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Shanahan, Michael J. & Porfeli, Erik J. (2006). Chance Events in the Life Course. Advances in Life Course Research, 11(2006), 97-119.


Social theorists maintain that modernity's emphasis on planning and control leads to a heightened appreciation for chance events in the life course, especially as they influence educational and occupational careers and the family cycle. In this paper we suggest four criteria that define a chance event, but note important qualifications to each: (1) Chance events are unlikely occurrences, although neither researchers nor the people who experience them are well situated to estimate their likelihood. (2) Chance events cause changes in the life course, although these causal links are often highly speculative. (3) Chance events are unintended, although many life course intentions are broadly stated and cover little of what happens in specific terms. (4) Chance events are occasions that warrant explanation because of their social significance and, consequentially, most unlikely, momentous, and unintended occurrences are ignored. Drawing on case studies of the transition to adulthood collected as part of the Youth Development Study, we examine these criteria and their qualifications. Our analysis suggests that while the objective measurement of chance events is unfeasible, subjective assessments of chance events have received very little attention in life course research and warrant further study.


Reference Type

Journal Article

Year Published


Journal Title

Advances in Life Course Research


Shanahan, Michael J.
Porfeli, Erik J.