Life Course In History Research Paper

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The history of the life course, of age categories, and of aging is essential to understanding how any society organizes itself over time. The notion of life cycle was first used by social science in the 1930s, but has now been superceded by the more flexible notion of life course. Historians had long been interested in the aging of individuals, but were slower to appreciate the social dimension. Today, however, notions of life course and aging are as essentia1 to historical practice as they are to the social and behavioral sciences.

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1. Foundations Of The Field

Representations of the ages of man had previously attracted the interest of historians of art and religion, but it was not until the 1960s that the life course became a focus of social and cultural history. Beginning with Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood (1962), there began a veritable avalanche of studies which have explored the history of every dimension of the Western life course from the Greeks to the present. Today there is a substantial body of literature on the history of childhood, youth, old age, and death, focused mainly on Europe and North America, but also touching on the non-Western world.

Aries was concerned mainly with representations of aging, but his successors were influenced by the social sciences to direct their attention to behavior. The first generation of new work in the 1960s and 1970s was heavily influenced by historical demography, psychology, biology, and quantitative sociology, seeking to define general patterns of historical development and understand the structures and functions of age groups.

Today, the influence of positivist notions of human development are less evident. In the most recent studies of the life course it is the variability and instability of the life course and age categories that have gained the most attention.

2. Development Of The Field

The historical study of the life course began with childhood, moved subsequently to youth, old age, and death, and, most recently, has focused attention on mid-life. This sequence is less the effect of research design than historical contingency. The youth movements of the 1960s accounted for the interest in the history of adolescence; the evident importance of older age groups as a consequence of the longevity revolution focused interest on them from the l970s onwards. Death and dying became important topics in the same period, while the recent work on mid-life reflects the uncertainties experienced by adults in recent decades. What began as a field concerned mainly with the middle-class male life course has now become much more sensitive to gender and ethnic differences, yet another reflection of the ways in which the studies in this area reflect contemporary concerns.

The study of childhood has undergone dramatic changes since it was introduced by Aries. His notion that there was no concept of the child before the early modern period was immediately challenged by medieval and Renaissance historians who produced linguistic, artistic, and medical evidence of concern with children in their respective periods. The idea that children were subject in pre-modern times to an indifference bordering on neglect has also been modified in recent decades, so that we now have a much more nuanced view of earlier eras of child rearing and childhood, but one that preserves the essence of Aries’ original insight into the malleability of notions of childhood over the centuries. We have come to understand that practices such as abandonment, which may seem cruel to us, made sense in other social and cultural settings.

Aries’ insight into the mutability of age categories also influenced the first generation of studies of youth. It became clear that in pre-modern Europe youth was more a function of social context than biological age. Numerical age was less important than work and marital status in defining the boundary between youth and adulthood. It was not until the later nineteenth century that entry and exit into this age category became standardized, and then mainly for middle-class males who constituted the first group to be called ‘adolescents.’

It was not until the twentieth century that everyone was seen as being entitled to both a childhood and an adolescence as these were defined by the emerging medical and psychological sciences. As the under-standing of childhood and youth became ever more universal and precise, there developed a notion of a normal life course, leading through adulthood to old age. By following the proper rules of aging, individuals could expect to arrive at what Erik Erikson, the major theorist of the linear life course, deemed a coherent understanding of themselves and life more generally. Failure to move through the prescribed stages of life in a timely manner was often portrayed as a cause of personal and social disorder.

By the 1980s, attention had become focused on old age and death. As more and more people began to live longer, healthier, more active lives, many stereotypes of older people began to be challenged. Old age could no longer be equated with poor health, debility, and passivity. These changes contributed to new interest in old age in earlier periods, and a more nuanced view of aging and ‘retirement’ in the past. It turned out that the modern period has no monopoly on notions of good aging or, for that matter, of the good death.

Even adulthood, that part of the life course that had previously been neglected by historians because it seemed so universal and unproblematic, has come in for its share of attention. Awareness of midlife crises, first among men and later among women, prompted a number of recent studies focused on the changing nature of adulthood over time. Studies of fatherhood and motherhood demonstrate just how historically variable this dimension of the life course has also been, and how changing definitions of masculinity and femininity, and of sexual orientation, have affected notions of adulthood over time.

3. Pre-Modern And Modern Life Courses

Historical work from 1960–2000 has complicated our understanding of the life course and aging in the present as well as in the past. It is now generally agreed that prior to the modern era, age boundaries were more fluid and the life course less rigidly segmented. The identity of pre-modern peoples was determined less by how old they were numerically than by the status or place they occupied in the social order. In a society where heading a household conferred adulthood regardless of age, a propertyless man or woman would remain a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ all his or her life. Schooling was not age graded and there was no set age of retirement.

The nature of the agricultural economy, the absence of centralized institutions, and high levels of mortality and fertility all contributed to this condition. So too did a pre-scientific culture, which had no notion of universal quantifiable laws of nature, but was prepared to accept sudden, nonlinear qualitative change as quite normal.

All this changed in the course of the nineteenth century. For the first time numerical age came to define status for a growing part of the population. In a process that Martin Kohli has called ‘chronologization,’ age became the criterion for schooling, entry into work, and military service. By the end of the century, it was also associated with entitlements such as retirement and welfare benefits.

Chronologization proceeded fastest among urban populations, affecting middle-class men first, but by the early twentieth century it was shaping the lives of a majority of the European and North American populations. Not only was aging standardized, but it was normalized, producing an acute sense of being too old or too young for certain categories of activities. The life course was organized into a linear sequence consisting of childhood youth, adulthood, and old age, each with its appropriately gendered roles and expectations. By the mid-twentieth century, norms of successful aging held sway throughout Western society and were being exported to the non-Western world as integral to what it meant to be modern.

In retrospect, we can see that chronologization was the product of an urban industrialized society concerned to maximize productivity through the rationalization of time, including age. The newly developed nation-state was equally interested in maximizing the resources of its citizens by organizing them into age cohorts. These efforts were reinforced by the new biological, medical, and psychological sciences, which took over the responsibility for assigning meaning to age and aging from religion. By the beginning of the twentieth century, each age had its own body of expertise. Childhood was now covered by the newly invented field of pediatrics; adolescent psychology was recognized; and a new discipline of gerontology would soon develop. In our own time, death has become yet another area of expertise, thanatology.

The process of chronologization reached its apogee in the post-World War II period, but by the 1980s some were foreseeing the arrival of the ‘age-irrelevant society.’ Since 1980 there has been a noticeable dechronologization of the Western life course. Not only has numerical age ceased to be such a powerful determinant of status, but the boundaries between ages have blurred and new age categories such as the ‘young-old’ or what Peter Laslett called the ‘Third Age.’

The timing and sequencing of the life course have become less uniform and normative. The ages of entry into and leaving work and schooling show greater variation. The same is true of marriage and parenting. Given new reproductive technologies, the biological clock is no longer as determinative of women’s life course. There is no longer concensus on what constitutes a child, a youth, or an old person. Adulthood, previously that part of the life course that could be taken for granted, has also become problematic.

All this has led to a reconsideration of the linearity of the life course. In the late twentieth century, the institutions that once enforced age norms no longer did so. Schools, employers, and the state all now acknowledge, even encourage, flexibility with respect to age. More concerned with consumption than with production, Western industrial society has encouraged both younger and older age groups to enter into roles in the marketplace previously reserved for adults. Children and the youth have become major consumers, while older persons are encouraged to lead active lives in the consumer society.

The nation-state has also relaxed its age criteria. Its high-tech armies are no longer composed exclusively of young men, but now include not only women but a much wider range of age groups. Today boundaries between age groups blur. The legal distinctions between childhood and adulthood have become less clear. Legal ages of drinking, driving, and voting have all been revised in recent decades.

While most people still maintain some normative notion of the life course, this gets less reinforcement than it once did from the medical and behavioral sciences. Recent studies have challenged the predictive power of numerical age in everything from learning capacity to physical fitness. It is no longer clear that life follows a uniform, predictable sequence. Gender differences and variation by class and ethnicity have complicated the contemporary picture of aging to the point that generalizations become increasingly suspect.

Today, age is seen as more subjective, more contingent. We seem to be returning to a situation similar to that which existed before the process of chronologization began. But now it is not one’s status that determine’s one’s age, but one’s own effort. We are told that how we age is up to us, dependent on how we eat, exercise, and medicate ourselves. Notions of successful aging and the good death were present in earlier periods, but were largely defined by religion. Today, religion competes with the prescriptions of science and medicine. As recent studies show, factors of class, gender, generation, and ethnicity still have a powerful effect on the way we think about age. However subjective age categories have become they do not exist outside history or culture.

4. Current State Of The Field And Future Directions Of Research

Current interest in the history of the life course reflects contemporary uncertainty about aging and the desire to know more about its contingent nature. The history of the life course and aging is no longer so influenced by the behavioral sciences as it once was, while, at the same time, psychologists and sociologists have become more aware of the historicity of their subject. Psychologists now question the notion of a linear life course and the assumption of universal laws of development that underlay it. It is now generally acknowledged that gender, class, race, and cultural background have enormous effect on the life course and life chances.

The relationship between history and the behavioral sciences has been profoundly altered. There is now much greater appreciation of the variability not only of conceptions of age, but of age relations themselves. Aging has ceased to be seen as some invariable law of nature, to be discovered and obeyed. It is no longer a problem to be formulaically solved, but a challenge that confronts every generation and to which there is no one answer, only an ongoing dialogue with ourselves and others about the meaning of age.

No period in history has ever achieved agreement on the question of when life begins and ends, or how the life span should be divided or sequenced. Furthermore, our conceptions of life are not limited to the actual life span. We have the capacity to imagine life before birth and after death, and conceptions like the fetus as ‘unborn child’ or notions of life after death have very powerful effects on the way we lead our lives.

Over time the perceived number of ages of man has varied enormously. Some cultures have assigned the highest value to the oldest ages; others have valorized childhood or youth over age. The so-called ‘prime of life’ has been equally variable over time and space. Even within a single society in a given period, people have thought about the life course in very different ways. Religion, which has traditionally been the source of ideas about age and aging, has always been a point of division. Catholics traditionally assigned meaning to particular moments in life, such as the deathbed, while Protestantism insisted that every moment was equally significant in the eyes of God.

Today, intra-religious battles over the meaning of the life course pale in comparison with the struggles between religion and science over the definition of the beginning and ending of life.

Different class groups have also been at odds when thinking about the life course. And there are obvious differences in the ways that different ethnic groups think about age and aging. Gender is also a source of variation. The notion of the linear life course has been closely associated with a certain kind of middle-class masculinity, which places great value on the development of a career. Until recently, few women have had access to careers, their lives having been more contingent on family responsibilities. They have tended to have a more flexible notion of the life course and to be more adaptable than men. In the late twentieth century, when so many people lived beyond all previous societal expectations, this kind of flexibility proved to be a great asset.

It is clear from recent research that the life course is as much the product of culture as of biology. Life is not so much a script we follow, as one we as individuals and as societies write as we go along. In pre-modern times that script was a religious one. In the nineteenth century, the natural and behavioral sciences took over its authorship, producing a grand narrative of the life course sufficiently consistent with the requirements that the dominant economic and political institutions endowed it with until the fourth quarter of the twentieth century.

Today, the traditional naturalistic grand narrative no longer suffices. The global economy demands flexibility; the nation-state ceases to police age boundaries and moves to divest itself of the entitlements (public schooling, mandatory retirement, social security) that were once associated with age. Individuals are encouraged to become more flexible and self- reliant, charged with the responsibility not only for defining but narrating their own life courses. This is reflected in the explosion of personal memoirs and family histories in the last few decades. In the absence of grand narratives of the life course, everyone seems bent on telling his or her own story.

This new development represents both a freedom and a burden to individuals, and a challenge to experts in the area of life course studies. It requires a new sensitivity to what people are telling us about their lives, new methods that go beyond the old quantitive measures of age to assess subjective experience of aging. It also calls for new theories of aging that take account of the interaction of cultural and biological factors. Historians as well as social scientists now acknowledge that we inhabit not only a physical world but also a symbolic world, and that it is the interplay between the two that determines the history as well as the sociology of the life course and aging.

Historians as well as behavioral scientists have begun to acknowledge that the sources of data they have traditionally relied on to measure aging, mainly physical and behavioral data, tells us only part of what we need to know. They are beginning to explore further the stories that people have told themselves about the aging process and how different subcultures have imagined the life course. For it is through these that we grasp the ways in which people not only think about age but think with age, and how the meanings that are constructed through and around the life course affect the way we live. For we not only live with certain historically defined notions of life course and aging, but live by them. These constitute the source of the meaning as well as the structure of any social system.

Historical studies of the life course and aging are beginning to turn to those humanistic disciplines such as literature and art history traditionally devoted to close analysis of language, narrative, and images. This does not mean that they are discarding the alliances with the behavioral and social sciences that have been so productive to this point, but rather that all the disciplines concerned with the life course and aging have become more aware of the need to examine their epistemological and ontological assumptions.


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