Rethinking the Life Course

In many Western societies, we go about our daily routine, we generally think about our life trajectory following a fairly linear path. We think of life stages as being sequential: each stage follows the next. We are born, then we go through our childhood: we go to school, we go through our teenage years. We then become adults – we leave home, we go to work, we get married, we have kids. Then we grow old: we retire, we enjoy our leisure time, and eventually as we age we will die. The issue is that life does really fit this neat journey. Not everyone can or wants to have kids. Not everyone can jump straight from study to work. We know this yet society doesn’t really help us prepare for the disruptions along the way.

So what happens specifically if our work lives are disrupted? What can employers learn from taking a life course approach to hiring new staff? This post discusses the social science research on how work disruptions can be better supported through community services and better workplace planning.

Studying the life course

Life course studies took off in the 1960s. Prior to this, social scientists tended to talk about socialisation as a set of discreet steps that people go through from childhood to adulthood and then old age.

Life course research recognises that people’s experiences does not fit a neat trajectory. The changing politic climate, the economy, wars, life events (such as marriage, divorce and having children), and other social factors will affect people’s capacity to enter the job marketplace, and their resilience to rebound from disruptions to their work life.

In his longitudinal study, Glenn Elder examines different aspects of social change with relation to time, or more specifically, the timing of social lives. Elder also studies the interdependence of social relationships and social agency.

The transition from childhood to adulthood is riddled with many life events that require a social science perspective
Life course requires a social science perspective

For example, Elder discusses how young men who enlisted in the military during WWII tended not to have families or work responsibilities, while men who went to war in the 30s experienced greater disruption on their family life and their work. This meant that they were generally worse off in terms of their social and health outcomes after the war.

The same example would work today with military personnel who return from long deployments and leave the military.  In another example, people who get divorced are likely to go to live with their parents at some stage, while increasing commitments to higher education may postpone young adults from leaving home or forming their families. The transition from childhood to adulthood is therefore riddled with many life events that require a social science perspective. Elder writes:

The timing of life course events and roles tells much about the goodness of fit between lives and work careers… According to the life stage principle, the personal impact of any change depends on where people are in their live at the time of change.

Life course at work

Workplaces are not well adapted to the life course perspective. Women who take maternity leave may choose to take a long break from work, which impacts on their ability to progress with their careers, especially in the sciences and in professional jobs. The demands of higher education can also impact on how employers view recent graduates.

Students who have obtained a PhD often experience a long period of unemployment, because their CV looks “too academic” to employers, and not practical enough for other industries. So if you’re an employer looking for a qualified candidate, how can you attract the most skilled applicants with a life course bias blinding you to potential recruits?

Most recruitment agencies and human resources staff tend to flick their eyes over CVs. Sometimes it’s necessary to be discerning particularly if there’s a high number of applicants. Yet this approach does not take into consideration how life course dynamics can shape career opportunities.

To take a more inclusive life course approach, employers might provide training to overcome biases about how we understand the life course in broader context.

Read Elder’s research in Social Psychology Quarterly (free PDF).

Post your questions in the comments section below!

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