Age and the Life Course

ageing is socially constructed, to an extent, shaped by social norms, the age structure and generation experiences.

Ageing is a universal biological fact of life: everyone goes through physical transformations as they age: from conception to birth followed by a period of physical and mental maturation during childhood, puberty and adulthood, and finally physical decline leading towards eventual death.

While biological age and ageing are obviously linked to both physical and psychological development sociologists argue that age and ageing cannot be fully understood without looking at their social contexts: the process of ageing and the normal ‘stages of life’ which are associated with different ages vary enormously historically and across societies, and so many aspects of age are a social construction.

Norms surrounding childhood in Britain have, for example, changed drastically over the last 200 years. In the early 19th century it was regarded as acceptable for young people to do paid work, meaning that people as young as 12 were already taking on adult roles. Today people are legally required to be in school until at least 16 and most won’t take on full adult working responsibilities until finishing tertiary (university) education at 21 or 22 years of age.

Attitudes towards older people vary across cultures too: in China and Japan elderly people are treated with respect, regarded as having wisdom and worth listening to and seeking advice from. In Western European societies older people are generally seen as non-productive, dependent and out-of-touch, and the very elderly are often hidden away in care-homes, forgotten about by society.

Hence to an extent age and the life course are socially constructed, but we have to also recognise the role that biological or physical ageing plays too!

Factors affecting the experience of ageing

There are at least three broad factors which affect the experience of ageing:

  1. Biology and the physical ageing process
  2. The society we live in and the way society interprets the ageing process (and socially constructs age)
  3. The age structure of a society
  4. The historical period into which we are born (our age cohort or generation). 

Biology and ageing 

Although sociologists prefer to focus on how things such as ‘age’ and ‘childhood’ are not purely biological but rather socially constructed, we can’t deny that biological age has an affect on the experience of ageing. 

As mentioned above human beings start off totally dependent on older human beings and as they get very old their physical and mental capacities deteriorate. 

Society and the social construction of age 

Most societies have norms surrounding what people of different biological ages should be doing at those ages, and these norms are often codified into laws. For example, people aged below 5 in Britain don’t have to go to school, people aged 5-16 MUST go to school (or be home-school), and from 16-18 laws change to allow the transition to adulthood at 18. 

It is well established within sociology that childhood is socially constructed, but also at the other end of the life course the pension age is too because it is society that determines that (for younger people today) this starts at age 68, it is currently (for people retiring today) set at 65.

Most people would also recognise that there is a typical ‘life course’ in their society, or a broad set of norms which outline what it is socially acceptable for people to be doing at certain ages between childhood and retirement. For example in Britain we broadly have a transition from childhood (dependency) to adolescence (becoming adult 16-21) to early adulthood (21-35 dating/ renting/ finding career) to midlife (35-65: established career, home owning, children) to retirement (65+ children left home, stopped working).

Granted, the boundaries above do vary a lot, and MANY people diverge from this model, but the life course above is still possibly recognisable as ‘typical’.  

Age Structure 

The age structure of a population refers to the relative size of age groups within a population at any one point in time. 

The age structure is affected by the fertility rate, life expectancy and migration. 

Age structures vary enormously between countries. In Germany, for example, which has a low birth rate and high life expectancy there are relatively few young people, a high proportion of 50-60 year olds and then numbers gradually tail off after 60, but still large numbers of people aged 70 plus. 

In Nigeria, there are many more younger people and relatively fewer people aged over 70 because of higher birth rates but lower life expectancy. 

The typical age someone can be expected to live can have a huge impact on the social construction of age, especially the retirement age. 

Age Cohort or Generation 

A group born in the same historical period is known as an age cohort, and they will grow up and age experiencing similar historical events which will influence their experience of ageing. 

There are no objective dividing lines between one age cohort and the next, it depends how the observer decides how to split the ages up: in schools we refer to each year as cohorts, but other research models may look at the experiences of people born in the same decades, grouping all people born in the 1970s together, all born in the 1980s together and so on. 

One of the best known popular versions of this is the distinction between Baby Boomers, Generation X and so on…

  • Baby Boomers: 1946 – 1964
  • Generation X: 1965 – 1980
  • Millennials: 1981 – 1996
  • Generation Z: 1997 – 2012
  • Generation Alpha 2013 – present day. 

You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the groupings above make sense, but the general idea is that the historical period you are born in will shape how you experience the life course. 

One way this seems to be true is that Baby Boomers had an easier time buying their houses when they were cheap and are able to retire comfortably, Generation Z face much more job insecurity, global warming as more of a threat, unaffordable housing and a later retirement age (yes kids, life is getting worse, sorry!). 

Life course and life cycle 

Life Cycle refers to the stages of life which people usually pass through as they age, from birth to death. 

There are different models of ‘life cycles’ but one example, applicable to the United Kingdom, is from Bradley (1996) who Identified five stages of life: 

  • Childhood – when children are in a state of innocence and dependency, protected by their parents and (in the UK today) and by law. This is the stage of life when children are learning norms, values, skills and knowledge to prepare them for adulthood, but are free from many of the responsibilities of adulthood. 
  • Adolescence – a time of transition from childhood to adulthood which takes place from puberty onwards. During this time adolescents are given more freedoms and responsibilities as they get older. This is also typically regarded as a time of experimentation, exploration of identities, and maybe deviance and rebellion. 
  • Young adulthood – the period from leaving the adult home to full adulthood, so possibly from early 20s to mid 30s: the time when young adults find their first jobs, and find and move in with their long term partners. 
  • Mid-life – There is disagreement over when mid-life begins: somewhere between 35 and 50. This is the ‘churn’ of adulthood – full time careers, dependent and then maybe independent children. 
  • Old age – Formal retirement age, when you can claim your pension, is 65 in the UK, so that is the formal ‘marker’ of old age. In Britain it is the end of work which marks this point in life. 

Jane Plicher argues that the concept of the life cycle is problematic because it implies that there are set stages through which all people pass. 

In reality, however, there is no universal life cycle through which everyone passes, and thus Plicher prefers to use the term Life Course. 

The concept of the life course recognises that in most societies there is a ‘socially defined timetable’ of behaviours generally seen as normal and acceptable for people of certain ages in that specific society, but also that people may experience their own individual life course in very different ways.

You can probably already see the above scheme of five stages is problematic because there is so much blurring between the boundaries of the stages, especially in the boundary between young adulthood and mid-life as there is so much variation in when people get established in their careers and have children. 

There is also considerable variation in experience within each age-group. For example, many people retire well before 65 and some continue working into their 70s. 

Ethnicity and gender can also affect people’s experiences as they age, another reason why ‘life course’ is preferable to ‘life cycle’. 

The De-standardisation of the Life Course 

Postmodernists argue that there is so much variation in the ‘Life Course’ today that it no longer makes any sense to talk of a life course anymore. 

Not only is there huge variation in the age at which people transition from adolescence to a state of independence in young adulthood, the age at which people have their first children spans 20 years, and many choose not to have children at all. Similarly it is hard to see when young adulthood becomes mid-life: many would argue 50 is still relatively young, and incredible diversity within all of these age brackets and especially in the way people experience retirement. 

Maybe there is no longer a social norm of the life course, just a series of individual choices around how to age? 


This material is mainly relevant to the culture and identity module within A-level sociology, but also partly relevant to families and households.

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Age Pyramid: Germany:

Age Pyramid: Nigeria:


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