Life-Course Perspective

Social work believes that people’s current behaviors are largely influenced by past events and experiences throughout their life-course. Life-course perspective provides a model for understanding human behavior by looking at the series of events and experiences that occur at different stages of an individual’s life cycle.

People’s lives are often shaped by the chronological age, relationships within and outside the family, and social change that occurs throughout a person’s life cycle (Hutchison, 2011). Life-course perspective rests on the hypothesis that as people develop from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, their lives take a path characterized by continuities, twists and turns depending on the prevailing life-course factors (Hutchison, 2011).

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As people grow from childhood to adulthood, their lives are shaped by such important concepts as cohort, transitions, trajectories, live events, and turning points as will be seen in the interviewee case discussed below (Hutchison, 2011). The social environment presents both risk and protective factors that directly influence an individual’s resiliency level (Greene, 2002).

Having provided a theoretical overview of life-course perspective, this paper presents a practical application of the model. The paper uses life-course perspective to analyze events, transitions, trajectories, and turning points that have occurred in a client’s life-course leading her development into a young adult.

Young adulthood is a critical stage in a person’s life cycle as it provides the transition from adolescence to adulthood (Mortimer and Shanahan, 2006). According to Levinson (1978), adulthood is “a period of undulating stability and stress, signified by transitions that occur at specific chronological times within the life-course” (cited in Hutchison, 2011, p. 278).

It is during this stage that a person becomes independent and is expected to pursue his/her life-course outside their original home (van Warmer and Besthorn, 2010). This stage also expects an individual to take up serious roles in life (Hutchison, 2011). While some people go through this stage smoothly, for others it is a nightmare as will be seen in the case of the interviewee analyzed in this paper. For purposes of confidentiality, I will call my interviewee Vivian.

Background of the interviewee

Vivian is a 29-year-old African-American lady. She was brought up in a single-mother household together with her four siblings. Vivian grew up in poverty being raised up by her mother while her father was a useless crack addict who often stole from the family and even molested two of his daughters, Vivian being one of them.

Vivian’s family suffered evictions due to rent nonpayment and moved from shelters to staying with relatives, and finally to a rented home. However, Vivian’s mother was a devoted Christian who went to church three times a week.

Vivian attended public school and did so well. However, she was forced to drop out of college due to baby sitting. Out of her 10-year relationship with a black man, Vivian has two children; a seven-year old girl and a four-year old boy. However, her boyfriend is a drug dealer and has constantly battered her.

Their relationship is characterized by constant arguments, fights, disrespect, break ups and re-unions. She once had her boyfriend arrested for domestic violence, but still continues to have him back in her life and that of the children’s. Despite the troubled relationship, Vivian is unsure whether to let go of her children’s father or not. She claims to love him, but wants to move on.

However, she still ends up back with him. For this reason, Vivian has been in and out of relationships. While Vivian admits she would love to have a perfect family- father, mother and children- she fails to accept that this can never happen with her children’s father. Apart from relationship problems, Vivian is also unable to keep a job because of poor time and attendance. She is also materialistic and loves class.

Understanding Vivian’s life

Based on the data generated from the interview as outlined above, Vivian’s life-course can be best understood using several developmental themes including timing of lives and linked or interlinked lives.

Timing of lives is more concerned about a person’s age with reference to expected roles and behaviors of that particular age group (Hutchison, 2011). In American society, career, relationships and childbearing are significant expectations of young adulthood. Vivian is 29 years old meaning she is almost halfway in young adulthood.

The transitions expected at her age include starting a career, leaving home, getting married, and bearing children, some of which has occurred in Vivian’s life with some twists and turns. Vivian had her first born when she was 22 years, which is “on-time” according to the timing of lives theme. While Vivian is blessed with two children, her relationship with their father is a nightmare.

She seems to be in and out of relationships, all in a bid to conform to “timing lives”, which expects her to be in marriage at her age. Another expectation of her age is a career. Vivian is struggling to be in employment to conform to age expectations even if she has no time for a job.

Apart from the timing of lives, Vivian’s life can also be understood using the linked or interlinked theme. It is clear that people do not live their lives in a vacuum, but rather in a society where the social environment plays a greater role in shaping their life-course (Hutchison, 2011).

According to Greene (2002), the social environment in which a person is raised up can either pose a risk or a protective factor in their life-course. As a child, Vivian lived in a poverty stricken single-parent household together with her four siblings.

While her mother struggled to make them comfortable, Vivian states that her father was a useless crack addict who even molested Vivian and her sister when they were still children. Vivian’s family was also forced to live with relatives after eviction from their shelter. Vivian’s childhood and adolescence was thus linked to problems in her family and influence from relatives.

Even though, Vivian describes her mother as a dedicated Christian, events happening in her family must have affected her emotionally and hence her ability to provide emotional support to Vivian and her siblings. Raising five children as a single mother is not easy especially given her economic status.

In simple terms, Vivian’s childhood was marked by life events that must have affected and will continue to affect her ability to develop and maintain relationships during her young adulthood. Hutchison (2011) illustrates Erickson’s stage of intimacy vs isolation in chapter 7, which can describe Vivian’s present life stage. As an individual develops from adolescence to young adulthood, he or she has to transform the fragmentations, confusions and explorations of adolescence into intimate engagements (p. 276).

Vivian must have had a good relationship with her siblings, relatives and friends in the neighborhood, but she must have missed having a father figure around her and this can explain her desire to have a perfect family with a father figure for her children.

Maybe she does not want her children to go through the same experience she had during her childhood and adolescence stages being brought up by a single mother. Hence, Vivian would rather subject her children to a dysfunctional family unit than a single parent family.

The cohort effects in Vivian’s life course can be traced to the post WWII baby boom. Vivian’s mother belongs to this cohort and the financial difficulties experienced in the 1960s and 1970s explain’s the economic trajectory of Vivian’s life course (Spain and Bianchi 1996).

Vivian’s mother suffered the increasing marital instability of 1980s and was thus unable to pursue any meaningful employment while also tending to her children as a single mother. We see Vivian’s life also taking the same course. Vivian has gone through many transitions in her life leading to her current life-course stage.

According to Hutchison (2011), a transition refers to roles and responsibilities that represent a departure from the previous ones. The first major transition in Vivians life occurred when she had her first born child. Vivian had to assume the role of a mother and was even forced to quit college so that she could babysit her daughter; something that must have generated some stress in her life.

Another transition in her life was when she got into a relationship with her children’s father. While relationship is considered by many as a positive transition in an individual’s life, for Vivian it became a negative transition that changed her life for the worst explaining her present stage of life.

Vivian is experiencing one important life cycle task, i.e., making the decision to end her relationship as she is confused on what to do. Hutchison (2011) states that young adulthood is a stage when individuals are expected to apply in their daily lives what they developed during their adolescence years such as sensitivity, personal morality, and awareness of wrong and right.

While most cultures around the world consider all married individuals as adults, American society considers a person an adult adult based on financial independence as well as ability to make independent decisions and be accountable for one’s actions (Mortimer and Shanahan, 2006). In this context, Vivian may not be considered an adult, despite her age.

Vivian’s life-course has experienced three important turning points. As Hutchison (2011) outlines, a turning point denotes any event that produces a lasting effect in an individual’s life course. Vivian’s major turning point occurred when she had her first born child.

As a result, she had to drop out of college shattering her dreams of a better life in the future. She was also forced to move in with her children’s father, despite his criminal acts. Likewise, the main trajectory of Vivian’s life-course is her relationship with her children’s father. This relationship first led to her having unplanned baby, then dropping out of college, then a series of domestic violence, and lastly her state of confusion.

Vivian’s social environment and family has had a lasting impact on her life-course. Having been born in a poor family, Vivian had to live the simple life ever. She had to go to a public school, watch her family being evicted from their shelter, and even live at the mercy of relatives. It is also because of her low social class that Vivian ended up with the type of a husband she has. She could not mingle with the rich since she was poor hence ended up with a poor drug dealer for a husband.

Vivian’s race as an African-American must have also had a lasting influence on her life. In most cases, African-Americans are considered low-class in American society and do not have access to opportunity compared to pure Americans. Since Vivian spent her childhood in a poor society being teased by the rich, she must have longed to be rich some day.

It is for this reason that Vivian is materialistic and class minded. She is on and off employment, but does not lose hope simply because she is determined to better her economic status.

Vivian’s life-course is characterized by events and experiences that can be considered as developmental risk. Her childhood through adolescence was characterized by cumulative poverty. She also spent her childhood in a non-intact family unit. According to McLanahan and Sandefur (1994), children who are brought up by single parents are likely to face the risk of teenage pregnancies, school dropouts, and idleness hence detrimental to young adults economic prospects.

However, Vivian was able to develop resilience, thanks to the support of her mother, relatives, and siblings. Contrary to what I would expect from someone who has gone through similar experience as Vivian, Vivian is able to develop intimate relationships and is even able to tolerate her boyfriend, which is a perfect illustration of resilience (Greene, 2002).

She is also struggling to be in employment. As a young adult her life has been marked by a series of domestic violence, despite her desire for a happy family. This is also a developmental risk, which if not professionally addressed would affect her future life stages as well as that of her children.

References

Greene, R. (2002). Resiliency: an integrated approach to policy, practice and research. Washington, DC: NASW press.

Hutchison, E.D. (Ed.) (2011). Dimensions of human behavior: The changing life course. 4th Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

McLanahan, S., & Sandefur G. (1994). Growing up in a single parent family: what works, what doesn’t. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mortimer, T. & Shanahan, M.J. (2006). Handbook of the life course. New York: Springer.

Spain, D. & Bianchi S. M. (1996). Balancing act: Marriage, motherhood and employment among American women. New York, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

van Warmer, K. & Besthorn, S. H. (2010). Human behavior and the social environment, macro level: Groups, communities and organizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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