The Life Course
Understandings of the life course focus on how major life events and cultural contexts shape the life paths and opportunities of individuals or social groups. The sequencing and timing of various life transitions, such as those around education, work and retirement, are a central area of interest in terms of how these are shaped by societies’ values, expectations and norms.
It is a part of the work of Project Lifecourse to contribute to the further development of our understanding of the life course and how it applies to the lives of people in their communities. In its current work programme, Project Lifecourse addresses a range of features of the life course.
Events, transitions and life paths
Project Lifecourse considers the life course in terms of events, transitions and life paths. Individuals’ lives are shaped by the events and transitions that happen over the course of their lives, with these combining to create a particular pathway through life. This involves looking at events like entering and leaving education, starting and leaving work, entering into personal relationships, and experiences of loss and change, such as bereavement. It also entails looking at transitions into certain roles, such as becoming a parent, family carer or grandparent.
Individuals belonging to the same community or with what seem to be similar characteristics as others, including for example people with disabilities, children and young people, and older people, can experience very different life events and transitions. While such events and transitions may be positive, in terms of the resources and opportunities that they provide, they may also be more challenging and result in reduced well-being. Consideration of this aspect of the life course can produce rich accounts of the diversity of life experiences across a community of citizens. More importantly, there are opportunities to improve understanding of the events and transitions which result in some individuals or groups being better positioned than others.
Internationally, there is growing interest in the ways in which early life can shape outcomes later in life. Project Lifecourse considers how experiences, like those around family, service support, education and human development, accumulate over time to influence individual well-being and individuals’ capacity to live independently. Looking at the life course in this way allows us to explore how advantages and disadvantages may accumulate over a person’s life. This is important for Project Lifecourse as it helps us to understand how the lives of children and young people, people with disabilities, and older people are connected over time. Additionally, it raises the potential to develop interventions and policy which may be better able to respond to early-life influences.
Project Lifecourse is also interested in the life course as human development, considering how children and young people, people with disabilities and older adults move through life, developing as individuals and members of social networks and adapting to changing environments. Human development is, therefore, a life-long process that encompasses elements of agency, where people make their own choices, and interdependency, involving the lives of others. In Project Lifecourse we are particularly interested in supporting individuals’ resilience, and in understanding their different coping and adaptive capacities at different points of the life course.
Policies and Practices
The life course is also influenced by the social and bureaucratic institutions and structures that are within our society. Social policies and practices can shape the roles, and criteria for access to those roles, for different groups of people. For instance, policies determine the age at which individuals are entitled to vote in elections, when they become eligible to drive, and the family and community roles individuals are expected to fulfil. Policies and practices can, therefore, influence the opportunities and choices that are available at different points in our lives. Moreover, social and bureaucratic institutions and structures can influence our health and well-being, whether this is in relation to, for instance, the provision of medical cards for people of a certain age or the availability of respite services for family carers. By exploring the life course as a product of policies and practices, we can identify elements of the life course that are created and enforced by our own society.
If you are interested in finding out further detail on these and other perspectives of life course studies, you may find it usful to consult the following academic papers:
Alwin, D. F. (2012). Integrating varieties of life course concepts. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(2): 206-220.
Dannefer, D. (2012). Enriching the Tapestry: Expanding the Scope of Life Course Concepts. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(2): 221-225.