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Session 5: Historical Changes in Life Course Patterns. Karl Ulrich Mayer Life Course Research: Theoretical Issues, Empirical Applications and Methodological Problems Sociological Methodology Workshop Series, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan September 20-24, 2004. Outline. Macro-Theory

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Session 5:Historical Changes in Life Course Patterns

Karl Ulrich MayerLife Course Research:Theoretical Issues, Empirical Applications and Methodological ProblemsSociological Methodology Workshop Series, Academia Sinica, Taipei, TaiwanSeptember 20-24, 2004



Historical Changes in Life Course Regimes

The Postindustrial Fairy Tale

The historical contexts of the debate: modernization, post-industrialism, globalization

Concepts for changes in life course patterns

Hypotheses and empirical tests

The German Life History Study: Data

Conclusions: School to Work Nexus

Conclusion: Caveats




In terms of macrosociological theory, the issue is how different societal systems produce different life courses and how societal change transforms the structure of life courses. Empirically, the issue is how historical and cross-national comparative research can show and test such differences.

The following sequence roughly captures the debate:

  • The historical emergence of life phases
  • Family Time and Industrial Time
  • Structural Differentiation and the Tri-Partite Life Course
  • Institutionalization, Normal Biography and De-Institutionalization
  • The Life Course in the Welfare State
  • Deregulated and Flexibly Coordinated Societies

The Postindustrial Fairy Tale

That lives have become less predictable, less collectively determined, less stable, less orderly, more flexible, and more individualized has become one of the most commonly accepted self-perceptions of advanced societies. Private lives and family forms are said to have become pluralized, and working lives more unstable, including increased firm and occupational mobility. Education and training are perceived to have become more checkered and the traditional sequence of life stages into education, work and retirement is said to have given way to a de-standardized life course where people go back to education after periods of work, take sabbaticals, change occupations in midlife and combine work and leisure in prolonged transitions to final retirement.


Contingent Life Courses

“Pathways have become destandardized and employment careers discontinuous, and the ensuing ‘contingent work life course’ … transforms the relationship between social institutions and life domains of education, work and family. Such transformation loosens the coupling between social structure and work biographies …” (Heinz 2003).


The Historical Contexts of the Debate

  • Modernization = Standardization/Institutionalization
  • Postindustrialism=

De-Standardization, Individualization

  • Globalization= Increasing flexibility, volatility

Concepts for Changesin Life Course Patterns

  • (De-) Institutionalization
  • (De-) Standardization
  • Individualization
  • Pluralisation/Homogenisation
  • (De-) Differentation


The institutionalization of life courses refers to the process by which normative, legal or organizational rules define the social and temporal organization of human lives. It can refer to stages or states in lives which can be formally or informally decreed like marriage, education and the period of retirement. It can also refer to events and transitions like leaving school, entry into and exits from labor contracts, or ages of pension entitlements.



The standardization of life courses refers to processes by which specific states or events and/or the sequences in which they occur, become more universal for given populations or that their timing becomes more uniform. An example of a highly standardized life course pattern would be, for instance, if all workers would retire and all would retire at age 65.



Differentiation refers to the process where the number of distinct states or stages across the life time increases. For instance, Mayer (1991) has claimed that early life courses become more and more institutionally differentiated, i.e. divided up in more publicly defined and recognized periods like pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school, secondary education and tertiary education.



The idea of pluralization (Zapf 1987) has mostly been applied to family forms and refers to the rise of non-marital unions, the increase of persons becoming divorced, increases in the number of single mothers or persons living alone due to divorce or widowhood.



The term individualization is a more interpretative concept according to which individuals are assumed to gain greater control over their lives, thus pursuing a wider variety of life designs and life trajectories. Such a more positive meaning of the concept has in recent years become mixed with notions of involuntary “individualization”, i.e. being condemned to pursue and experience trajectories, which are not collectively well-trodden pathways.


Hypotheses and Empirical Tests

If de-standardization is such a pervasive process as claimed, we should expect:

  • that prevalence of certain events or life stages has decreased over time;
  • that variances of ages at given transitions have increased;
  • that the variances of given durations have increased;
  • that the inter-event and inter-state dependencies have decreased;
  • that the sequences of events or states have decreased in their predictability.

Hypotheses and Empirical Tests

To corroborate a shift towards much higher flexibility we should expect:

  • an increase in shifts between jobs:
  • a decrease in firm tenure;
  • a decrease in occupational stability.
  • We should also expect not just very gradual trends, but fairly sudden discontinuities or trend reversals.

Table 3: Experiences by Age 27, by Cohort and Gender

Notes: Source: German Life History Study


Conclusions: School to Work Nexus

  • Transitions occur later and later (with some exceptions due to the unique experiences of the cohort born around 1920 during and after World War II).
  • The life courses of men and women become more similar in the school-training-work nexus.
  • The sequencing of training and work becomes fuzzier as participation in the educational system increases, especially for the cohorts born around 1955 and 1960.

Conclusions: School to Work Nexus

  • For women, variation of age at completion of education increases converging on that for men.
  • The expected increase of age variation under the de-standardization hypothesis turns out to be non-existent or rather small.
  • There are strong period effects, however: people born around 1920 experienced quite heterogeneous life courses due to the war, and the cohorts born around 1955 and 1960 took longer to complete their training than any other cohort.

Conclusion: Caveats

  • Selective set of indicators which all relate to the early part of life.
  • (West) Germany might be a special case where the specific institutions of training and occupationally segmented labor markets still exert strong influences in shaping life courses.
  • We are constantly baffled by the contrast between what our data show for the past and how contemporary commentators interpreted the social condition.
  • But: indications of massive change in the most recent cohort.


  • Concepts on changes in life course patterns like de-standardization are at best productive heuristics.
  • They are not very useful as concepts which immediately translate into a set of testable indicators.
  • They do not have corresponding causal mechanisms.
  • Therefore, they should be as interpretative rather than testable concepts.