Life Course Essay

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The life course as a field of study is a relatively new paradigm that developed after the 1950s, based on historical demography, research on the sociology of aging, life histories, and panel and longitudinal studies. Life course research is interdisciplinary in nature and combines several models to describe the social development of individuals across the life course.

Generally, researchers focus on five elements of the life course paradigm: the principle of life-span development, agency, time and place, timing, and linked lives. Life-span development refers to an individual’s capacity to learn and grow throughout his or her life. Human agency emphasizes the fact that people shape their lives through the decisions they make based on social and historical opportunities and constraints. Determining these, to a large degree, are time and place; that is, the constraints and rooting of people’s lives by the historical context in which they live. However, the way a person experiences life and its consequences also depends on the timing of events and transitions. Transitions between family, work, education, and community roles can be either on-time or off-time. Off-time transitions, such as teen pregnancy and early grandparenthood, are usually more problematic than on-time transitions. Last, people’s lives interconnect with others, and the effect of linked lives can have long-lasting consequences for individuals. For example, a child born to a teen will have different opportunities later on in life than a child born to someone in their mid-30s. The non-normative timing of teenage pregnancy also produces the off-time transition for the parent to become a grandparent at an earlier age than expected.

The terms generation, period, cohort, and age are important in life course research. Generation refers to the norms associated with chronological age regardless of the historical context. For example, a person turning 18 becomes a young adult because 18 is the legal age of adulthood. A period is a certain slice of history, such as the 1960s, when certain cultural and historical events occur to people of all ages but affect people of various cohorts differently. A cohort is a group of people of a similar age who grow older and move through time together and, therefore, share certain historical experiences. Age stands for the changes, physical and mental, that occur to individuals as they get older. Shared understanding of these terms allows for an interdisciplinary field that generates rich data. Even though the life course paradigm is new, it has become an important framework in understanding the totality of people’s lives.


  1. Giele, Janet Z. and Glen H. Elder Jr., eds. 1998. Methods of Life Course Research: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Mortimer, Jeylan T. and Michael J. Shanahan, eds. 2006. Handbook of the Life Course. New York: Springer.
  3. Smith Blau, Zena and John Hagan, eds. 1995. Current Perspectives on Aging and the Life Cycle: Delinquency and Disrepute in the Life Course. Greenwich, CT: JAI.

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