The Life Course and Aging: Some Accomplishments, Unfinished Tasks, and New Directions

 Glen H. Elder, Jr.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Presented at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, Boston, Massachusetts November 11, 2002


            Today we believe that the “lived experiences of people in contexts” are essential for understanding their pattern of aging. But this was not always so. When I launched my career at the University of California-Berkeley (1962), the pioneering investigators of longitudinal studies at the Institute of Human Development paid little attention “to how people lived and organized their lives,” to the social pathways they followed, or to the institutional and historical forces that influenced them.

            During graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, a concept of the life course had not yet appeared in the scholarly literature and it was not covered in the seminars of our leading graduate programs. I completed my doctorate without any exposure to, or understanding of, the life course as theory, method, or field of inquiry. But good fortune played an important role when I accepted an assistant professorship in Sociology, U-C Berkeley, and an appointment at the well-known Human Development Institute, staffed mainly by psychologists. With three ongoing longitudinal studies, this was just the place for a young sociologist to make a contribution by placing lives in context over time.

            There were other sociologists who were making contributions in this direction - people like John Clausen (1993) who had just taken over the directorship of the Institute at Berkeley and Harold Wilensky in the Sociology department, who was studying the life cycles of work, family, and leisure (1962). Fifty years earlier, W.I. Thomas and Znaniecki (1918-1920) had pursued an approach that had much in common with what we know as the life course today.

            John Clausen gave me the task of supervising the coding of life history interviews on the Oakland study members - born in 1920-21 in Oakland. And this is where I began to think of distinctions that would make a difference in charting people’s lives. The writings of Bernice Neugarten (Neugarten, 1996) were especially helpful in this regard. I have followed such thinking across the years as a theoretical orientation on the life course.

            The approach is based on a set of principles. First, development and aging are lifelong processes. Second, people are actors with choices that construct their lives. Third, the timing of events and roles, whether early or late, affects their impact. Fourth, lives are embedded in relationships with other people and are influenced by them. And fifth, changing historical times and places profoundly influence people’s experiences. Over several decades, these distinctions have become foundation principles for life course theory.

            Perhaps, reflecting my childhood during World War II, I have always been drawn to the influence of large-scale changes on people’s lives, as in efforts to understand the impact of the Great Depression among Californians, born in the 1920s. Also of interest to me are the effects of WW II in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as in the influence of change in rural societies, with emphasis on the American Midwest. Consistent with this interest, I found life course ideas particularly useful for linking lives to institutional and historical change, and for assessing the personal impact of social trajectories in life. 

            Two markers in my career have much to say about the evolution of life course studies, its new directions and challenges. The first came as an invitation in 1973 from the advisory panel for the newly established Annual Review of Sociology, to prepare a chapter on “Age Groups and the Life Cycle.” This brought to mind an earlier stage of theorizing, one focused on the family cycle and generational succession. But the assignment was challenging and I accepted it with an understanding that I could bring life course themes into the essay.

            Twenty-nine years later we discover how far the field has progressed and matured, in the first Handbook on the Life Course. A field reaches a certain level of maturity when the cumulation of studies and new developments call for preparation of a handbook that critically reveals developments and limitations across multiple specialties. The Handbook on the Life Course, published by Plenum Press and edited by Jeylan Mortimer and Michael P. Shanahan, is scheduled to appear next summer, August 2003.

            I turn now to a brief comparison of life course studies at these different periods, since they indicate important accomplishments, new directions, and continuing challenges.


An Early Review and a Pioneering Handbook


            In the 1960s a new handbook of sociology included a chapter on the life course (Cain 1964), but it led to few advances in the field. Interest in “adult socialization” had faded by the 1970s and a number of advocates were shifting their attention to the life span and life course issues (Elder 1994). In the midst of these changes, an anthology of Bernice Neugarten’s (1968) work on age and aging underscored variations in life patterns, in timing and timetables. And a new book in 1972, Aging and Society, enhanced this focus on age with its age stratification perspective (Riley, Johnson, and Foner, 1972).  

            At this time, I was asked to prepare a review chapter that would examine current knowledge on the relation between age groups and the life cycle. I responded by revising the title to make it consistent with contemporary distinctions in the life course area. The meanings of age (social age and age graded events, historical age, subjective age) were essential and I used the title “Age Differentiation and the Life Course” to capture this variation. The life cycle is part of a life course framework, but it refers to a process of generational succession and reproduction in a population, and consequently does not apply to all people. Some do not have children.

            A major review of empirical work is challenging when available studies are scarce. Half way through this project, I concluded that the field was not sufficiently developed for an Annual Review essay. But eventually I decided to provide a kind of “conceptual map” of the area. I saw two main analytic streams of work, the “sociocultural and cohort-historical."

            The sociocultural perspective was exemplified by the collected work of Bernice Neugarten (1968, 1996) and by studies of the age-graded life course. The sequencing of events and social roles acquired increasing significance by assumptions about a normative life course and what Neugarten called a system of informal normative control and sanctions (Neugarten and Hagestad 1976). From this vantage point, some transitions were too early, others too late. Gunhild Hagestad, a longtime collaborator with Neugarten, has carried on this line of work in many creative directions, in age expectations, time tables, and schedules (Hagestad and Neugarten, 1985).

            I called the other empirical stream “the cohort-historical perspective,” featuring the age stratification model presented by Matilda Riley. Riley and collaborators (Riley, Johnson & Foner, 1972) proposed a macro-perspective that linked the age structure to interaction with a succession of birth cohorts. Another example that crossed levels of analysis came from my cohort study “Children of the Great Depression” (Elder, 1974-1999), a study that linked the Depression economy to family and life experiences up to the middle years. Both Riley and Elder show that people age in different ways according to their varied exposure to social change.

            One never knows precisely how a review paper influences the field (a citation count is insufficient). But as a footnote to life course history, I discovered that David Featherman passed along the essay to one of his young graduate students -- Dennis Hogan – who became fascinated with event sequences in the transition to adulthood. This problem became the topic of Hogan’s dissertation which he later turned into an influential book, Transitions and Social Change (Hogan, 1981).

            In the mid-1970s, social historians discovered that the life course addressed important issues that were not dealt with by the family cycle, especially issues of timing and life course variation. Role theory in the family cycle did not locate parenting at a particular age or time, and the growth of divorce focused greater attention on the diversity of lives (Hareven, 1978). Historian Tamara Hareven organized a working group on history and the life course in the mid-70s and this resulted in a book entitled Transitions (1978). Four years later she completed a major work on the Amoskeag textile mill and its working families in Manchester, New Hampshire -1900 to 1935 (Hareven, 1982).

            An SSRC Committee on the Life Course and Human Development played an important theoretical role at this time under the leadership of Matilda Riley. Its meetings paired research programs and fostered networks of investigators. One of the Committee’s activities used the Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics as the basis for a life course conference of young investigators. This conference and a resulting book, Life Course Dynamics, (Elder, 1985) led to conceptual advances in the life course.

            The life course became a framework with organizing concepts, such as trajectory and transition. A long view of the life course takes the perspective of trajectories with sequences of family and work roles, among others. A shorter view focuses on life transitions that represent changes in state, such as when children leave home. Transitions are always embedded in trajectories. 

            There are multiple levels of the life course, ranging from institutionalized social pathways (Mayer and Schoepflin, 1989; Mayer, 2001) to the lived experience of individuals, their individual life course (Elder, 1998). In varying degrees, people work out their life course in terms of established or institutionalized pathways, as in systems of education and work. The individual life course and its relation to trajectories of development and aging established common ground for life course theory and studies of the person and personality. But this “common ground” has remained elusive among disciplinary approaches.

            Though life course ideas in the 60s focused on the changing contexts of lives, this interplay is still neglected in the field today. Longitudinal studies rarely investigate the relation between the changing life course and developmental processes. Behavioral trajectories are often described in terms of the life course, without reference to social pathways. And in sociological studies, the life course of social roles is seldom linked to patterns of development or aging (Elder and Johnson, 2002).

            Despite these missed opportunities, the field of life course studies has become more interdisciplinary than in the past. Psychologist Anne Colby may have had this in mind when she referred during the late 90s to “the tremendous impact on social science that the life course approach has had in the past three decades (Giele and Elder, 1998).” The impact has been fueled in no small measure by the growth of longitudinal studies in this country and abroad, and by the conceptual and methodological challenges of studying individuals and people over their lives.

            This impact also represents a big story in the forthcoming Handbook on the Life Course (Mortimer and Shanahan, in press). For example, a chapter by John Laub and Robert Sampson (Laub and Sampson, in press) on criminology makes a compelling case for the usefulness of life course theory in studies of delinquency and crime in lives. According to the Handbook, studies of immigration and migration, work and organizations, mental and physical health, and religion have benefitted from the application of life course models and ideas. 

            Another index of the field’s growth is the “internationalization” of the life course as a domain of inquiry, concept, theory, and method. At the risk of leaving many projects out of my brief remarks, I shall mention a working group from the SSRC that met with Japanese sociologists in Tokyo to organize a Japan-U.S. conference on the life course at the East-West Center on the campus of the University of Hawaii. This led to a number of subsequent collaborations between American and Japanese scholars.

            Likewise the SSRC Committee on the Life Course met with scholars from Germany in the early 1980s and this also prompted new initiatives. Today the Max Planck Institute in Berlin has a well-known program of life course studies under the direction of Ulrich Mayer that dates back to 1988. And from 1989 to 2001, the German Research Foundation funded life course studies under the direction of Walter Heinz. This program has recently become a school at the University of Bremen. Martin Kohli’s noteworthy studies of work and aging have been located at the Free University of Berlin for over two decades.

 Some New Directions and Challenges


            At the beginning of my presentation, I mentioned five principles of the life course. The basis of these principles, and the ideas underlying them, emerged over a period of decades. The first principle, of development and aging as lifelong processes, was among the first to be articulated. In a sense, it represents a definitional premise of the theoretical orientation - that the analytical field extends from birth to death and is based on cumulative knowledge from research on development and aging across the life-span (Featherman, 1983).

            I brought the other principles together in a presentation at the 1993 American Sociological Association (1993) annual meeting in Miami, Florida (Elder, 1993). To prepare for this event, I surveyed studies of the life course and some key premises of the research. Drawing from this work, the second principle on human agency depicts the role of the individual as an active force in constructing his or her life course through the choices and actions taken. This principle has characterized life history studies extending back to the early Chicago school.

            Third, the multiple meanings of age in theory brought time and temporality to life course thinking, especially during the 1960s (Neugarten & Hagestad, 1976). Age and time also helped to place individuals and cohorts in their social-historical contexts (Riley, Johnson, and Foner, 1972). The fourth principle of linked lives refers to the social embeddedness of lives and has its origins in pioneering theoretical accounts of life histories and lives (e.g., Thomas and Znaniecki, 1918).

            A fifth principle on historical time and place derives much of its richness from the emergence of social history and from such early studies as Children of the Great Depression (Elder, 1974, 1999). When times change, lives change. Children of the Great Depression illustrates and documents these principles. Most of them place people in context and thus represent the intellectual movement toward contextualism.

            Each of the principles can be viewed as promoting new directions in research. Consider the principle of lifelong development and aging. For many years, studies of aging were designed to begin in the later years, such as the Health and Retirement Survey. However, the cumulation of studies on the early years underscores the importance of beginning a study of aging in the prenatal or immediate post-natal stage.

            A proposal for the Millennium Birth Cohort in Great Britain begins by noting that “understanding the social conditions surrounding birth and early childhood is increasingly appreciated as fundamental” to study of the whole life course (personal communication from John Bynner, 1999). The launching of a Millennium cohort study represents an exceptional research opportunity “to study the all-important first few months of life and potentially resolve many of the issues about their long–term influence.” The full payoff for an understanding of adult development and aging is many years away, but this is one investment we must make to address important developmental questions.

            Lifelong studies test our ability to identify causal pathways that link early events and processes with later outcomes. This is the challenge that we have faced in tracing the long-term consequences of combat exposure in WW II or in Korea (Elder, Shanahan, and Clipp, 1997). Knowledge of causal mechanisms typically stems from short-term studies with experimental designs.

            Nevertheless, we can at least piece together findings from the studies at hand to produce plausible models that connect with the later years, such as the link between chronic stress and adverse cardiovascular changes, and the connection between traumatic stress and auto-immune diseases. One of the most important issues in this work involves the cumulation of stressful experience and maladaptive responses.

            Within this framework, intergenerational studies across the life span question the wisdom of studies that focus exclusively on children, young adults, and the elderly. Adults are the primary socializing influences for children, and maturing children shape the behavior of their parents. Lastly, we know little about the interplay between historical change and individual functioning over the years. This type of study would require data on contexts and their change over many years, and longitudinal studies have seldom collected information of this kind. Indeed it is seldom possible even to know enough about subsequent social change to collect relevant data in subsequent follow-ups. However, the availability of GEO codes with coordinates that map households for users of large data sets now enable investigators to assess this type of ecology and its effects. Other data collections are needed to provide information, for example, on the organizational ties and workplaces of men and women.


Concluding Thoughts

            At the dawn of the twentieth century, social research was uninformed by a concept of the life course. But by the end of the century, life course theory had come of age. It has been used and adapted to research needs and questions by sociologists, psychologists, and historians, among others. This may be what psychologist Anne Colby had in mind when she noted that the “establishment of this approach, which is widely shared internationally as well as across disciplines, is one of the most important achievements of social science in the second half of the 20th century (p. x).”

            We gain some appreciation for this development by comparing the first essay on the life course in the first volume of the Annual Review of Sociology (Elder, 1975) with the first Handbook on the Life Course, scheduled for publication in summer 2003. There were few large scale studies of the life course at the time of this review essay. Some twenty-eight years later, the life course handbook assembles thirty-three chapters on different aspects of this field. In this short time span, life course ideas and theory appear to have shaped data collection, problem formulation, research designs, and theory across a diverse range of specialties.

            I have also identified some new directions in this field, including studies of aging that begin with information on the newborn in a longitudinal study – the Millennium cohort in Great Britain. A life-span frame poses major challenges to the causal explanation of early influences as expressed in later-life.

            As might be expected, we still have much to do. Consider a problem that focused my attention on the life course in the early 1960s. Most longitudinal studies at the Institute of Human Development did not relate behavioral change to the varied social pathways that people follow. This is still a major deficiency in our understanding of human development and aging. We still carry out studies as if the social pathway people follow and their institutional context make no difference in their lives. It is my hope that the next handbook will view human development and aging within “the lived lives of people,” and their institutional context. 


Reference List


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