Age, Cohorts, and the Life Course

Elder, Glen H., Jr.; & George, Linda K. (2015). Age, Cohorts, and the Life Course. In Shanahan, Michael J., Mortimer, Jeylan T. & Johnson, Monica Kirkpatrick (Eds.), Handbook of the Life Course (pp. 59-85). New York: Springer.

Elder, Glen H., Jr.; & George, Linda K. (2015). Age, Cohorts, and the Life Course. In Shanahan, Michael J., Mortimer, Jeylan T. & Johnson, Monica Kirkpatrick (Eds.), Handbook of the Life Course (pp. 59-85). New York: Springer.

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The bond between age and time is central to a theoretical understanding of the life course and its foundational traditions, sociocultural and cohort-historical (Elder 1975). In the sociocultural perspective, age distinctions are expressed as social expectations regarding the timing of events and social roles, whether early, on time, or late. As normative age grades from childhood to old age, these age groups constitute a basis for self-other definition and evaluation as exemplified by the process of leaving childhood for the transition to young adult status. From a cohort-historical perspective, chronological age as birth year locates individuals in historical context and time through membership in a particular cohort, such as the Americans born during the first decade of the twentieth century. The bond between age and time is central to a theoretical understanding of the life course and its foundational traditions, sociocultural and cohort-historical (Elder 1975). In the sociocultural perspective, age distinctions are expressed as social expectations regarding the timing of events and social roles, whether early, on time, or late. As normative age grades from childhood to old age, these age groups constitute a basis for self-other definition and evaluation as exemplified by the process of leaving childhood for the transition to young adult status. From a cohort-historical perspective, chronological age as birth year locates individuals in historical context and time through membership in a particular cohort, such as the Americans born during the first decade of the twentieth century. Unlike normatively defined age strata, birth cohorts are not socially recognized or specified, although they may develop a shared mentality. Cohorts may be defined by historical markers of social change, for example, or simply by available data, as in a longitudinal study of people born in a particular year. An example of the latter comes from the United Kingdom and its extraordinary array of national longitudinal cohort studies, each defined by birth in a single year: 1946, 1958, 1970, 2000, and 2011. Systematic comparison of such ordered cohorts in the rapidly changing society has yielded valuable information for policy makers. It is important to note that a particular social change may influence different subsets of a cohort differentially according to social class, gender, and race-ethnicity. Its impact also tends to vary across successive cohorts according to their career stage at the time of social change. Thus age-related changes both across and within cohorts inform our understanding of the intersection of history and personal biography. The past half century has witnessed major advances in theorizing about cohorts as a way of understanding the biographical impact of social change and in studying the change process itself. Conceptual elaborations of the diverse meanings of age and the exponential growth of longitudinal studies have contributed to this advance and to the emergence of the life course as theory and field of study. By observing people’s lives over many years, we have gained a deeper appreciation of their variation in relation to a changing world. In Part I of this chapter, we highlight the major contributions to such developments. These contributions provide a framework for taking up the two complimentary approaches to cohort studies, an inter-cohort perspective that provides a “window to historical and social change,” and an intra-cohort approach. Part II examines inter-cohort studies, using a systematic survey of the literature’s contributions toward understanding social change and the dynamic transformations of broad social contexts within which lives unfold. The studies in this survey are designed to indicate whether and how society is changing, and do not typically relate social change to the life course. In Part III, a more focused explanatory approach in cohort research is used to reveal the distinctive contribution of intra-cohort studies. It demonstrates the ways in which social change can have very different consequences for specific subgroups “within cohorts” and their life course. The integration of inter-cohort and intra-cohort studies, as well as directions for future research, are addressed in Part IV.




CHAP

Handbook of the Life Course

Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research

Elder, Glen H., Jr.
George, Linda K.

Shanahan, Michael J.
Mortimer, Jeylan T.
Johnson, Monica Kirkpatrick


2015



2


59-85


2nd


Springer

New York





8705

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