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Socialization over the Life Course

Major Phases of the Life Course

Socialization and social roles affect individuals throughout every stage of life.

Socialization has a clear impact in childhood but goes beyond what people learn as children. Socialization continues to shape individuals' identity and sense of self throughout the life course, the stages people pass through over their lifetimes, from birth to death. People's social location—their place in society based on social class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, religion, and gender—influences the path a life course will take. A modern life course is much different from the life course people experienced in the past. For example, in modern societies many people spend their early adulthood pursuing education and careers and may go through several romantic relationships before marriage. In the past, it was more common for people to marry and start families as soon as they reached adulthood.

The first stage is childhood, which extends from birth to adolescence at about age 12. The socialization and development that take place during this stage affect an individual's entire life. In past centuries, children were seen as small adults, and childhood was not looked at as a specific stage of life. In the past—and still today in some parts of the world—children were put to work at a young age. In most modern societies, childhood is generally a time when children are nurtured and sent to school.

Adolescence takes place beginning at about age 13 and may extend to 19 or beyond in terms of maturity. In many societies, this is the stage in which an individual makes the gradual transition from childhood to adulthood, physically, emotionally, and developmentally. However, the idea of adolescence did not always exist. In societies where a key role of children was to provide labor, they simply moved into adulthood without a special transition period. Modern, postindustrial societies are based on work that requires an education. The time that people spend becoming educated corresponds with the adolescent period. Socialization teaches people norms and expectations around adolescence in their society.

Adulthood begins at about age 18 and can be broken down further by decade. Young adults in their 20s tend to reach specific milestones. They often go to college, move out of their parents' homes, take full-time jobs, get married, and begin having children. However, economic factors can delay these milestones. People who become young adults during hard economic times may remain living with their parents and put off marriage and children. The socialization process continues in adulthood, contributing to people’s ideas about what adults can and should do and what kinds of choices are expected of them. For instance, those who have been socialized to expect that young adults live on their own may see living with their parents in a negative light.

Socialization continues to affect people into middle age and old age. Middle-aged adults in their 30s and 40s typically raise families and establish careers. They may also face challenges, such as job loss and divorce. Women in their 50s usually go through menopause. During middle age parents may suffer from empty-nest syndrome—a sense of loss or strangeness that occurs when children leave home.

Old age begins at about 65—the age many people begin to think about retiring from work. Many individuals work past age 65, because of economic needs and improved health and longevity as a result of medical advancement. However, old age is a time when many people may begin to face health issues and the loss of spouses, family members, and friends. It is also a time when many people enjoy traveling and spending time with family. An individual's social class, race, ethnicity, and gender have a large impact on how these challenges and opportunities are addressed.

Childhood Experiences

Childhood trauma impacts socialization, and these effects can last throughout all stages of life.

Modern society often views childhood as an innocent time in which children are nurtured and supported as they grow and develop. However, not all children have the benefit of an idyllic childhood. Many experience poverty, lack of food, insecurity, family disruption, or childhood trauma, an experience in childhood that has profound, lasting, negative effects on health and wellness. Social location often determines the kind of childhood an individual has. Children who live in poverty face more trauma due to environmental hazards such as crime and inadequate public services. In the United States, poverty is correlated to race. Levels of poverty are higher for African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics. This is reflected in rates of childhood poverty. Data from 2017 shows that about 12 percent of white children and 11 percent of Asian children live in poverty, while about 26 percent of Hispanic children and 33 percent of black children and 33 percent of Native American children live in poverty.

Just as childhood socialization has a long-lasting effect, childhood trauma impacts an individual throughout life. Childhood trauma includes:

  • neglect
  • emotional, physical, and sexual abuse
  • parental divorce
  • family substance abuse
  • family mental illness
  • domestic and community violence

Childhood trauma can cause children to perform poorly in school and to suffer from depression or other mental health issues. Individuals who experience childhood trauma carry the scars from that trauma into adolescence and adulthood. Traumatized teenagers are more likely to commit crimes and engage in substance abuse and less likely to go to college. They often have mental health issues and learning disabilities. When people who have experienced trauma become adults they frequently suffer from poor emotional, mental, and physical health. They often have trouble keeping jobs and maintaining marriages and other relationships.

Social Location in Society

Social location in society affects a person's trajectory through the stages of the life course.

An individual's social location, a person's place in society based on multiple factors including social class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, and religion, has an impact on every stage of life. An individual's social class, race, ethnicity, and gender can contribute to what opportunities and choices are available throughout a lifetime. These elements can determine a person's life course trajectory, the long-term life path that involves multiple transitions from one role or status to another.

Lack of opportunity and choice in one life stage can compound the lack of opportunity in subsequent stages. Children and adolescents in higher social classes typically attend better schools than children and teens from lower social classes. They are more likely to go to college, which means that as adults, they are more likely to have higher-paying jobs. Higher-paying jobs afford them better opportunities to invest and save money, allowing them better retirement than those with lower-paying jobs.

Social Isolation

Social isolation can occur for a variety of reasons and can have significant negative impacts on individuals, particularly on children.

Lack of socialization affects individuals throughout their lifetimes. Social isolation hampers socialization. There are numerous causes of social isolation, including illness, disability, and parental neglect. Research on monkeys isolated from their mothers and cases of severely neglected feral children show that social isolation can have profoundly negative impacts on children. Without socialization, the monkeys and feral children did not develop normal behavior, even when integrated into a social group. Research has shown a sharp uptick in perceived social isolation since the 1980s, across demographic categories, but particularly noticeable among men. However, individuals can become socially isolated at any stage of life. Adolescents can feel socially isolated from their peers. Young adults can go away to college or move to a new city, where they don't know anybody. People can be particularly susceptible to isolation in old age. Widowhood and increasing divorce rates at older ages mean many older adults live alone. This is especially true for women, since they tend to live longer than men.

At any stage of life social isolation can cause negative effects. Human beings need social interaction. Without it, they suffer negative mental and physical effects. Social isolation can lead to loneliness, anxiety, depression, disease, and poor health. Some studies have shown that older adults who are socially isolated have much higher risks of death.