from one generation to the next, though only within the framework of a population. Some people do not have children and consequently are not part of an intergenerational life cycle.

The life cycle is commonly known in terms of a family cycle, a set of ordered stages of parenthood defined primarily by variations in family composition and size (Hill 1970). Major transition points include marriage, birth of the first and the last child, the children's transitions in school, departure of the eldest and the youngest child from the home, and marital dissolution through death of one spouse. The stages are not defined in terms of age, as a rule, and typically follow a preferred script of a marriage that bears children and survives to old age, an increasingly rare specimen in view of the divorce rate. The life-cycle concept tells us about the sequence of family events, but it does not indicate how closely spaced the events are or when the sequence began in a woman's life, whether in adolescence or in the late thirties. A rapid sequence of births produces a different family process from that of widely dispersed births. The life stage of the mother also has relevance to the meaning of a birth sequence. Moreover, some woman do not bear children.

Life history commonly refers to a lifetime chronology of events and activities that typically and variably combines data records on education, work life, family, and residence. A life history may also include information on physical health, social identity change, and emotional well-being. These records may be generated by obtaining information from archival materials or from interviews with a respondent. Some interviews are prospective and focus on the present; others are retrospective and enable the investigator to obtain information that was not collected in the past (Giele and Elder 1998). The accuracy of these reports of the past depends on the type of information requested. Subjective states in the past cannot be recovered accurately in retrospective reports. They are interpreted in terms of the present.

A retrospective life history or calendar is based on an age-event matrix (Freedman et al. 1988; Caspi et al. 1996). It records the age (year and month) at which transitions occur in each activity domain, and thus depicts an unfolding life course in ways uniquely suited to event-history analyses (Mayer and Tuma 1990) and to the assessment of time-varying causal influences. The advantages and disadvantages of retrospective life histories and prospective reports are discussed by Scott and Alwin (1998). In developing societies especially, retrospective life calendars are typically the only sources of information on prior life experience.

The term "life history" also refers to a self-reported narration of life, as in Thomas and Znaniecki's famous life history of Wladek, a Polish peasant, in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918–1920). Narrative accounts are frequently recorded on tape and then transcribed. Another common approach assigns the interviewer a more active editorial role in actually putting together a life history. In American Lives (1993), Clausen interviewed six adults in their later years and prepared life histories, which the respondents later reviewed for accuracy. He has written about this method in two essays (1995, 1998) that discuss the difference between life stories and life histories.

This qualitative approach to life histories is increasingly considered one part of a multimethod approach to the study of lives. In their pathbreaking longitudinal study of juvenile delinquents, Laub and Sampson (1998) show how the qualitative life histories provide critical insight, when combined with quantitative data, on events that turned men's lives around toward productive work and good citizenship. Events that are turning points change the direction of lives, they are often "course corrections." Examples include marriage, military service, and higher education.

Life span specifies the temporal scope of inquiry and specialization, as in life-span psychology or sociology. A life-span study extends across a substantial period of life and generally links behavior in two or more life stages. Instead of limiting research to social and developmental processes within a specific life stage, such as adolescence or the middle years, a life-span design favors studies of antecedents and consequences. Sociologists tend to focus on the social life course, in which "life stage" refers to either socially defined positions, such as the age of young adulthood, or to analytically defined positions, such as the career stage of men or women at age forty (i.e., where they are in their career at this age). Thus, men who differ in age when they encounter work-life misfortune occupy different life stages at the time.

Developmental stages and trajectories are the focus of life-span developmental psychology. Examples of a stage theory include Erik Erikson's (1963) psychosocial stages, such as the stage of generativity in the later years. Life-span developmental psychology gained coherence and visibility through a series of conferences at the University of West Virginia beginning in the late 1960s (Baltes and Reese 1984). The approach is defined by a concern with the description and explanation of age-related biological and behavioral changes from birth to death.

All the above concepts have a place in studies of the life course. Contemporary inquiry extends across the life span and frequently draws upon the life records and life cycles of successive generations. The life course takes the form of a multidimensional and intergenerational concept: a dynamic life pattern of interlocking trajectories and transitions, such as work, marriage, and being parents. Within this context, misfortune and opportunities are intergenerational as well as personal life events. Failed marriages and work lives can lead adult offspring back to the parental household and alter the parents's life plans for their later years (Goldscheider and Goldscheider 1993). Conversely, parents' economic setbacks and marital dissolution may impede their children's transition to adulthood by postponing higher education and marriage. Each generation is bound to fateful decisions and events in the other's life course.


When pioneering investigators followed children born before 1930 into their adult years, they encountered major limitations in conventional approaches to human development, including those associated with a child-based model. Three such limitations and their challenges, in particular, played a major role in the genesis of life course theory and appropriate methods (Elder 1998):

  1. To formulate concepts that apply to development and aging across the life span as a replacement for child-based, growth-oriented accounts.
  2. To conceptualize how human lives are socially organized and evolve over time.
  3. To relate lives to an ever-changing society, with emphasis on the linking processes and mechanisms and the developmental effects of changing circumstances.

Responses to the first challenge in the 1970s led to the formulation of more life-span concepts of development and aging (Baltes and Baltes, 1990; Baltes et al. 1998), especially with the field of lifespan developmental psychology. Life-span development is conceived as a life-long adaptational process. Some processes are discontinuous and innovative, while others are continuous and cumulative. Biological resources tend to decline over the life span, whereas cultural resources may increase, as in the growth of wisdom. Theorists stress the lifelong interaction of person and social context, the relative plasticity and agency of the aging organism, and the multidirectionality of life-span development (Lerner 1991). Psychologist Paul Baltes at the Berlin Max Planck Institute is a leading figure in the programmatic effort to study development and aging across the life span.

This emergence of life-span thinking on human development and aging occurred with little attention to a well-established "relationship" view of human lives. Dating back to the nineteenth century, social scientists have viewed the individual's life pattern in terms of multiple role sequences and their transitions (Cain 1964; Kertzer and Keith 1984). Changes in social roles, such as from dependency to marriage and parenthood, represent changes in social stage across the life cycle. Commitments to a line of action arise from obligations to significant others. Stable relationships ensure a measure of personal stability, just as entry into such relationships can stabilize a person's life and minimize involvement in unconventional and illegal activities (Robins 1966). A change in relationships may produce a turning point, a redirection of the life course.

Life-cycle theory helped to contextualize people's lives by emphasizing the social dynamic of "linked lives." These connections extend across the generations and across people's lives through convoys of friends and relatives—others who remain part of their social network as they age (Kahn and Antonucci 1980). One of the earliest proponents of a life-cycle view of lives was sociologist William I. Thomas. With Florian Znaniecki, he used life-record data to study the emigration of Polish peasants to European and American cities around the turn of the century (1918–1920). The societies they left and entered presented contrasting "lines of genesis" or role sequences for individual lives.

For many decades, the life cycle perspective offered a valuable way of thinking about the social patterning of lives, though insensitive to age, time, and historical context. During the 1960s, the life-cycle approach began to converge with new understandings of age to draw upon the virtues of each tradition; of linked lives across the life span and generations, and of temporality through an agegraded sequence of events and social roles, embedded in a changing world. The emerging theory of the life course was informed as well by life-span concepts of human development.

Three discoveries of variation in lives were based on this new understanding of age, and together they gave rise to life-course thinking. First, studies in the 1960s began to identify substantial variation in age patterns across lives: Contrary to established views (Eisenstadt 1956), people of the same age varied in the pace and sequencing of transitions in their lives. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bernice Neugarten (1968) developed a research program that featured normative timetables and individual deviations from such expectations. Ever since this pioneering work and the growth of social demography, the study of differential timing and order among events has been one of the most active domains in life-course study. However, we still know little about age expectations in large populations.

Second, social relations and kinship especially emerged as a primary source of variation and regulation of life trajectories. Lives are lived interdependently among members of family and kin. The most significant integration of age and relationship distinctions is found in Of Human Bonding (Rossi and Rossi 1990). Using a three-generation sample in the Boston region, the study investigates the interlocking nature of the life course within family systems, with particular focus on the relationship beween individual aging and kin-defined relationships across the life span.

Third, the new work on aging made visible the role of historical variation as a source of life variations. Studies of social change and life patterns had been conducted up to the 1960s as if they had little in common, an assumption effectively challenged by Norman Ryder's concept of the interaction of individual lives and history (1965). Ryder proposed the term "cohort" as a concept for studying the life course—the age at which the person enters the system. With its life-stage principle, Ryder's essay provided a useful point of departure for understanding the interaction between social change and the life patterns of birth cohorts. The impact of a historical event on the life course reflects the life or career stage at which the change was experienced. The publication of Aging and Society (Riley et al. 1972) strengthened this sensitivity to the historical setting of lives through membership in a particular birth cohort.

The three streams of life-course theory (social relations–life cycle, age, and life-span concepts of development) came together in a study of children who were born in the early 1920s, grew up in the Great Depression, and then entered service roles in World War II. In Children of the Great Depression (Elder, [1974] 1999), the study began with ideas from the relationship tradition, such as generation and social roles, and soon turned to the analytic meanings of age for ways of linking family and individual experience to historical change, and for identifying trajectories across the life course. The study tested Ryder's life-stage principle by comparing the effects of drastic income loss during the Great Depression on the family and individual experience of the Oakland study members with that of a younger cohort born toward the end of the 1920s (Elder et al. 1984). Consistent with the life-stage hypothesis, the younger boys in particular were more adversely influenced by family hardship, when compared to the older boys. But similar effects were not observed among the girls.

By the 1990s, the life course had become a general theoretical framework for the study of lives, human development, and aging in a changing society. This advance is coupled with the continued growth of longitudinal studies and the emergence of new methodologies for the collection and analysis of life history data (Giele and Elder 1998; Mayer and Tuma 1990).


Life course theory is organized around paradigmatic principles that guide inquiry on issues of problem identification, model formulation, and research design. Four principles are primary: 1) the interplay of human lives and development with changing times and places; 2) the social timing of lives; 3) the interdependence of lives; and 4) human agency in choice-making and actions (Elder 1998).

  1. The life course of individuals is embedded in and shaped by the historical times and places they experience over their lifetime.
    When societies are undergoing rapid change, different birth years expose individuals to historical worlds with different opportunity systems, cultures, and structural constraints. Historical influences on life trajectories take the form of a cohort effect when social change differentiates the life course of successive cohorts, such as older and younger men before the World War II. History also takes the form of a period effect when the impact of social change is relatively uniform across successive birth cohorts. Birth year and cohort membership locate people in relation to historical change, such as the economic recession of 1982–83, but they do not indicate actual exposure to the change or the process by which historical influences are expressed. Direct study of such change and its influences is essential for identifying explanatory mechanisms.
    Life stage informs such mechanisms; people of unlike age and those who occupy different roles are differentially exposed to and influenced by particular types of social change. Four other components of an explanatory mechanism (for linking social change to lives) are worth noting (Elder 1998, pp. 959–61). One linking factor is defined by social imperatives, the behavioral demands or requirements of new situations. The more demanding the situation, the more individual behavior is constrained to meet role expectations. Studies of worklives by Kohn and Schooler (1983) suggest that the establishment of a new set of occupational and workplace imperatives can alter how workers think and function. A second factor involves the dynamics of a control cycle. A loss of personal control occurs when people enter a new world and this sets in motion efforts to regain this control. These efforts may entail new choices that construct a different direction in life, a different life course. Historical influences are often expressed through a network of relationships. Interdependent lives are thus a linking factor in the explanatory analysis. The last factor involves accentuation. When a social transition heightens a prominent attribute that people bring to the new role or situation, the process accentuates the effect of the change. Our understanding of such change is enhanced by the principle of timing in lives.
  2. The developmental impact of a life transition or event is contingent on when it occurs in a person's life.
    This principle subsumes the concept of life stage; social change affects the individual according to when the exposure occurred over the life course. Recruitment into the military illustrates this point (Sampson and Laub 1996). Mobilization immediately after high school occurs before marriage and worklife obligations, and during World War II, entry into the service at this time was less disruptive than it was for males who entered in their late twenties or thirties. Studies of veterans from World War II indicate that late entry into the armed forces significantly increased the risk of divorce, worklife disruption, and an accelerated pattern of physical health decline (Elder and Chan 1999). By comparison, early entry provided access to educational and job opportunities without the costs of life disruption.
    Across the life course, Neugarten's (1996) emphasis on the consequences of timing variations has been followed by extensive research on differential timing patterns, from marriage and births to retirement (Shanahan in press). The impact of a life event, such as a personal loss, depends in part on when the event occurs. But to fully assess this impact, we must consider also the principle of linked lives.
  3. Lives are lived interdependently and social and historical influences are expressed through this network of shared relationships.
    Social relationships represent a vehicle for transmitting and amplifying the effects of stressful change, as in families under economic stress. For example, Depression hardship tended to increase the explosiveness of fathers who were inclined toward irritability before the crisis (Elder et al. 1986). And the more explosive they became under stress, the more adversely it affected the quality of marriage and effectiveness as a parent. Unstable family relations (marital, parent-child) became mutually reinforcing dynamics across the life course and generations. These dynamics tended to persist from one generation to the next through a process of individual continuity and intergenerational transmission.
    Linked lives tend to transmit the life course implications of an ill-timed event in a person's life. One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon comes from a study of female lineages in Los Angeles (Burton and Bengtson 1985). The birth of a child to the teenage daughter of a young mother created a large disparity between age and kinship status, between being young and facing the prospects of grandparental obligations. Four out of five mothers of young mothers actually refused to accept these new child-care obligations, shifting the burden up the generational ladder to the great-grandmother, who in many cases was carrying a heavy load. By comparison, the women who became grandmothers in their late forties or so were eager for the new role; in this lineage, a daughter's timely transition to motherhood set in motion her mother's timely transition to grandmotherhood. In both cases, the principle of human agency addresses the process by which lives and life courses are socially constructed.
  4. Individuals construct their own life course through the choices and actions they have taken within the constraints and opportunities of history and social circumstances.
    Human agency has been a central theme in the study of biographies. Lives are influenced by social structures and cultures, but human agency can shape lives through the choices that are made under such conditions. In Clausen's American Lives (1993), the central question is not how social systems made a difference in the life course, but why people made certain choices and thereby constructed their own life course. Clausen focused on the primary role of planful competence in late adolescence, that competent young people who think about the future with a sense of efficacy are more effective in making sound choices and in implementing them. This study found substantial support for this hypothesis in the lives of men in particular from adolescence to the retirement age of 65. However, longitudinal research (Shanahan et al. 1997) shows that planful competence makes a difference only when opportunities are available. Planful competence was not expressed in education or occupational career among men who entered the labor market in the depressed 1930s.
    The emergence of life course theory and methods can be viewed as a response to pressing questions in the 1960s. The rapidly developing field of human development and aging needed a conceptual framework for thinking about the patterning of human lives in changing societies and its consequences. As life course theory addressed issue of this kind, it gained prominence as a theoretical orientation among fields of gerontology, criminology, social history, medical studies, developmental science, education, and social stratification. Noting such developments, Colby (Giele and Elder 1998, pp. x), refers to this approach as "one of the most important achievements of social science in the second half of the 20th century." Only time will tell about the accuracy of this appraisal. In the meantime, the field of life course studies continues to flourish.


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