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Age Organization And Life Courses

Aging embraces far more than old age. Aging is the entirety of life from conception to death. Lives as lived are also far more than a cycle of days, months, and an accumulation of years. Age as a measurement of time is only a chronometer measuring temporal duration similar to the way an odometer gauges distance traveled. When we examine lives through time, it becomes apparent that lots of things are happening in the same temporal interval. The life course is a perspective that takes as its unit human lives to comprehend situational complexity and what meanings and expectations societies have about the course of life.

Age organization has been a challenge to researchers, especially when they encountered societies where chronological age was not in use, but where age is important in social life. To clarify potential confusion a distinction between "age grades" and "age sets" was coined (Radcliffe-Brown). Age grades are divisions of life from infancy to old age. An age grade is a category of people in the same part of the life course. Age sets or age classes are not to be confused with age grades. Age classes are corporate, bounded groups of individuals, almost always men, who are of the same age grade. Once initiated, a man will pass through adulthood in an explicitly agestratified system. When his age class makes its transition to the next life stage, he will advance with his peers. All societies have a classification of age grades, only a few have age classes. Age grading categorizes individuals by similarity of agelinked criteria and in so doing the life course is partitioned into stages defined by age norms. How this is done and for what purposes results in different life courses.

Comparative research indicates that there are at least three kinds of life courses (Fry). These are (1) staged life courses, (2) generational life courses, and (3) age-classed life courses. These differ by the way age is measured and used (chronological or generational), and by the type of society (large scale and industrialized or a small-scale, domestic organization).

  1. Staged life courses. The staged life course is the accepted definition of a life course and is usually referred to as the institutionalized life courses. It assumes that age grades are life stages with which people plan their lives. The "age" in the age norms defining the stages are anchored in a social clock calibrated by chronological age. The institutions, legal norms, and state enforcement delimit these norms. Age grades divide this life course into three distinct segments: childhood/adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Life plans in this life course are ones of preparing and then launching oneself into adulthood. Adult status is a long period of working, nurturing children, and launching them, in turn, into their adulthood. Old age is a period of withdrawal from the world of work and of benefiting from state-supported entitlement and the accumulation of one's prior resources (financial and otherwise).
  2. Generational life courses. A generational life course is not as widely recognized, simply because a life course in small-scale societies has not received as much attention. A notable exception is the study of kinship. Generational life courses are defined in the web and language of kinship. Here, the social clock is calibrated by physical abilities that come with maturation (not chronology). Age grades are not sharply defined as we have seen generational calibration usually result in ambiguity of boundaries. A life plan in this life course is to mature into adulthood, have a family, work in subsistence, and live.
  3. Age-classed life courses. As we noted above, life courses based on age classes attracted the attention of comparative researchers. Ethnographically, these have been well documented (Bernardi), but are not recognized as a decidedly different life course. For the few societies where age is formalized into classes, it is very difficult to argue that it is age per se that defines the classes. Again it is kinship. Age-classed life courses are a variant of generational life courses. In spite of variability, a minimal rule governing class membership is that father and son must belong to a different class. Hence, the generational calibration determines membership. Unlike informal age grades, age classes have sharp boundaries through the recruitment of membership and the closed corporate structure of the class. A life plan in one of these life courses (for example among the Massai) is for a male to enjoy the initial sets by fighting and attracting the attention of women; then to settle into being a householder, herding cattle and raising a family; then to ascent into eldership, and influence. Then one moves closer to and finally joins one's ancestors in death.

Although it is always possible to divide life into stages, it is unclear if people actually do and to what extent this impacts their lives. Of the three kinds of life courses, it is only the ageclassed life courses that have explicit stages. We have little knowledge of those based on generational differences. The tripartite division of staged life courses is an artifact of assumptions that the state and social policy make about what citizens should be doing. Laws that use age as a criterion to define adulthood are norms that deny privileges to adolescents. Most obvious are those regulating work, marriage, driving, voting, and the consumption of alcohol. Adolescents should be completing their education. At the threshold to old age are laws defining entitlements that encourage exits from the labor force. Beyond these three divisions, people can and do make further refinements. For adulthood and old age, these range from two to eleven divisions with most ranging between three and five divisions in the nations studied, United States, Ireland, Hong Kong, and Botswana (Keith et al.). These are informal, variable, and are not institutionalized.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1Age - Age As Time, Age Organization And Life Courses, Age As A Variable