Structuring The Life Course
Researchers have come to understand more of the complexities of aging throughout the life course; an idea that connects aging to social, gender, family, generational, and environmental contexts. On an individual, or micro, scale, the life course is a lived embodiment of time from which people distill a rich and versatile archive of meaning, memory, narrative, and identity. On a structural, or macro, scale, the life course is an aggregation of knowledges, technologies, institutions, and lifestyles through which aging is socially and temporally organized. Whether people "act their age" or resist it; whether they reckon their time through linear calendars or cyclical anniversaries—they do so through the norms and roles made possible by particular life courses. In Western societies, since the nineteenth century, the modern life course has been structured according to various institutional, industrial, and commercial standards. For example, early life is age graded according to schooling criteria, while later life is age graded according to retirement criteria (usually 65 and over). The modern life course, in turn, evolved in the twentieth century to become an elaborate framework within which people coordinate family, cohort, and intergenerational relations.
Profound shifts in labor, retirement, demographic patterns, and social programs in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have led cultural gerontologists to posit the rise of a postmodern life course (see Featherstone and Hep-worth, 1991). The postmodern life course blurs or loosens the chronological and generational boundaries that have set apart childhood, middle age, and old age throughout the modern era. On the one hand, this has motivated marketing, cosmetic, and leisure industries to target seniors, Third Agers, or boomers (usually those 55 and over), and to recast later life as an active, youthful, consumer experience, one often associated with Hollywood film stars who exemplify the postmodern dream of growing older without aging. On the other hand, the postmodern life course creates new avenues of choice, mobility, well-being, and self-definition in later life, thus empowering senior citizens to innovate resourceful roles and ways of life both for themselves and those who will follow.