The concept of the life course refers to the social processes shaping individuals’ journey through life, in particular their interaction with major institutions associated with the family, work, education, and leisure. The life course perspective distinguishes between trajectories on the one side and transitions on the other. The former refer to the sequence of roles experienced over the life span; the latter to the changes consequent upon events such as divorce, children leaving home, and the birth of grandchildren.
Life course approaches emphasize the way in which individual trajectories and transitions are linked to the lives of significant others, with the interdependency of generations being one such example. The idea of families having ”interlocking trajectories” was first explored in the work of the American sociologist Glenn Elder, most notably in his Children of the Great Depression (1974). This study illustrated how delays in the parents’ timing of work and family careers as a result of the economic depression of the 1930s affected the subsequent timing of their children’s own life transitions. Another example of the ”linked lives” phenomenon has been illustrated in research on grandparenting that examines situations where grandparents take responsibility for raising grandchildren. Silverstein et al. (2003) view this as an example of ”mutual interdependency” within the family, with grandparents adopting new parental roles and parents excused from the main responsibilities associated with parenting. In this way, the researchers suggest, the family can be seen as a group of interlocking individuals who continually adapt both to their own needs and to those of others within the family system.
The idea of time is a central element in the concept of the life course. Hareven (1982) identifies three different levels of ”time” running through the life course of any individual: familial, individual, and historical. Family time refers to the timing of events such as marriage which involve the individual moving into new family based roles such as spouse or parent. Individual time is closely linked with family time, given the links between individual transitions and collective family based transitions. Historical time refers to more general institutional changes in society, including demographic, economic, and socio legal. Hareven argues that an understanding of the synchronization of these different levels of time is essential to the investigation of the relationship between individual lives and wider processes of social change.
The life course is itself now stretched over a longer period of time, given substantial improvements in life expectancy in most western countries. Associated with this have been significant changes in family life over the past century. For example, current cohorts of older people experience a far longer period of ”post parental” life than was the case with earlier cohorts. In 1900, women were likely to be in their mid-fifties/sixties when their last child married. Consequently, given lower life expectancy at this time, many women could expect to be widowed before their last child left home. With increased life expectancy, smaller family size associated with low fertility rates, and closer spacing of children, the average couple can now expect to live for 25 years or more after their last child has moved out. However, this post parental phase may still be associated with extensive care responsibilities associated with grandparenting and other types of informal care.
The life course approach has been highly influential in research on the family life of older people, with the idea of linked lives demonstrating how expectations about giving and receiving support are part of a continuing interaction among parents, children, and other kin over their lives as they move through time (Hareven 2001). Although the growth of individualism may have loosened kinship ties to a degree (Beck & Beck Gernsheim 2004), relationships between generations continue to be important in the family life of older people (Phillipson et al. 2001). The work of Attias Donfut and Wolff (2000) in France has highlighted the role of the ”pivot” (middle age) generation in pro viding economic support to young people on the threshold of adulthood, as well as providing flexible forms of care for the older generation as need arises. Generations have also been shown to provide emotional support for one another at different points of the life course. Research in the US has tracked feelings of emotional closeness and support across generations and found that emotional closeness stayed stable over a period of nearly two decades, with the maintenance of strong levels of affectual solidarity across generations, with adult children both pro viding and receiving help from mothers and fathers.
Life course research has also underlined the variability of expectations and patterns of support, with patterns of generational assistance shaped by values and experiences that evolve throughout life. Hareven and Adams (1996) demonstrate this point from research in the US examining how the premigration history of different ethnic groups influences expectations of support in later life. They demonstrate how older cohorts tend to emphasize support from family members; younger cohorts, in contrast, tend to stress help from social and welfare programs. They further note the way in which the earlier life course experiences of each cohort, as shaped by historical events, also affect the avail ability of economic and educational resources and support networks.
Given greater longevity, multi-generational ties have assumed much greater importance for securing wellbeing and support for individuals over the life course. At the same time, the diver sity of family ties must also be acknowledged. Generational relationships remain important in anchoring people at different points of the life course; however, not everyone is involved to the same degree in such relationships. The role of family relationships within the life course is likely to undergo further modification with the experiences of new cohorts influenced by wider social and historical change. The key point to acknowledge here is the dynamic process involved with different age groups both influencing the shape of the life course, while themselves being affected by changes operating at an institutional level. Families with their connecting intergenerational bonds will remain at the center of this process, and are themselves likely to contribute to what will be a major area of social change in the years ahead.
- Attias-Donfut, C. & Wolff, F.-C. (2000) Complimentarity Between Private and Public Transfers. In: Arber, S. & Attias-Donfut, C. (Eds.), The Myth of Generational Conflict. Routledge, London, pp. 47-68.
- Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2004) Families in a Runaway World. In: Scott, J., Treas, J., & Richards, M. (Eds.), The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Families. Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 499-514.
- Elder, G. H., Jr. (1974) Children of the Great Depression. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Elder, G. H., Jr. (1983) The Life Course and Aging: Challenges, Lessons and New Directions. In: Settersten, R. (Ed.), Invitation to the Life Course. Baywood Publishing, New York, pp. 49-71.
- Hareven, T. K. (1982) Family Time and Industrial Time. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Hareven, T. K. (2001) Historical Perspectives on Aging and Family Relations. In: Binstock, R. H. & George, L. K. (Eds.), Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences. Academic Press, San Diego, pp. 141-59.
- Hareven, T. K. & Adams, K. (1996) The Generation in the Middle: Cohort Comparisons in Assistance to Aging Parents in an American Community. In: Hareven, T. K. (Ed.), Aging and Generational Relations Over the Life Course: A Historical and Life Course Perspective. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 272-93.
- Phillipson, C., Bernard, M., Phillips, J., & Ogg, J. (2001) The Family and Community Life of Older People. Routledge, London.
- Silverstein, M., Giarrusso, R., & Bengston, V. L. (2003) Grandparents and Grandchildren in Family Systems: A Social-Developmental Perspective. In: Bengston, V. L. & Lowenstein, A. (Eds.), Global Aging and Challenges to Families. Aldine de Gruyter, New York, pp. 75-102.