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 ANALYSIS OF THE LIFE STAGES
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...
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