Life stages

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Steven Mintz

John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History, 
Director, American Cultures Program, 
University of Houston
IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND change over time in patterns of individual and family development, so­cial historians have made extensive use of three im­portant analytical constructs: the life stages, the family cycle, and the life course. The life stages­ such as infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age are developmental phases, each with its own biological, psychological, and social char­acteristics, through which individuals pass over the course of their lives. The family cycle (which social anthropologists call the "developmental cycle") re­fers to the stages through which families go as members age and family size expands and con­tracts. The life course refers to the passage of indi­viduals through major life cycle transitions, such as leaving home, getting married, and entering and leaving school and the labor force.

Life stages analysis has focused on the chang­ing definition, demarcation, and social experience of the phases of individual development. It has shown that over the course of American history the definition of the life stages has grown more ,con­ceptually precise and more completely organized institutionally, and that the transition between stages has become more abrupt and disjunctive.

The family cycle approach has concentrated on changes in the basic phases through which families go from the time they are formed to the time they are dissolved. It has revealed the impact of such im­portant demographic developments as declining fertility rates, increasing life expectancy, prolonged residence of children in their parents home, and the decline in the practice of boarding on the fa­milial experience of individuals.

Life course analysis has explored changes in the timing and sequencing of key life cycle transi­tions. It has found that since the eighteenth century the timing of major transitions has grown more rigid and uniform, and has increasingly come to re­flect individual preferences rather than family needs. Taken together, the life stages, family cycle, and life course approaches have underscored the fact that private life has undergone transformations at least as radical and far reaching as those that have occurred in Americans' public institutions.

This essay will describe changes in the defini­tion and demarcation of the life stages over time. It will examine the impact of such historical devel­opments as the rise of the market and urbanization on the demarcation of the life stages and the timing of key life cycle events and transitions, and the rit­uals surrounding them. It will also examine the changing significance of age in American culture and the shifting distribution of power among vari­ous age groups.
The notion that human development passes through a series of stages is rooted in antiquity. Ro­man writers identified three to seven distinct ages of man, proceeding from conception to death. Me­dieval thinkers and artists formulated a variety of systems of age groups, dividing human life into three , four , five , six , seven , ten , and twelve part schemata. Perhaps the best known periodization of the human life cycle is found in William Shake­speare's play As You Like It, where he describes seven stages of human life, beginning with "puk­ing" infancy and ending with "second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Today, social scientists use the concept of the "life cycle" to refer to the division of individual lives into a series of sequential stages, such as in­fancy, childhood, adolescence, middle age, and old age. Each stage is defined in terms of three distinct conceptual components: biological, psychological, and social. The contemporary notion of adoles­cence, for example, consists of a biological com­ponent involving pubertal physical changes, rapid physiological growth, and sexual maturation; a psychological component involving drastic mood swings, inner turmoil, generational conflict, and a quest for identity; and a social component which involves the shifting social experience, institutional treatment, and cultural definition of adolescence.

Each conceptual component of a particular life stage is affected by a changing historical and cul­tural context. This is true even in the case of biol­ogy. Recent scholarship has suggested that the age of first menstruation and the age at which young people attain full physical stature has declined since 1850. The age of menarche appears to have fallen from approximately fifteen or sixteen in 1850 to be­tween twelve and thirteen in 1990, while the age of puberty for boys seems to have declined from around sixteen to thirteen or fourteen. Similarly, the age at which young men achieve full growth appears to have fallen from about twenty five in the early nineteenth century to around twenty in the late twentieth century.
The Changing Contours of the Life Stages
One of the most important conclusions to emerge from recent scholarship is that the life stages are historical constructs, shaped by the interaction of cultural, demographic, economic, and institutional factors. The definition, connotations, and experi­ence of the life stages vary according to class, eth­nicity, gender, and historical period.

The way that the life stages are periodized has undergone profound shifts over the course of American history. Seventeenth century New Eng­landers usually identified four distinct life stages: childhood, youth, middle age, and old age. These categories were vaguely defined and were not rig­idly linked to a specific age range.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the number of culturally identified life stages multi­plied, as psychologists, sociologists, and other so­cial commentators invented a variety of new age categories, beginning with adolescence, which ac­quired its modern connotations around the turn of the century. During World War II, the term "teen­ager" began to be used as an age category. In recent years, age categories have proliferated rapidly to in­clude "preschoolers," "preadolescents," the "young old," and the "old old."

As the number of culturally delineated age stages increased, the boundaries demarcating the end of one life stage and the beginning of the next grew increasingly rigid and disjunctive. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, generational lines were more blurred, and the transition from one life stage to another was less severe than in the nineteenth century. From an early age, colonial children worked alongside adults and dressed in adult clothing. In churches and other community activities and associations, the young and old partic­ipated together.

During the early nineteenth century, genera­tional lines sharpened and the passage from child­hood to youth and adulthood became more abrupt. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centu­ries, it was common for young men, and to a lesser extent for young women, to shift back and forth be­tween their families and work experiences outside the home. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the living arrangements of young people had undergone a dramatic change, as an increasing number remained in the parental home, attended school, and postponed labor force participation un­til their late teens or twenties. The boundaries sep­arating childhood, youth, and adulthood became more sharply demarcated.
Social and Cultural Construction of the Life Stages
The major differences between modern conceptions of the life stages and early notions of the "ages of man" are that contemporary concep­tions of childhood, adolescence, middle age, and old age are much more age specific and conceptu­ally precise, and that the transition between stages has grown more disjunctive. A variety of factors have contributed to a more precise formulation of the life stages. These include scientific and medical discoveries that identify childhood, adolescence, and old age as biologically and psychologically dis­tinct stages of life, with their own needs and char­acteristics; and such institutional developments as the emergence of age graded schools, the enact­ment of laws prohibiting child labor, and the adop­tion of old age pensions, which contribute to the segregation of age groups from one another.

The complex process by which a particular life stage was culturally and institutionally constructed can be seen in the eighteenth  and nineteenth­-century "discovery of childhood." To speak of the "discovery of childhood" is not, of course, to imply that childhood was unknown to earlier Americans; they defined it, however, quite differently than later Americans did. Seventeenth century New England­ers, for example, did not isolate children from the adult world. They did not establish special institu­tions for young children or set aside special rooms in their homes for them, nor did they assume that children had a unique psychology. Moreover, they did not dress children in distinctive clothing or rep­resent them in art as special categories of beings.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, a new view of children gradually appeared. During a bit­ter mid eighteenth century theological debate over infant depravity that deeply divided the New Eng­land churches, a new conception of childhood be­gan to be articulated that viewed children not as little adults but as special creatures requiring atten­tion, love, and time to mature. Religious liberals re­ected older notions of original sin and upheld a new view of children as malleable creatures who embodied virtue, innocence, wholeness, and purity `.The new focus on, and respect for, the child could be seen in the profusion of books and toys specifi­eally for children; in the supplanting of the stiffly posed portraits of children in the seventeenth and dearly eighteenth century by more romantic depic­dons of childhood playfulness and innocence; and in the appearance of furniture specifically designed for children, painted in pastel colors, and decorated animals or figures from nursery

Early nineteenth century reformers and edu­cators invoked the new images of childhood in for the creation of special age­-segregated environments such as Sunday schools, public schools, houses of refuge, and the Young Christian Association where youthful inno­cence could be protected and nurtured. By the second half of the nineteenth century, a growing sensitivity to children's unique needs and problems `led physicians to establish a new branch of medi­cine pediatrics specifically devoted to infant and childhood diseases; inspired "child savers" to es­tablish the first organizations in American history children from neglect and abuse; and ­journalists to launch the first specialized children's magazines.

The term "adolescence," derived from the Latin adolescere, meaning to grow up, entered pop­ular discourse in the late nineteenth century, de­noting the distinct age range that extended from .puberty to the end of the teen years. In contrast to the earlier concept of youth, which referred to a much wider age span (usually denoting those seven to thirty), adolescence carried much more clearly :defined connotations and was much more rigidly from adult society. G. Stanley Hall (1844­one of the nation's leading psychologists, helped to formulate and popularize the modern conception of adolescence as a period of "storm and stress" rooted in the physiological changes as­sociated with puberty. I fall and numerous popular­izers disseminated a conception of adolescence as a critical stage of life during which young people their basic identity. Among the factors that contributed to a recognition of adolescents as a clearly defined age group were the systematiza­tion, bureaucratization, and prolongation of edu­cation and the classification of students by age; industrialization, which undermined apprentice­ship systems and made occupations more special­ized than in the past; and growing public concern over juvenile delinquency and child labor.

Adolescence as a distinct age group, with unique needs and problems, was institutionalized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Educators, social workers, and other advocates of the young, convinced that adolescents needed time to develop the intellectual and emotional capacities to face the challenges of adult life, supported re­strictions on child labor, and compulsory education laws, raised the school leaving age, expanded the number of high schools, and created numerous adult sponsored youth organizations, such as the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts. The separation of adolescence from adulthood was also embodied in the establishment of a separate juvenile court sys­tem and the emergence of a distinct youth market for leisure, evident in the rapid growth of dance halls and young men's clubs.

During the late nineteenth century, old age, like adolescence, began to be perceived in a new way: as a clearly delineated stage of life isolated from the rest of society. In colonial America, old age generally commanded authority and respect, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the status attached to age had declined, and old age was in­creasingly associated with such problems as depen­dency, physical disability, mental debility, and a host of character problems including depression, bitter­ness, hypochondria, and an inability to absorb new ideas. A number of factors contributed to this more negative perception of old age; these included the mounting economic dependency of the elderly in an increasingly urban and industrial society, the in­creasing incidence of chronic degenerative condi­tions among the elderly as medical advances reduced the number of deaths caused by infections and epidemic diseases, and a cult of youth, which regarded the elderly as inflexible, unadaptable, and out of step with the times, and as inefficient and unproductive workers.

Increasingly, social workers, government poli­cymakers, and businessmen regarded old age as a social problem. Old age homes began to appear at the end of the nineteenth century. During the Pro­gressive Era, the first public commission on aging was established (in Massachusetts in 1909); the first federal old age pension bill was introduced (also in 1909); the first survey of the economic conditions of the elderly was conducted (in Massachusetts in 1910); and the first noncontributory old age pen­sion system was enacted (in Arizona in 1914). Re­tirement was institutionalized during the early and mid twentieth century with the introduction of company pension plans, the enactment of manda­tory retirement laws, and the adoption of the Social Securitv System.

Just as individual lives pass through a sequence of developmental stages, so families go through a series of stages from the time they are formed until they are dissolved. Their size increases and con­tracts as children are born and older children leave home. Over the span of their members' lives, changes occur in family roles, in relationships be­tween spouses and between parents and children, and in income and consumption patterns. Social scientists use the concept of the family or house­hold cycle, or the developmental cycle, to refer to the sequence of changes through which families go from the formation of a union until a couples' deaths.

Social historians adopted the concept of the family cycle from family sociologists such as Evelyn Duvall and Reuben Hill, who defined the stages of the family cycle in terms of such characteristics as the presence or absence of children, the children's ages, and the employment status of the father. Hill developed a widely used nine stage model of the family cycle:

1. Establishment (newly married, childless)

New parents (infant to three years)

3. Preschool family (child three to six, and possibly younger siblings)

4. School age family (oldest child six to twelve, and possibly younger siblings)

5. Family with adolescent (oldest child thir­teen to nineteen, and possibly younger siblings)

6. Family with young adult (oldest child twenty until first child leaves home)

7. Family as launching center (from depar­ture of first to last child)

Postparental family, the middle years (after children have left home until father re­tires)

9. Aging family (after retirement of father)
A number of historians of the family have used the concept of the family cycle to better understand the economic functioning of the family. Historians of the colonial family have used the concept to ex­amine indentured servitude and the transmission of property from one generation to the next. They have found that many poorer parents, lacking suf­ficient property to pass on a landed estate to their sons and daughters, often sent young children rang­ing in age from seven to fourteen to work as inden­tured servants in exchange for room and board.

More prosperous parents, eager to preserve the family estate, sometimes adopted a "stem fam­ily" pattern of inheritance. Aging parents would take a married son or son in law and his family to live with them, operate their farm, and inherit the property in return for assuming financial responsi­bility for the family's other children. Under the stem family arrangement, family composition alter­nated between a nuclear and an extended struc­ture, depending on the stage of the family cycle. Some colonial families, toward the end of the fam­ily cycle, migrated to the frontier in order to pro­vide land for their sons.

Historians of nineteenth century working class families have found that the economic well being of the family depended on the stage of the fam­ily cycle. Working class families faced particularly acute financial stress at the beginning and the end of the family cycle. During the early years of a marriage, when children were too young to work and contribute directly to the family's income, many working class families lived with parents or boarded with another family. During the middle stages of the family cycle, when children could con­tribute to the family's income, economic well being increased, only to decline at the end of the family cycle, after children had left home, since family in­come depended on the number of members in the work force. To maintain the family's standard of liv­ing, an older couple often took boarders or lodgers into their house.

While some social historians have used the family cycle to analyze the family's economic be­havior, others have used the concept to understand changes in the family's demographic characteristics and patterns of development. Historians of the fam­ily have shown, for example, that the family cycle, like the life stages, has undergone far reaching transformations over the course of American his­tory Changes in the definition of the stages of the family cycle are particularly striking. During the co­lonial period, the family cycle often began not with marriage but with cohabitation, especially in frontier regions. The high cost of a marriage license and portage of ministers or magistrates meant that many couples never formally married. The recent surge in premarital cohabitation (according to one late 1980s' estimate 53 percent of newly married couples cohabited prior to marriage) has produced a stage in the family cycle somewhat rem­iniscent of the earlier pattern.

As a result of changing fertility patterns and increased life expectancy, the family cycle has changed significantly since the late nineteenth century. A reduction in the birthrate and closer spacing of children have meant that women spend a smaller portion of their lives raising young children. An eighteenth century Quaker woman could expect to spend over seventeen years of a thirty year mar­riage bearing children; for her, family life coincided with childbearing and child rearing. In contrast, a woman born during the 1920s spent only about ten years of a forty four year marriage bearing children; she and her husband could expect to live together more than a decade after children had ceased to be responsibilities

Increasing life spans have meant that husbands and wives spend more of their married lives with­out children. Over the course of the twentieth century, the number of years married couples spend at home has climbed from 1.6 years to 12.3 years. The "empty nest" now constitutes about one third of a couples' married life. As a result of a growing sex differential in mortality, widowhood has increased in length, and now averages nearly ten years.

Along with the shifts that have occurred in the periodization of the family cycle has come another important transformation: a marked decline in the earlier practice of taking kin and nonkin into the family at distinct points in the family cycle. During nineteenth century, boarders and lodgers were important fact of life; approximately 12 to 15 percent of urban households took in extended kin

0 to 30 percent took in boarders and lodgers pared with just 5 percent today). Middle class families were particularly likely to take in extended kin while working class families were more likely to take in nonrelatives (who were usually members their own ethnic group).

'During the late nineteenth century, between half and two thirds of all young people in urban left their parents' household, usually in their and lived temporarily as boarders or lodg­ers prior to marriage. Middle aged and older per­sons--such as unmarried women, widows, and children had left home supplemented their income by taking in young adults as boarders and lodgers. In contrast with the pattern common today, very few older or younger people lived by themselves; altogether, just 1 to 3 percent of all nineteenth century households consisted of individuals living alone. Older people usually tried to keep their residence and have adult children or other relatives or unrelated lodgers move in with them. Except in remote western frontier commu­nities, the overwhelming majority of Americans, re­gardless of age, lived in a family setting.
Regional, Ethnic, and Class Variations in Family Cycles
Social historians disagree about the usefulness of the family cycle concept. The ba­sic criticism is that it fails to capture the complexity of family life in the past. Critics note, for example, that the family cycle concept is based on contem­porary family patterns, which differ profoundly from those in the past. Earlier in American history, children were born over a longer time span than children are today, and shifted back and forth be­tween the home and other residences frequently and irregularly. This pattern of leaving and return­ing home over a long time span does not fit readily into any sequential model of family stages.

In addition, critics charge that since the family cycle concept is based exclusively on intact, two ­parent families, it tends to ignore the experience of single parent families. Indeed, largely as a result of higher death rates, most American families in the past failed to complete all the stages of the family cycle. As recently as the beginning of the twentieth century, half of all parents experienced the death of a child (compared with 4 percent today), and a quarter of all children lost at least one parent be­fore reaching the age of fifteen (against 5 percent today). At the start of the twentieth century, fewer than half of all American women experienced the "normative" female life cycle: marrying, bearing children, and surviving to age fifty with their mar­riage intact (long enough to see the youngest child leave home). Most women died early, never mar­ried, had no children, or had their marriages pre­maturely ended by death, divorce, or separation.

Today, as in the past, most families do not con­form to any single, uniform family cycle. In recent years, rising rates of divorce and single parenthood have replaced mortality as primary sources of di­versity in the family cycle. Recent estimates suggest that about half of all children (and 90 percent of black children) born in the 1980s will spend some time in a single parent home, and over half of these children will spend six or more years with only one parent.

Yet despite the objections that have been raised, the family cycle approach is useful in illu­minating regional, ethnic, and class differences in patterns of family development. In seventeenth­-century Maryland and Virginia, exceptionally high mortality rates made remarriage a regular part of the family cycle. In many instances, by the time the eldest children of a first marriage reached adult­hood, they bore no blood relationship to the par­ents heading the household.

Nineteenth century slave families had a family cycle very different from that of white Southerners. A significant minority of slave women bore a child prior to settling into a stable marital union; for these women, the family cycle started with premar­ital pregnancy rather than marriage. On many plan­tations, slave children, between the ages of seven and ten, were taken away from their parents and sent to live in separate cabins or barracks. Inter­views with former slaves reveal that 30 percent of slave marriages were terminated by sale. Family disruption was an integral part of the family cycle under slavery.

Depending on their occupation and ethnic background, nineteenth century working class fam­ilies developed distinctive family cycles. Among late nineteenth century coal mining families, rela­tively high wages early in the family cycle and an absence of employment opportunities for wives outside the home encouraged early marriage and frequent childbearing. Nineteenth century urban black families, in contrast, facing chronic unem­ployment and high rates of poverty, tended to marry later arid to have fewer children.

Obviously, it would be a mistake to try to im­pose a single, uniform model of sequential stages on families in the past. A challenge facing social his­torians is to devise alternative models of the family cycle that accurately reflect the experience of dis­tinct cultural and socioeconomic groups in the past.
In their search for useful ways to analyze changing patterns of individual development, social historians have embraced the concept of the life course. Instead of identifying discrete stages of development, the life course perspective focuses on major life cycle transitions, such as marriage, schooling, and entry into and exit from the labor force. The life course approach analyzes the way a particular historical context shapes the timing and sequencing of life cycle transitions and pays partic­ular attention to the way that large scale social pro­cesses, such as a war or an economic depression, affect the life experiences of particular groups of individuals.

Like the life stages and the family cycle, life ­course transitions are shaped by changing socio­economic, cultural, and historical conditions. The cultural meaning, timing, and sequencing of key life events are influenced by such factors as class, gender, and ethnic identity.

Changes in the Timing of Life Cycle Transi­tions
Between the early seventeenth century and the mid twentieth century, the timing of major life­cycle transitions, such as entry into school, mar­riage, and participation in the labor force grew increasingly rigid and uniform. During the seven­teenth and eighteenth centuries, the language of age tended to be vague and amorphous. The terms used to denote the life stages were extremely broad. The term "infancy" referred to any child still under a mother's care and was applied to children as old as six. The word "child" was also used broadly, referring to young people as old as sixteen. The term "youth" could refer to a person as young as seven or as old as thirty. Physical size and strength were more important than chronological age in describing individuals.

Even in the legal realm, age was a rather im­precise category. In seventeenth century law, there was no single age of majority. The age at which the young might gain control over an inheritance ranged between fifteen and twenty five; the age at which an orphan was permitted to choose a guard­ian varied between thirteen and sixteen; a person might receive the right to vote anywhere between twenty one and forty.

One reason why age categories tended to be imprecise was that many key life experiences were not yet tied to distinct ages. Marriage customarily took place after a young man had achieved eco­nomic independence, which often occurred only after he had received an inheritance from his father. Women bore children until menopause. A woman might bear her first child around the age of twenty­-three and not bear her last child until twenty years later. Consequently, the age range of children within families was much greater than it is now. In colonial New England, half of all children grew up in families with nine or more children and as a re­sult, the term "child" included a spectrum of ages stretching from newborns to people in their twenties. Men and women retired only when they were incapable of working.

Underscoring the amorphousness of age cate­gories was the wide age range of young people in academies and colleges. It was not uncommon, as to as the early nineteenth century, for school class­rooms to contain students ranging in age from even to twenty five. Age differentiation in colleges tended to be limited. Colonial colleges contained students as young as thirteen or fourteen and as old the mid twenties. Prior to 1850, nearly 60 percent of all deaths occurred among people fifteen or younger; another 20 percent of deaths took place among those between the ages of fifteen and forty five. Today, in contrast, only about 10 percent of Baths occur among those younger than forty five.

Although chronological age was a less impor­tant organizing principle in colonial society than it since become, it would be a mistake to assume that age had no social meaning. There were a num­ber of social and cultural rituals that marked an in­dividual's progression through the life course. Around the age of six, colonial children stopped shapeless smocks and began to wear or skirts and petticoats. Between the ages of six and fourteen, many boys and, to a lesser ex­tent, girls, to work in another household, as apprentices or servants. Full religious communion usually took place among individuals in their twen­ties or thirties.

Age norms and age consciousness were rela­tively weak but not nonexistent. Youths in colonial dew England, for instance, developed a distinctive youth culture characterized by such recreations as frolicking, dancing, and singing. Beginning in the early eighteenth century, youths set up their own religious and secular organizations.

There were important regional differences in e demarcation of the life stages. In the Chesa­eake colonies of Maryland and Virginia, a high mortality rate meant that many parents died young. As a result, sons generally received inheritances at earlier age than their New England counterparts, ving them earlier autonomy in marriage deci­sions and choice of a career.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, became increasingly sensitive to age. The growth of age consciousness was evident in the popularization of a number of age specific religious rituals, such as Christian confirmation and the Jewish bar mitzvah; the increasingly regular celebra­tion of birthdays; the appearance, beginning in the 1870s of mass produced birthday cards; and the first references to a "proper" age of marriage in late nineteenth century etiquette books. It was also apparent in the emergence of the late nineteenth ­century child study movement, which sought to identify the distinctive features of children's emo­tional, physiological, and psychological develop­ment at each age.

One factor that contributed to increasing age consciousness during the nineteenth century was a profound shift in the age structure of society. Prior to 1800, as a result of a very high birthrate and a relatively low death rate, America had one of the youngest populations in world history, with a me­dian age around sixteen. After 1800 the birthrate fell sharply, and the median age of the population began to rise, reaching 18.9 years in 1850 and 24.1 years in 1910. As the population aged, the middle­aged and elderly made up a growing presence. Those over sixty increased from 4 to 6 percent of the seventeeth century population to 15 percent in the late twentieth century. Another factor contributing to the growing awareness of age was the organiza­tion of public schools around a sequence of age­specific grades. As school attendance increased and schooling extended later into life, a growing num­ber of young people were isolated in an age graded environment apart from the rest of society.

Changes in the organization of the workplace also contributed to increasing consciousness of age. Between 1800 and the Civil War, apprenticeship de­clined and many teenage workers left the labor force or saw their status drop as they assumed un­skilled jobs for "boy's wages." At the same time, many older workers, who were increasingly re­garded as less productive than the middle aged, re­tired or were forced out of the labor market. In the twentieth century, participation in the work force was further segmented by age as child labor laws and the first mandatory retirement rules (which ap­peared around 1910) defined entry into and exit from the labor force.

As a result of these shifts in employment, schooling, and the age structure of the population, the structure of the individual life course changed. During the early twentieth century, the timing and sequencing of major life course transitions such as the age of leaving school, leaving home, begin­ning adult work, marrying, and establishing one's own household became increasingly uniform and rigid; consequently, a growing number of individ­uals experienced these transitions at the same time as other people of their own age. Perhaps the most striking development was an increase in the duration of schooling and in the age at entry into the work force. Child labor dropped sharply; between 1910 and 1930, the proportion of employed fifteen­year old boys fell from one in two to one in six; the proportion of employed fifteen year old girls de­clined from one in four to one in twelve. The de­cline in teenage employment was accompanied by a marked increase in the length of schooling; in 1870 just 2 percent of young people graduated from high school, but by 1930, the percentage had climbed to 28.8.

As high school attendance became more com­mon, a new set of rituals marking a young person's progression through the life course, such as high school graduation, arose. As early as the mid 1910s, a new pattern of unchaperoned dating appeared among high school students. Other significant new age markers that gradually appeared included re­ceiving a driver's license and entering military ser­vice.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the trend toward rela­tively rigid sequencing and timing of key life events eroded. The pattern of individuals progressing from schooling to work force participation became less dominant as an increasing number of high school students took after school jobs. Similarly, the pattern in which couples progressed from engage­ment to marriage, cohabitation, and childbearing declined as increasing numbers of couples cohab­ited prior to marriage, a higher proportion of births occurred to unwed mothers, and more married couples waited several years before having chil­dren.

The trend away from rigid age norms was also apparent in increasing variation in the age of first marriage and the timing of college attendance. At the same time, certain institutionalized age cate­gories, such as a twenty one year old voting age and mandatory retirement at sixty five, broke down. The Twenty sixth Amendment reduced the voting age in federal elections to eighteen. In 1986, Congress amended the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 to strike down most maximum age re­strictions in the work force. The abolition of the peacetime military draft in 1973, which significantly reduced the proportion of adolescents entering military service, removed a major factor structuring the lives of young men.

Class, Ethnic, and Gender Differences in Life­ Course Experiences
During the seventeenth cen­tury, region and gender exerted a particularly strong influence on life course experience. In the seventeenth century Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia, a high mortality rate (due to ty­phoid fever, dysentery, and malaria), a severely skewed sex ratio, and a high proportion of individ­uals bound out as indentured servants produced life course patterns fundamentally different from those found in New England. In New England, males and females who survived infancy were likely to live into their sixties or seventies; in the Chesa­peake, men were unlikely to live beyond their late forties and women lived even shorter lives, since malaria caused a disproportionately higher death rate among pregnant women.

The fact that many immigrants were commit­ted to long terms of service meant that many men never had an opportunity to marry and many marriages were delayed to relatively late ages. In Maryland, immigrant women were usually twenty­four or older at first marriage. Delayed marriage, combined with high levels of infant mortality a quarter of all children died before their first birth­day helped limit the number of surviving chil­dren per family to an average of two or three, compared with seven or eight in New England. The short average life span meant that long marriages were extremely rare; the typical marriage lasted seven years. Other characteristics of the Chesa­peake colonies in the seventeenth century included substantial numbers of orphans and bereaved par­ents, frequent remarriages, and a high illegitimacy rate. A third of immigrant women bore children out of wedlock, reflecting the dependent status of fe­male servants.

During the nineteenth century, class differ­ences in life course patterns were pronounced, par­ticularly during the teen years. The early phases of the industrial revolution accentuated demand for un­skilled teenage laborers, prompting many working­class youths to enter the work force in their early teens. Meanwhile, a growing number of middle­class youths stayed in school during their mid teens. The divergence between prolonged formal education for the middle class and early entry into the work force for the working class grew even sharper in the late nineteenth century, as opportu­nities for professional training increased.

Gender differences in life course patterns, particularly in employment patterns, were marked. During the nineteenth and early twentieth cen­turies, women's entry into and exit from the work force were closely linked to their stage in the life course. Large numbers of young, unmarried women worked upon leaving school, but upon marriage most ceased full time work. Whether a

woman remained in the work force following marriage was heavily influenced by her ethnic background. African American women and French­ Canadian women were particularly likely to work after marriage, while other groups were much less likely to combine marriage and wage work.

Since World War II, differences between men's women's life course patterns have narrowed somewhat as women's rates of labor force partici­pation have risen. In 1940, 26 percent of Ameri­can women were in the labor force. Most working women were young, single women, widows or women abandoned by their husbands, or impov­erished immigrant or black wives. By 1980, 51 percent of all women sixteen and over were in the labor force, compared with 77 percent of all men, and included about half of all married women with children.

Racial differences in life course experiences aye been an important characteristic of American life throughout the twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, black children were consistently more likely than white children to be raised in a single parent family, reflecting higher rates of pre­mature death, divorce, separation, and out of wedlock births. The proportion of ever married black women who were widowed, divorced, or sep­arated was significantly higher than among white women (taking age distribution into account). In 1910, the dissolution rate (the proportion of wid­owed and divorced among women ever married) for marriages of native white women was 16 per­cent, 17 percent for foreign born white women, and 29 percent for black women. Black mothers were also much more likely to be employed than white mothers; in 1890, 22 percent of married black women ages thirty five to forty four held jobs, com­pared with 3 percent of married white women.

In recent years, racial differences in life course experience have persisted. Since 1960 there have been consistent differences in rates of marital dis­ruption and single parenthood. Compared with lion Hispanic white women and Mexican American women, black women are twice as likely to be di­vorced or separated within ten years of marriage and less likely to remarry. About a third of black women remarry within ten years, compared with half of Mexican American women and two thirds of non Hispanic white women. As a result of higher rates of marital disruption and lower rates of marriage and remarriage, single parent households are more common among blacks, and black children ire more likely to spend part of their childhood in a single parent household. Today, about five out of every six black children spend part of their child­hood in a single parent family, and this experience usually constitutes a majority of their childhood years.

The Timing of Life Course Transitions From Family Needs to Individual Preference
Prior to the twentieth century, the timing of many key life decisions such as the age of entering or leaving school, leaving home, marrying, or entering the work force tended to be based on family needs rather than on individual preference. In many co­lonial families, and many nineteenth century work­ing class, black, and immigrant families, individual family members were required to subordinate their personal wishes to larger family considerations. So­cial historians use the concept of "family strategies" to refer to the pattern in which the timing of major life course transitions was a by product of collective needs rather than of individual choices.

Economically, nineteenth century working­class families functioned as a single entity; the de­sires of any particular individual often had to be sacrified for the good of the family: During the nineteenth century, many urban working class chil­dren postponed marriage and continued to live in their parents' home, contributing their earnings to a collective "family economy" Among many ethnic groups, daughters were expected to drop out of school early so that their brothers could continue their education. It was also common for the young­est daughter to postpone marriage or fail to marry at all in order to care for aging parents. Family strat­egies involving the subordination of individual preferences to collective family needs in the timing of key life course transitions allowed poorer fami­lies to overcome economic hardship.

During the twentieth century, life course deci­sions have increasingly reflected individual choice or institutionalized age norms rather than family needs. The timing of marriage, attending school, leaving home, entering the work force, or retiring, rather than reflecting family pressures, has been de­termined by personal preference; by law, such as mandatory school attendance and retirement laws; and by norms disseminated by the peer group or the broader culture.
Cohort Analysis
Major historical events, such as wars and economic depressions, exert a powerful influence on individual development. In order to assess the influence of historical events and trends on the individual life course, social his­torians compare and contrast the experiences of carefully defined groups of people, called cohorts, who move through the life course and experience historical events at approximately the same time.

To understand the impact of the Great Depres­sion on the individual life course, Glen H. Elder, Jr., analyzed the lives of the cohorts born in the early 1920s, which experienced the Depression as pre­adolescents and adolescents. He found that girls in deprived families assumed a greater degree of re­sponsibility for housework than those spared a sharp loss of income and status, and that they dis­played a stronger commitment to motherhood and domesticity as adults. Boys from deprived house­holds entered the adult work force at a young age, formed their career plans relatively early in life, and placed a high value on job security.

The varying size of age cohorts has been linked to individuals' life chances. Richard Easterlin contrasted the experience of the cohort born in the late 1920s and 1930s, a time when birthrates were depressed, with the baby boomers born in the 1950s. He found that the individuals born in the late 1920s and 1930s, who had been in their early child­hood during the Depression, formed relatively modest material aspirations, faced little competi­tion for jobs at maturity, and were financially secure enough to marry and have children at a relatively young age. Their children, in contrast, who grew up during the 1950s and 1960s, spent their childhood during an era of unprecedented affluence. Unlike their parents, they developed considerable expec­tations for their own material and emotional well­being. But because they were members of a large birth cohort, they encountered lower wages and poorer prospects for promotion because the supply of workers exceeded the demand.
One of the most striking conclusions to emerge from scholarship on the life course is that contem­porary Americans are much more conscious of age than were their ancestors. Not only are contempo­rary Americans more likely to organize activities and social institutions around discrete age group­ings, they also are more likely to associate distinct biological and psychological traits and behavioral norms with specific ages.
As historian Howard P Chudacoff has persua­sively argued, the growth of age consciousness and age grading is a product of diverse social processes, including the rise of new scientific and medical the­ories, which have linked certain physical and psy­chological characteristics and needs with specific ages; the creation of new social organizations, such as public schools and social welfare programs, which use age as an organizing principle; and the expansion of a consumer culture, which targets specific products and activities at discrete age groups and has helped to disseminate age norms. Earlier in American history, age categories tended to be broad and diffuse, and the timing of major life cycle transitions tended to reflect family needs. Since the mid nineteenth century, age categories have become more narrowly defined and the tim­ing of life cycle transitions has increasingly re­flected personal choice and institutionalized age norm.
Life Course Histories
Chudacoff, Howard P. How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Cul­ture (1989).

Demos, John. Past, Present and Personal: The Family and the Life Course in American History (1986).

Hareven, Tamara K. "Historical Changes in the Life Course and the Family: Police Implications." In Major Social Issues.. A Multidisciplinary View, edited by J. Milton Yinger and Stephen J. Cutler (1978).

Kett, Joseph F. "History of Age Grouping in America." In Youth: Transition to Adulthood, edited by J. S. Coleman, et al. (1974).

Vinovskis, Maris A. "From Household Size to the Life Course: Some Observations on Recent Trends in Family History" American Behavioral Scientist 21 (1977): 263 287.


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