Contemporary adulthood and the devolving life course

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The traditional, tripartite life course is deeply edged in Western societies’ collective imagination. In this image, childhood and education precede adulthood and work and are followed by retirement and old age. While owing to biological realities, historical longevity, but also the continued centrality of work, this image is difficult to dislodge, today social trends question its empirical validity. Delayed or forfeited marriage and family formation, prolonged cohabitation of parents and children and late entry into the fulltime labour market – practices that are increasingly common among contemporary ‘twenty and thirtysomethings’ – are just some of the most salient trends that have given cause to a rethinking of the traditional life course in the social sciences. This rethinking has precipitated a more critical stance towards our conceptions of childhood and old age. Adulthood, however, remains envisaged as the unchanging centre stage of the life course, the destination to adolescent development, whose achievement connotes independence and ‘maturity’ which are rendered socially ‘legible’ by the attainment of social markers such as marriage, independent living arrangements, parenthood and fulltime work. This paper argues that changes in the life course concerning the timing of these achievements constitute a practical, historically unprecedented redefinition of adulthood. I trace the shift from the traditional life course (and the ‘standard biography’) to fragmented life trajectories following the postwar economic boom era. I elaborate some of the consequences of this shift for the meaning of adulthood by taking a (broadly) generational perspective comparing the social conditions of ‘baby boomers’’ coming of age with that of the post-1970 generation. Here, I single out and contextualise a perception of unlimited options on behalf of contemporary young adults concerning their. As actors in a world in which the normative underpinnings of adulthood are no longer clear I suggest that many ‘young adults’ adapt to uncertainty by internalizing an imperative flexibility in all domains of life. I suggest this to be symptomatic of their way to be adult in a set of social circumstances that requires not so much an egoistic self-centeredness marked by disinterest in others (as we are sometimes lead to believe) but a particular kind ‘selfcentring’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTimes of Our Lives
Subtitle of host publicationMaking Sense of Growing Up & Growing Old
EditorsHarry Blatterer, Julia Glahn
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherInter-Disciplinary Press
Number of pages10
ISBN (Print)9781904710912
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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