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Time is crucial in proposing an account of the processes through which causes engender consequences Bernard , This is the cornerstone of policy: Policy cannot reach its target if it fails to alter the real causal processes at work, if it does not intervene to change conditions so that virtuous cycles are reinforced, and vicious cycles put in check.

A Life Course Perspective

The latter is particularly crucial because lives can unravel very fast. We turn now to time not only as a context for individual lives, but as something over which individuals can exercise agency, and therefore policy can play a role. Throughout their lives, individuals build their future life trajectories on constraints and opportunities from their past.

Researchers have used the concept of path dependency to understand societies as a whole Hacker and Pierson ; Pierson , but it applies equally to individual trajectories. Choice as pure freedom, as Sen reminds us, means nothing to individuals and families deprived of basic resources who experience the deadweight of path dependency and gravity, as we see in the research of Cooke and McWhirter, and of McDonald.

Social policy is largely about making more options available to more people over their lives. It is about building and enhancing capabilities, and about providing help when challenges occur Hall and Lamont Agency is an iterative process throughout the life course. Individuals take stock of their life experience, decide what they want and what they can do about it in the short, medium and long run, and then act accordingly, or fail to, which is also an action.

They are confronted with the interplay between their choices and various structural elements of their situation, as well as with any shocks that may transpire. In all the studies here, these processes are apparent, as are the points of potential policy intervention to prevent or slow the spiralling down of lives.

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We indeed see the importance of social actors which is why qualitative research often proves so important , but suggest that researchers' point of view also matters. Researchers, in adopting a life-course perspective, become more realistic, more attuned to the realities experienced by social actors. Actors accordingly recognize themselves in the findings.

Human agency is important for policy in two ways. On the one hand, it is important that policies take into account the ability of actors to interpret their circumstances and build their futures on the basis of the opportunities and constraints of their past including those related to policies. Such an approach can avoid policy mistakes.

Even more importantly, it can help mobilize individuals and communities in the pursuit of fruitful trajectories for all. Such empowerment is, for instance, one of the key assumptions in the Quebec government's law to fight poverty and social exclusion. The life-course perspective enables enhanced understanding of lives as lived, thereby resulting in more successful policy development. The challenges of growing inequalities have pushed the life-course perspective to new importance. The life-course perspective did not previously offer a distinct theoretical orientation.

It was an innovative way to examine social issues from a multiplicity of points of view, including interdisciplinary across demography, sociology, economics, psychology, and social epidemiology and policy domains education, human resources, employment, health, family. Recently, however, the life-course perspective has emerged as a powerful framework by which to characterize the dynamic interplay between individual biographies and social structures. It is a policy lens that can accommodate a variety of theoretical perspectives, such as cumulative advantage theory O'Rand , , Conversely, those who are late, or those who experience an early start in less promising paths such getting pregnant, dropping out of school, or entering the labour market, are likely to experience adverse cumulative consequences over time.

This approach moves us beyond long-standing functional theories of stratification where individual self-selection plays the prominent role. Individual characteristics vary depending on the social circumstances of people's lives.

Initial advantages and disadvantages tend to be amplified, as research on women's pension entitlements shows Shuey and O'Rand Ferraro and Shippee see social systems as generative of inequalities over the life course see also Douthit and Dannefer Policies can attenuate such inequalities and prevent growing polarization and social exclusion, or they can, as MacDonald et al. Three new and important ideas are added by Ferraro and Shippee, with implications for life course as a policy lens.

When one is in deficit or debt, one has to act under time pressure, with limited options. With surplus and assets, a favourable moment to act can be chosen, an opportunity to put the resources available to good use, or even to trade them for other forms of capital economic, cultural, social. The building of resources usually proceeds slowly over the life course, except when the deadweight of gravity is too daunting.

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Article History

Shocks, however, can perturb these arrangements quite rapidly by threatening any resource component. Our studies relying on life course indicate when and where policy interventions may have the biggest payoffs. Second, Ferraro and Shippee see cumulative advantage and disadvantage as self-propelling and not inescapable. Countervailing mechanisms can either stop or slow down the accumulation or mitigate the effects. Ferraro and Kelley-Moore show that social circumstances, inequality particularly, can lead to obesity, and then to adverse health consequences, including disability.

This clearly has policy implications, especially related to resource provision, but also to the need for attention to agency, the ability of individuals and communities to organize themselves.

Adult lives by Jeanne Katz (ebook)

Third, Ferraro and Shippee point to the powerful illusions that can be induced by selection and self-selection mechanisms in policy development and research. There may appear, for example, to be a decrease in health disparities among older individuals, but it is largely a function of the premature mortality of those who are poorer and sicker.


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Brownell, Roos, and Fransoo have used Manitoba administrative data to track all youths who, given their age, should have completed a high school diploma. They show that the socioeconomic gradient in education is significantly steeper when one takes everybody into account, and not only those who remain in school. Being wary of current definitions of populations at risk in research and in policy is therefore prudent. This approach to analysis may draw policy attention away from those who seem to be most in need of support, such as children with major difficulties who are struggling in school to such an extent that they drop out.

Exploring the temporal dimension of life course thus leads us to deal with three important conceptual elements and their policy implications: 1 the unfolding of individual trajectories in the context of evolving, historical social structures; 2 agency and its role in the structuring of societies, in particular through the aggregation of individual life courses; and 3 the major role of social inequalities, especially as they tend to be reproduced and amplified over the life course.

We have explored how the principles of the life-course perspective can open new policy approaches. What can be concluded about life course as a policy lens? We have amply demonstrated that the life course is much more than an individual's life trajectory, even when the trajectories are summed across multiple realms. The studies that provide the basis for this conceptual paper show, in varying ways, how the life-course perspective can make visible policy options and interventions previously hidden or eclipsed.

The life-course perspective as a policy lens shines light on places and points where policy interventions can have big payoffs for little investment. Working with a cross-sectional lens means, for the most part, trying to bring a disadvantaged group into being an advantaged group.


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  4. This necessitates great expenditures of policy resources and often fails precisely because it does not consider fully where the disadvantage imprinted itself on the life course and how institutions interact with individual agency to prevent decisions being taken to move out of disadvantage.

    The accumulation processes of disadvantage prevent future advantage. What is needed is a change in policy paradigm toward life as it is lived by us all as social actors in complex social and policy environments, and in sequence over time. Consistent with the principles of the life-course perspective, actors' life courses must be observed in shifting social contexts that shape them and that actors themselves shape.

    The process must see that realms of activity—family, work, society, politics, health care, globalization, and so on—are not separate, not silos, but all impinge on actors' lives simultaneously as they make strategic choices. Individuals are not atoms moving through space and time, but deeply connected to others in their lives, and whose lives affect theirs.

    The life-course perspective as a policy lens suggests policy bifurcation into long-term policies that build human capital and other kinds of capital among people at all life-course stages, and short-term policies and programs that support people at crucial life-course moments. These short-term policies prevent downward spirals, or the unravelling of lives and the need for later subsequent, more intensive and expensive policy interventions. The views expressed here are ours alone and do represent in any way the Government of Canada, or Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

    Instead, a paper on financial security of future elders adds insights on the two questions posed. There are, however, excellent review papers see Elder , , , , , ; Elder, Kirkpatrick Johnson, and Crosnoe ; Marshall , ; Marshall and Clarke ; ; Marshall and McMullin ; Marshall and Mueller ; Mayer , ; Moen ; Pavalko The Framingham Heart Study, for example, begun in in Framingham, Massachusetts, has tracked multiple generations.

    It has been hugely important in developing breakthrough insights leading to policies regarding risk factors to prevent and treat heart disease.

    Adult lives

    In , a pioneering life-course study of cancer was begun in Canada, led by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. This study, like the Framingham study, will follow Canadians over a period of 30 years, tracking various aspects of their lives and lifestyles. For more information, view our Privacy Policy. Please accept our Terms and Conditions before using our website. Learn more. Skip to Main Content Press Enter. About Access. Article History Version of record: 1 February Connect with the Journal. CEA Member Access. Volume 37 Issue Supplement 1, February , pp.

    Share this:. Related Content Search Find related content By Keyword life course policy lens choices social inequality scripts social institutions. Denis Latulippe and John A. Alix J. Jansen, Linda A. Volume: 37, Issue: 3, pp. Evidence from Canada. Rupa Banerjee, Jeffrey G. Reitz and Phil Oreopoulos.