Socialization Across the Life Course

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Socialization isn’t a one-time or even a short-term event. We are not “stamped” by some socialization machine as we move along a conveyor belt and thereby socialized once and for all. In fact, socialization is a lifelong process.

In Canada, socialization throughout the life course is determined greatly by age norms and “time-related rules and regulations” (Setterson 2002). As we grow older, we encounter age-related transition points that require socialization into a new role, such as becoming school age, entering the workforce, or retiring. For example, the Canadian government mandates that all children attend school. Child labour laws, enacted in the early 20th century, nationally declared that childhood be a time of learning, not of labour. In countries such as Niger and Sierra Leone, however, child labour remains common and socially acceptable, with little legislation to regulate such practices (UNICEF 2011).

Many of life’s social expectations are made clear and enforced on a cultural level. Through interacting with others and watching others interact, the expectation to fulfill roles becomes clear. While in elementary or middle school, the prospect of having a boyfriend or girlfriend may have been considered undesirable. The socialization that takes place in high school changes the expectation. By observing the excitement and importance attached to dating and relationships within the high school social scene, it quickly becomes apparent that one is now expected not only to be a child and a student, but a significant other as well. Graduation from formal education—high school, vocational school, or college—involves socialization into a new set of expectations.

Educational expectations vary not only from culture to culture, but from class to class. While middle- or upper-class families may expect their daughter or son to attend a four-year university after graduating from high school, other families may expect their child to immediately begin working full-time, as many within their family have done before.

In the process of socialization, adulthood brings a new set of challenges and expectations, as well as new roles to fill. As the aging process moves forward, social roles continue to evolve. Pleasures of youth, such as wild nights out and serial dating, become less acceptable in the eyes of society. Responsibility and commitment are emphasized as pillars of adulthood, and men and women are expected to “settle down.” During this period, many people enter into marriage or a civil union, bring children into their families, and focus on a career path. They become partners or parents instead of students or significant others.

Just as young children pretend to be doctors or lawyers, play house, and dress up, adults also engage anticipatory socialization, the preparation for future life roles. Examples would include a couple who cohabitate before marriage, or soon-to-be parents who read infant care books and prepare their home for the new arrival. As part of anticipatory socialization, adults who are financially able begin planning for their retirement, saving money and looking into future health care options. The transition into any new life role, despite the social structure that supports it, can be difficult.

Socialization is ongoing throughout adulthood in another sense as well. The study of contemporary society reveals an increasing fluidity of roles, as opposed to previous eras when one could expect to be married only once, live in one location, or to have a single career. This experience is part of what Zygmunt Bauman has called liquid modernity. As opposed to previous eras when one could expect to have a career that spanned one’s entire working life, the expectation today is that the individual will experience an increasing fluidity of roles. It is more difficult to view socialization as a smooth and uninterrupted process. Rather, life is increasingly fragmented, “cut into a succession of ill-connected episodes” (Bauman 2004). As a result, social identities have become more flexible, more adaptable to unpredictable transitions, and more open to taking on new roles or picking and choosing from a globalized palette of cultural values and practices.

References:

Bloom, Lisa. 2011. “How to Talk to Little Girls.” Huffington Post, June 22. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html).

Cooley, Charles Horton. 1902. “The Looking Glass Self.” Pp. 179–185 in Human Nature and Social Order. New York: Scribner’s.

Durkheim, Émile. 2011 [1897]. Suicide. London: Routledge.

Erikson, Erik. 1963. Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton.

Freud, Sigmund. 2000 [1905]. Three Essays on Theories of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, Carol. 1990. Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Haney, Phil. 2011. “Genderless Preschool in Sweden.” Baby & Kids, June 28. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (http://www.neatorama.com/2011/06/28/genderless-preschool-in-sweden).

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1981. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. New York: Harper and Row.

Lasch, Christopher. 1979. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: W. Norton and Co.

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