Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Life Courses

In wake of the ‘OMG’ teenagers have children; oh wait, they’re having less, no, they’re not, yes they are debate, I thought it might be a good point to think about life-courses (or life-cycles as they were known before historians decided a cyclical model was too simplistic). A life-course is the experiences that a person goes through in the course of her or his life. For historians and social scientists generally, life-courses are interesting for studying group behaviour, so we like to compare what age people get married at, or what age they have kids, whether they leave school at 15 or 18 and whether they retire at 60 or not at all. As people in the same society often experience changes in the life-course at a similar age to their contemporaries, we can chart a ‘typical’ life-course experience for particular societies or sub-groups within those societies.

Now, that sounds all very academic, but what’s the point? The argument is that people who behave in the most ‘typical’ fashion are generally the most socially stable, or at least, are unlikely to receive criticism for their behaviour. People who do things at the wrong time or in the wrong order- such as having a child as a teenager, when this is socially unacceptable, or having a child before marriage in a society where this is unusual- are likely to face social consequences that limit their life choices. This is because society is set up to respond to people who follow a particular life-course. If you fail to do this, the support mechanisms offered to other people aren’t there for you. This in turn can affect the ‘non-typical’ ever becoming ‘socially stable’ or achieving the normal goals of their contemporaries, leading to life-long poverty, social ostracism, poor education and/or unemployment. Conversely, sometimes doing something in the wrong order can have unexpected benefits, perhaps bringing new opportunities or forcing people to make unexpected decisions with good pay-offs (perhaps emigration in the past or setting up a successful home business to fit around child-care arrangements). The interesting issue at stake here is not that there is an ideal life-course for everyone in all times and places, but that each society has its own ‘typical’ life-course which it uses as a standard to judge the behaviour of others.

Historically in Britain, people’s experience of the life-course was a lot more diverse than today. The advent of national education, where children start school at five and leave at 16 or 18, then perhaps go to university or some sort of apprenticeship system, before starting work, where they are often forced or at least encouraged to retire at a set age, has made the life-course significantly more regimented that in the past. Previously, parents may have sent their children to school (if at all) anywhere between the ages of 3 and 8, the number of years spent in schooling reflected a combination of social class, the need for childcare and the availability of work for children (the average for the poor was about 2 years in the late 18th century). Only a very few went to university and depending on the century, they may have went at any time between the ages of 14 and 20. If you weren’t very rich, you may have only done a year at university, which would have made you applicable for a number of professional and clerical jobs without breaking the bank. Others went into apprenticeship (usually for five or seven years) or service (ie working as servants in households and farms) until you earned enough to set up on your own.

Depending on the region, the availability of housing and land, and alternative employment opportunities, this meant most people didn’t get married and start having families until their mid to late twenties (a phenomenon that changes dramatically after WW2). But, perhaps more interestingly, is the diversity of ages that people married at. In the 1970s, not only would 95% of women in Britain marry, 80% of them would marry between the ages of 17 and 25, a distribution of only seven years. In contrast, in 1851, the age of marriage was much more widely distributed with a range of 20 years for the central 80% of women. Furthermore, up to a third of women and men wouldn’t marry at all. The typical life-course in the past then was much more varied than today.

So what is the relevance of this for teen pregnancy? The problem with teen parents is not really that teenagers have children, but that having children as a teenager is increasingly socially unacceptable (whereas previously the focus was on marital status, rather than age). In fact, the number of women having children under 20 in Scotland has halved since the 1960s and 70s and similar numbers of babies are born to teen mums today as in the 1940s, without accounting for population increase. So, this is definitely a problem of perception as much as numbers. If we want to deal with the ‘problems’ of teen pregnancy, we also need to deal with the fact that it is our perspective that made it a problem in the first place. It is because these girls and women are failing to be ‘typical’ that is the social problem. And, perhaps a healthier and more inclusive response to this ‘problem’ is not to condemn girls and women who have children at a young age or worry about the pregnancies, but worry about our responses. If girls and young women end up socially ostracised and living in poverty due to having children, then that’s because our society isn’t set up to deal with them- perhaps we should be. Because the real question is why does being ‘typical’ mean that you are right or your choices are more valid?