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Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services2019, Vol. 100(4) 351 –366© The Author(s) 2019 Article reuse 10.1177/


In the early 1990s Germain (1990, 1994) recom-mended that social workers use the emerging life course perspective (LCP) for under- standing human behavior. She and colleague Gitterman applied the LCP to the ongoing development of a social work practice model they called the life model (Germain & Gitter-man, 1996). In 2005, Hutchison provided an updated report on the LCP and suggested that the perspective has promise for assisting social workers to bridge the micro and macro worlds in their practice. Since that time, researchers across several disciplines have continued to use the main themes of the LCP to add breadth and depth of understanding of individual and collec-tive human behavior and the ways in which they are connected. The basic concepts and major themes have not changed in the past 15 years, but they have been elaborated by ongoing

research. This article provides an updated understanding of the LCP and its implications for social workers.

The LCP looks at how biological, psycho-logical, and socio-cultural factors act inde-pendently, cumulatively, and interactively to produce great diversity in life course journeys and shape people’s lives across family gen-erations. It is a relatively recent attempt to contextualize human behavior, to understand how people and their environments influence each other and change over time. A primary

873240 FISXXX10.1177/1044389419873240Families in SocietyHutchisonresearch-article2019

1PhD, professor emeritus, Virginia Commonwealth University

Corresponding Author:Elizabeth D. Hutchison, School of Social Work, Virginia Commonwealth University. Mail: 3275 Iris Rose Drive, Reno, NV 89509.Email:

An Update on the Relevance of the Life Course Perspective for Social Work

Elizabeth D. Hutchison1

AbstractIn recent years, the life course perspective has received increasing support from researchers across a number of behavioral science disciplines. The purpose of this article is to examine the relevance to social work of selected findings of the last 15 years of empirical investigation of life course concepts and themes. This discussion is organized around five basic concepts (cohorts, transitions, trajectories, life events, and turning points) and six interrelated themes (interplay of human lives and historical time, timing of lives, linked or interdependent lives, human agency in making choices, diversity in life course trajectories, and developmental risk and protection). Implications of life course theory and research for social work are overviewed.

Keywordsevidence-based /evidence-informed practice, modes of practice, theory /conceptual models applied to practice, development across the lifespan, subjects of practice, disparities/ social determinants of health, equity issues/ human rights /social justice, family systems and functioning

Manuscript received: May 22, 2019; Revised: July 23, 2019; Accepted: August 6, 2019

Disposition editor: Sondra J. Fogel

352 Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 100(4)

contribution of the LCP is its focus on the life course as a whole, on how what happens in one period of a person’s life is connected to what happens in other periods of that person’s life. For example, it calls attention to the ways in which what happens in adolescence is influenced by what happened in childhood and also influences the long period of adult-hood (Johnson, Crosnoe, & Elder, 2011).

In the past 15 years, the LCP has grown in popularity across a broad range of disciplines (Alwin, 2012). It has been used to understand the pathways of families (Min, Silverstein, & Lendon, 2012), organizations (King, 2009), and social movements (Della Porta & Diani, 2006) as well as individual life journeys. It has potential for understanding patterns of stability and change in all types of social systems. Ger-ontologists increasingly use the perspective to understand how old age is shaped by events experienced earlier in life (Seabrook & Avison, 2012), but it has also become an increasingly popular perspective for considering adolescent and young adult transitions. The LCP has become a major theoretical framework in crim-inology (Prior, 2013) and the leading perspec-tive driving longitudinal study of physical and mental health (Bauldry, Shanahan, Boardman, Miech, & Macmillan, 2012; Evans, Crogan, Belyea, & Coon, 2009). It is also being used to understand patterns of lifetime drug use (Lind-ström, Modén, & Rosvall, 2013).

The LCP was developed from and contin-ues to be amplified by empirical research. The early roots came from two different streams of research: Glen Elder, Jr.’s (1974) analysis of three pioneering large-scale longitudinal stud-ies, and inquiry by social historians of how families change and adapt under changing his-torical conditions (Hareven, 1978). Research-ers in both of these traditions were interested in the social, cultural, and economic contexts of human behavior. The social historians were interested in telling the historical story from the point of view of ordinary people rather than from the traditional vantage point of elites and focused particularly on the extraordinary cop-ing mechanisms families have used in the face of adversity. In the ongoing development of the

LCP, large-scale national longitudinal studies have continued be a dominant method of study, and new methods of quantitative data analysis have been designed for studying specific con-cepts (see Elder & Giele, 2009). The social history tradition of using life stories and other qualitative methods to study the context of human behavior continues to play a role in ongoing LCP theoretical development (Sprague, Scanlon, & Pantalone, 2017).

In keeping with these traditions, the most common method of empirical research cited in this article is large-scale panel national longitu-dinal study (12 studies) following the same people over time, using representative samples, convenience samples, and stratified probability samples. Seven of the cited studies report on repeated cross-sectional studies using large-scale nationally representative sample studies taken at different time points to track trends in social life. Four of the cited studies analyze cross-sectional surveys based on convenience samples. Other cited research includes three studies based on qualitative interviews, two experimental studies, two large-scale cross-sectional random surveys, two population-based studies, and one cross-sectional national representative sample study. Consistent with trends in life course research, two cited studies use mixed methods, triangulating national rep-resentative samples with qualitative interviews. The cited studies are found in peer-reviewed journals covering the disciplines of addiction studies, criminology, demography, family stud-ies, gerontology, medicine, psychology, public health, and sociology. They include samples from Australia, Canada, China, 27 European countries, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

Basic Concepts of the Life Course Perspective

Fifteen years of research have elaborated the handful of LCP staple concepts noted in Hutchison (2005): cohorts, transitions, trajec-tories, life events, and turning points. Each of these concepts is summarized here and shows up again in discussion of major themes.

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Life course scholars find the concept of cohort to be particularly useful to emphasize the important influence of the historical context on human behavior, one of the major themes to be discussed later. A cohort is a group of persons who were born during the same time period and who experience particular social changes within a given culture in the same sequence and at approximately the same age. Generation is another term used to convey a similar meaning, but life course scholars often make a distinction between the two terms, suggesting that a birth cohort becomes a gen-eration only when it develops some shared sense of its social history and a common iden-tity (see Alwin, McCammon, & Hofer, 2006).

Cohorts differ in size, and these differences affect opportunities for education, work, and family life. The baby boom that followed World War II (1946-1964) in the United States produced a large cohort that faced tight com-petition as they entered the labor market, a situation that drove wages down and unem-ployment up (Pearlin & Skaff, 1996). Baby boomers adapted by marrying later, having fewer children than earlier generations, and increasing the presence of mothers in the labor force. Generation X, born from 1965 to 1979, grew up with fewer siblings and experi-enced higher rates of parental divorce than the baby boomers. They have been less likely than earlier generations to marry (Carlson, 2009). The Millenial Generation, born from 1980 to the late 1990s, has now surpassed the Baby Boomers as the largest adult demo-graphic group in the United States. They have been found to have more student loan debt, poverty, and unemployment when compared to the previous two generations at the same age, and it is not clear how these circum-stances will affect the long-term trajectories of their lives (Drake, 2014). They are also more ethnically diverse than previous cohorts and grew up in a time of great technological innovation. Not surprisingly, they have been found to be more tolerant of diversity and more media-connected than earlier cohorts (Fry, Igielnik, & Patten, 2018).

Although it is too early to know what major social, cultural, or economic factors might influence the adult trajectories of Generation Z, born from the late 1990s until about 2012, recent survey research indicates that they are as large as the Millennial Generation and even more diverse. As children and youth, they have lived in households that are, on average, more well educated and more affluent than any earlier cohort, and they are on track to be the best-educated generation yet (Fry & Parker, 2018). As they enter adulthood, they are reporting attitudes on social issues such as sexual orientation, gender identity, and cli-mate change that are very similar to the atti-tudes of the Millennial Generation, attitudes that are more liberal than the Generation X and Baby Boomer generations (Parker, Graf, & Igielnik, 2019). It remains to be seen how the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts will adapt to changing circumstances across the life course and, more importantly, what effects they will have on major social institutions.

These four cohorts have grown up with different communication technologies. Baby Boomers grew up as television was becoming ubiquitous; Generation Xers grew up in the computer revolution, Millenials as the Internet exploded, and Generation Zers with multi-pur-pose mobile devices (Dimock, 2019). These differences will have an impact on receptivity to different social work interventions.


The LCP puts a spotlight on the numerous transitions in roles and statuses experienced by individuals across the life course (Torres & Young, 2016). A transition can produce both stress and opportunity (Benner, 2011). Many transitions relate to family life: marriages, births, divorces, remarriages, and death, all transitions that involve entrances and exits of family members. Social workers McGoldrick, Preto, and Carter (2016) make a distinction between normative life course transitions and unpredictable transitions in the lives of individ-uals and families. Health professionals have used the LCP and the concept of transitions to understand role changes that occur in the

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family caregiving of older adults (Carpentier, Bernard, Grenier, & Guberman, 2010). The concept of transitions is also increasingly used to study the migration/immigration process (Gong, Xu, Fujishiro, & Takeuchi, 2011). Transitions in collectivities other than the fam-ily, such as small groups, communities, and formal organizations, also involve exits and entrances of members as well as changes in statuses and roles. The concept of transitions is useful for social workers, no matter the setting or role; in all settings, social workers must be mindful of the stress as well as the opportunity for positive change created by transitions.


Each life course transition is embedded in a trajectory that gives form to the life course (Alwin, 2012). Transitions are entry points to a new life phase. Trajectories involve relatively stable long-term processes and patterns of life, involving multiple transitions (Ruark et al., 2016). For example, Hser, Hamilton, and Niv (2009) recommend the LCP for understanding drug use trajectories (or careers) that may include onset of use, acceleration of use, regu-lar use, cessation of use, and relapse. Treatment may or may not be included in this trajectory. Trajectories are best understood in the rearview mirror; the multiple transitions of a trajectory are usually not anticipated at earlier points along the life course. Because individuals and families live in multiple spheres, their lives are made up of multiple intertwined trajectories—such as educational trajectories, family life trajectories, health trajectories, and work trajectories (Leong, Eggerth, & Flynn, 2014). These strands are woven together to form a life story.

Life Events

A life event is a significant occurrence that may produce serious and long-lasting effects for an individual or a collectivity. We experi-ence both positive and negative life events, but researchers have paid much more attention to the impact of negative life events. Psycholo-gists have long studied the short- and long-term impact of stressful life events on child, adolescent, and adult functioning. More

recently, they have also studied the relation-ships among stressful life events, genetics, and personality. Three examples of that research are presented here.

A Swiss research team (Orth & Luciano, 2015) studied the relationships among self-esteem (defined as one’s evaluation of one’s worth), narcissism (characterized by grandi-ose self-concept, feelings of superiority, and self-centeredness), and stressful life events. They found that people who are high in nar-cissism have an increased likelihood of expe-riencing a larger number of stressful life events. They also found that an increase in stressful life events was predictive of lower self-esteem.

A team of international researchers (Salvatore et al., 2015) studied a U.S. sample to investigate the interaction of stressful life events and the GABRA2 gene in producing intergenerational continuity in parents’ and adolescents’ external-izing behavior. They found that parental exter-nalizing behavior predicts a greater number of stressful life events for their adolescents, which in turn predicts higher levels of adolescent externalizing behavior. However, they found that the pattern of parental externalizing → stressful life events → adolescent externaliz-ing was stronger for those adolescents with a specific GABRA2 genotype.

Another international research team (Hygen et al., 2015) studied longitudinal data from a sample of children living in Norway to investigate the relationships among child exposure to stressful life events, the COMT gene, and aggression. They found that chil-dren with the COMT gene were more likely to behave aggressively in reaction to stressful life events than children without the gene. Taken together, these three studies suggest that both genetic and personality factors play a role in how people respond to stressful life events, and that the same interventions may have different outcomes for different people.

Turning Points

A turning point is a time when major change occurs in the life course trajectory, a lasting change not just a detour. Turning points may occur in the individual life course, but social

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science researchers also study turning points in social systems such as families, communi-ties, organizations, cultures, economies, and governments. At the individual level, the turn-ing point may involve a transformation in how the person views the self in relation to the world and/or a transformation in how the per-son responds to risk and opportunity (Cappe-liez, Beaupré, & Robitaille, 2008; Ferraro & Shippee, 2009).

The addition of the concept of turning point is an important way that the LCP departs from traditional developmental theory. In life course theory, the human life course is not smooth and predictable. Inertia tends to keep us on a particular trajectory but turning points add twists and turns or even reversals to the life course. One research team interviewed older adults aged 60 to 87 about perceived turning points in their lives and found that the most frequently reported turning points involved health and family. The perceived turning points occurred across the entire life course, but there was some clustering at midlife (ages 45-64) (Cappeliez et al., 2008). Gender differ-ences have been found in reported turning points in samples of young adults as well as sample of older adults, with women reporting more turning points in the family domain and men reporting more turning points in the work domain (Cappeliez et al., 2008). It is not clear whether this gender difference will be mani-fested in future cohorts if women’s work tra-jectories continue to become more similar to men’s. Researchers have studied the turning points that lead women to leave abusive rela-tionships (Khaw & Hardesty, 2007); the turn-ing points in the care-giving careers of Mexican American women who care for older family members (Evans et al., 2009), and the role transitions that can become turning points in a criminal career, leading to desisting from criminal activities (Kirk, 2012).

Most life course pathways include multiple turning points, some that send life trajectories off track and others that bring life trajectories back on track. In fact, we could say that the intent of many social work interventions is to precipitate a turning point that will get life

course trajectories on track (Olsson, Strand, & Kristiansen, 2014). Such interventions may occur at the individual, family, small group, community, organizational, or institutional level. By calling attention to turning points, the LCP puts a spotlight on human strengths and capacity for positive change, even revolu-tionary change.

Major Themes of the Life Course Perspective

In 1994, Elder (1994) identified four domi-nant, and interrelated, themes in the life course approach: interplay of human lives and histori-cal time, timing of lives, linked or interdepen-dent lives, and human agency in making choices. Two other related themes were later identified by Elder (1998) and Michael Shanahan (2000): diversity in life course trajectories and devel-opmental risk and protection. These six themes continue to be the framework for life course researchers, with different researchers empha-sizing different themes. Each of these themes, and relevant examples of recent research about them, are discussed below.

Interplay of Human Lives and Historical Time

Persons born in different years face different social, political, and economic worlds, with different options and constraints. Historical eras may produce cohort effects when distinc-tive formative experiences are shared at the same point in the life course and have a lasting impact on a birth cohort. The same events of a particular historical era may affect different cohorts in different ways. For example, Aus-tralian researchers (Page, Milner, Morrell, & Taylor, 2013) found that the cohort born in the years immediately following 1974 was more prone to suicide across the young adult period than earlier cohorts. The researchers also found that this cohort faced higher rates of unemployment and underemployment as they entered young adulthood than earlier cohorts and propose a relationship between these two factors.

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Analysis of large data sets by a number of researchers provide forceful evidence that changes in social institutions impinge on family and individual life course trajectories (Vikat et al., 2007). Researchers have examined the impact of globalization, declining labor mar-ket opportunities, and rising housing costs on young adult transitions (Arnett, 2015). Tran-sitions associated with young adulthood (leav-ing home, marriage, first parenthood) are occurring later for the current cohort of young adults than for their parents in many countries, particularly in countries with weak welfare states. Military service during non-war eras often has been found to be a protective factor for later health and mortality, but this benefit does not accrue to veterans who serve during war eras (Landes, Wilder, & Williams, 2017). Shifting immigration policies and attitudes toward particular immigrant groups change the landscape for immigrants over different historical eras (Torres & Young, 2016).

Public policy often lags behind such social changes, presenting social workers with a responsibility to keep the public informed about the impact of changing social condi-tions on individuals, families, communities, and organizations. For example, many service members from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are living with horrific combat injuries; others are experiencing substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), relationship problems, and work problems from prolonged periods of combat stress (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008; Wadsworth & Southwell, 2011). Social workers in all practice settings should be alert to possibilities for engaging the involved mili-tary families in supportive services and to the need for more supportive public policies and programs.

Timing of Lives

Every society appears to use age as an impor-tant variable, and many social institutions are organized, in part, around age: age for starting school, age to be legally recognized as an adult, retirement age, and so on. Age is a prom-inent attribute in efforts by social scientists to bring order and predictability to understanding

human behavior. Life course scholars are inter-ested in the age at which specific life events and transitions occur, which they refer to as timing of lives. They may classify entrances and exits from particular statuses and roles as “off-time” or “on-time,” based on social norms or shared expectations about the timing of such transitions (McFarland, Pudrovska, Schieman, Ellison, & Bierman, 2013). One research team found that people who are diagnosed with can-cer at earlier ages had a greater increase in reli-giosity than people diagnosed at later ages, suggesting that off-time transitions are more stressful than on-time transitions or require different coping strategies (McFarland et al., 2013). Another researcher found that non-normative early entry into family formation and parenthood is associated with lower self-reported health over the life course (Barban, 2013). Chronological age itself is not the only factor involved in timing of lives. Age-graded differences in roles and behaviors are the result of biological, psychological, and social pro-cesses (Solomon, Helvitz, & Zerach, 2009).

Biological age indicates a person’s level of biological development and physical health, as measured by the functioning of various organ systems. It is the present position of the bio-logical person in relation to the potential life cycle. There is no simple, straightforward way to measure biological age, but there is an ongo-ing effort to identify an optimal set of bio-markers for accurate measure of biological age (Jee & Park, 2017). One method is to compare an individual’s physical condition with the conditions of others, for example, bone den-sity scans are compared with the scans of a healthy 20-year-old.

Psychological age has both behavioral and perceptual components. Behaviorally, psycho-logical ages refers to the capacities that people have and the skills they use to adapt to chang-ing biological and environmental demands, skills in memory, learning, intelligence, moti-vation, emotion regulation, and so forth. Per-ceptually, psychological age is based on how old people perceive themselves to be. Recent research has referred to this perceptual aspect of age as “subjective age” or “age identity.” Culture plays a role in subjective age, with

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older adults in Western societies consistently found to feel younger than their chronological age (Stephan, Chalabaev, Kotter-Grühn, & Jaconelli, 2013). This has not been found in research among Chinese older adults, but recent research indicates that this may be changing as traditions around filial piety weaken (Liang, 2014). Subjective age among early adolescents has been found to be influ-enced by pubertal timing (Hubley & Arim, 2012). Subjective age of middle-aged and older adults is related to self-reported health (Stephan, Demulier, & Terracciano, 2012). A workforce that, on average, feels younger than their chronological age has been found to be associated with an improvement in the overall performance of the organization (Kunze, Raes, & Bruch, 2015).

Social age refers to the age-graded roles and behaviors expected by society, the socially constructed meaning of various ages. Age norms indicate the behaviors expected of peo-ple of a specific age in a given society at a particular point in time. They may be informal expectations, or they may be encoded as for-mal rules and laws. Life course scholars sug-gest that age norms vary not only across historical time and across societies, but also by gender, race, ethnicity, and social class within a given time and society. They have paid particular attention to recent changes in age norms for the transitions of young adult-hood (Arnett, 2015; Newman, 2008; Scherger, 2009). Social age receives special attention in the LCP, and life course scholars call attention to the changing nature of the social construc-tion of life phases, noting that mass longevity is leading to finer gradations in life phases. For example, Arnett (2015) proposes that the changing nature of young adult transitions calls for the acknowledgment of a life phase between adolescence and young adulthood, a phase he calls emerging adulthood.

Linked or Interdependent Lives

The LCP emphasizes the interdependence of human lives and the ways in which people are reciprocally connected on several levels (Djundeva, 2015). It calls attention to how

relationships both support and control an indi-vidual’s behavior. Social support is an obvi-ous element of interdependent lives, but relationships also control behavior through expectations, rewards, and punishments. The family is seen as the primary source of both support and control, and life course scholars have paid particular attention to how lives of family members are linked across genera-tions, with both opportunity and misfortune having an intergenerational impact. They have also been interested in how families are linked to the wider world.

Links with family members. We are all linked genetically to our intergenerational families, and we may live with both genetic vulnerabil-ity and genetic advantage. But shared genetics is not the only way that parents’ and children’s lives are linked. The connection between fam-ily hardship, family nurturance, and child behaviors and well-being is now well estab-lished (e.g., Barajas, Philipsen, & Brooks-Gunn, 2008). In addition to the economic connection between parents and children, racial discrimination has an intergenerational effect (Rowley, Helaire, & Banerjee, 2010). In recent years, we are also aware that deporta-tion-related family separation impacts long-term relationships between children and parents (Yoshikawa, 2011). Parental hardship has a negative impact on child development, but parents also provide social capital for their children, in terms of role models and networks of social support (Szydlik, 2012).

Parents’ lives are also influenced by the trajectories of their children’s lives. For exam-ple, parents may need to alter their work tra-jectories to respond to the needs of a terminally ill child. Or parents may forgo early retire-ment to assist their young adult children with education expenses. Parents may be nega-tively affected by stressful situations that their young and adult children face (Greenfield & Marks, 2006).

Older adults and their adult children are also interdependent. Midlife adults may need to alter their social and work roles to take on greater caregiving roles with their aging par-ents. The pattern of mutual support between

358 Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 100(4)

older adults and their children is formed by life events and transitions across the life course. They may be fundamentally changed when families go through historical disrup-tions such as wars, major economic down-turns, or by the migration of younger generation family members (Clark, Glick, & Bures, 2009).

Family roles must often be synchronized across three or more generations at once, and sometimes the synchronization does not go smoothly. Divorce, remarriage, and disconti-nuities in adult work and educational trajecto-ries may conflict with the needs of children and aging parents (Huinink & Feldhaus, 2009). When a significant life event in one generation (such as death of a grandparent) is juxtaposed with a significant life event in another generation (such as birth of a child), families and individual family members are especially vulnerable to stress pile-up.

Links with the wider world. The LCP has its ori-gins in Elder’s research (Elder, 1974) on the ways that families and individuals are linked to situations in the economic institution, and in recent years life course researchers have been documenting the ways that individual and family life course trajectories are linked to situations in the labor market, housing mar-ket, education system, and social welfare sys-tem (Newman, 2008; Scherger, 2009; Szydlik, 2012). Newman (2008) examined young adult transitions in Western Europe and Japan and found that changes in the labor market that result in less secure employment are driving the delayed departure of young adults from the parental home in southern Europe and Japan but not in the Nordic countries. These regional differences are at least partially explained by differences in other social institutions.

Newman (2008) found that timing of depar-ture from the parental home is linked to situ-ations in the housing market. In Southern European countries, great emphasis is put on owner-occupied housing and relatively little rental housing is available. In contrast, there is a large rental sector in the housing market in Nordic countries, a situation that facilitates early home leaving. Timing of departure is also

linked to the education system. Young adults who participate in post-secondary education tend to leave the parental home later than those who do not pursue post-secondary education, but regional differences are found in this rela-tionship as well. Nordic countries have a higher proportion of emerging adults in post-secondary education than countries in Southern Europe, and yet young adults in the Nordic countries depart the parental home earlier than those in Southern Europe. This regional difference is related to differences in the social welfare sys-tems of the two regions. The earlier departure from the parental home in Nordic countries is subsidized by a liberal welfare system that pro-vides generous housing and educational bene-fits. Newman’s research (2008) indicates that it is a confluence of policies in different social institutions that impact individual and family life trajectories.

The importance of social policy in life course trajectories has also been found in relation to family solidarity between older adults and their adult children (Szydlik, 2012) and in the career trajectories of mothers (Abendroth, Huffman, & Treas, 2014). Family-friendly social policies support family solidarity and decrease the motherhood penalty in career trajectories. These findings have important implications for legis-lative advocacy by social workers.

It is important for social workers to remem-ber that lives are also linked in systems of institutionalized privilege and oppression. Philip McMichael (2017) reminds us that, in the global economy, lives are linked around the world. The lifestyles of people in affluent countries depend on cheap labor and raw products from Africa, South America, the Caribbean, parts of Asia, and other places. Children and women in impoverished coun-tries labor long hours to make an increasing share of low-cost products consumed in afflu-ent countries. Women migrate from impov-erished countries to become the domestic laborers in affluent countries, allowing women in affluent countries to leave the home to take advantage of career opportunities and allow-ing the domestic workers to send money they make home to support their own families. Social workers should be well informed about

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these international linkages in an increasingly globalized world.

Human Agency in Making Choices

Human agency is the LCP theme most rele-vant to social work’s emphasis on individual, family, and community strengths. Hitlin and Elder (2007) note that although the concept of human agency is used differently by different disciplines, life course theorists and research-ers use it to refer to “attempts to exert influ-ence to shape one’s life trajectory” (p. 182). It involves acting with an orientation toward the future, with an eye for “possible selves” (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Possible selves represent our ideas of what we might become, what we would like to become, and what we are afraid we will become. They serve as incentives for action and may be enacted at the individual, family, small group, commu-nity, organization, or institutional level.

Emphasis on human agency in the LCP has been greatly aided by the work of psycholo-gist Albert Bandura. Bandura (2006) proposed three modes of human agency: personal agency is exercised individually to shape environmental events or one’s own behavior; proxy agency is exercised when others who have greater resources act on one’s behalf to meet needs or accomplish goals; and collec-tive agency is exercised on the group level when people act together to meet needs and accomplish goals. Cultural psychology critics of the concept of human agency argue that it is a culture-bound concept that does not apply as well in collectivist societies as in individualis-tic societies (Markus & Kitayama, 2003). Bandura (2006) responds that although people in all cultures must use all three modes of agency, there are cultural variations in the relative emphasis put on the different modes, with some cultures putting greater emphasis on personal agency and other cultures putting greater emphasis on collective agency. Par-sell, Eggins, and Marston (2017) argue that “human agency is core to social work” (p. 238), but social workers also recognize barri-ers to expressing personal agency. The con-cepts of proxy agency and collective agency

add important dimensions to the discussion of human agency and can serve to counterbal-ance the extreme individualism of U.S. soci-ety. Human agency is a major resource for positive turning points in the life trajectories of individuals and collectivities.

Diversity in Life Course Trajectories

Life course researchers have long had strong evidence of diversity in individual life pat-terns. Early research emphasized differences between cohorts, but over time more and more attention was paid to diversity within cohorts. Recently, life course researchers have begun to incorporate intersectionality theory to under-stand diversity in life course trajectories (see Raphael & Bryant, 2015; Warner & Brown, 2011). Intersectionality theory recognizes that all of us are jointly and simultaneously mem-bers of a number of socially constructed iden-tity groups, such as those based on gender, race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, geographic loca-tion, abilities, and so on. Our social location, or place in society, is at the intersection of our multiple identity groups. Either advantage or disadvantage can be associated with each iden-tity group, and when considering the life jour-ney of any one individual, it is important to consider the multiple identity groups of which that person is a part (see Hankivsky, 2012).

Developmental Risk and Protection

As the LCP has continued to evolve, it has more clearly emphasized the links between the life events and transitions of childhood, adoles-cence, adulthood, and old age (Gilman, 2012). Studies indicate that childhood events some-times shape people’s lives 40 or more years later (Shonkoff, Garner, Committee on Psycho-social Aspects of Child and Family Health, Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care, & Section on Developmen-tal and Behavioral Pediatrics, 2012). Indeed, recent biomedical research suggests we should look at factors that occur earlier than child-hood, focusing on fetal undernutrition as a contributing factor in late-life cognition and

360 Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 100(4)

late-life health conditions such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension (see Rooij, Wouters, Yonker, Painter, & Rose-boom, 2010).

It is quite an old idea that what happens at one point in the life journey influences what happens at later points, However, the idea of earlier life experiences affecting later develop-ment has taken on new energy since the explo-sion of longitudinal research a few decades ago. Two different research traditions have exam-ined how early life experiences affect later out-comes, one based in sociology and the other based in ecological developmental psychology. The sociological tradition is interested in cumu-lative advantage/cumulative disadvantage. The ecological developmental tradition is interested in risk, protection, and resilience.

Sociologists propose that social institutions and societal structures develop mechanisms that ensure increasing advantage for those who are well-resourced early in life and increasing disadvantage for those who struggle (Ferraro & Shippee, 2009). Researchers have applied these concepts to study racial health disparities across the life trajectory (Pais, 2014), financial assistance from midlife parents to adult chil-dren (Padgett & Remle, 2016), and evolving patterns of inequality among late-life adults (Crystal, Shea, & Reyes, 2017).

Through the lens of ecological develop-mental risk and protection theory, longitudinal researchers have identified multidimensional risk factors at one stage of development that increase the probability of developing and maintaining problem conditions at later stages. They have also identified protective factors or resources that decrease the probability of developing and maintaining problem condi-tions, a process known as resilience. In the past decade or so, biomedical researchers have proposed an ecobiodevelopmental framework for studying health and disease across the life course. They are articulating the ways that genetic predispositions interact with social and physical environments to drive development, referring to the human life course as “nature dancing with nurture over time” (Shonkoff et al., 2012, p. e234). The major focus of eco-biodevelopmental research is on the ways that

early toxic stress disrupts development in the brain and other biological systems. It is impor-tant to note, however, that neither cumula-tive advantage/disadvantage theory nor the ecological developmental risk and protection approach argue that early deprivations and traumas inevitably lead to a trajectory of failure. When resources are mobilized, the effects of deprivation and trauma are reduced (Gilman, 2012).

Implications of the Life Course Perspective for Social Work Practice

Like other professions, social work aspires to engage in evidence-informed practice and that requires using evidence-based theories of human behavior as well as evidence-based models of practice. The LCP was developed from empirical research and continues to be refined by ongoing research. The theoretical perspective, and the research that supports it, has many implications for social work prac-tice. It can be used at multiple levels of prac-tice and to support a variety of social work roles. The most important implication for social work’s efforts to promote societal well-being is the robust evidence that what happens throughout the life course is strongly influ-enced by what happens in the early years, beginning with conception, and even before in the preconceptual health of the mother. Soci-etal health is associated with public policies that support early development, and social workers can play an important role in promot-ing supportive public health and child and family policies.

The extensive research on risk and protec-tion has implications for both policy and pro-gram development. Social workers Jenson and Fraser (2016) make use of available research on risk and resilience to propose pol-icy recommendations in a variety of policy sectors, including antipoverty, child welfare, education, health, child mental health, disabili-ties, substance abuse, and juvenile justice. The Communities That Care (CTC) model of com-munity prevention developed at the University of Washington School of Social Work trains

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and supports community coalitions to promote positive youth development by identifying and prioritizing community risk factors and suppressed protective factors that can be mobi-lized to become community strengths. Recent program evaluation found that involvement in the CTC system during adolescence was associated with reduced drug use, antisocial behavior, and violence perpetration at age 21 (Oesterle et al., 2018). These two examples provide a window into the far ranging implica-tions of risk and protection research for social work intervention.

Social work, at its best, is a profession that puts human behavior in context. A major thrust of the LCP is to provide contextual understanding of human behavior, to place it in the context of biology, culture, historical time, and social systems. Special attention to the forces that create diversity in life course trajectories is consistent with social work’s goal to “engage diversity and difference in practice” (Council on Social Work Education, 2015, p. 7). Life course research can help social workers recognize the many ways of enacting personal identity and inform the process of engaging a diverse client population. Research on cohorts alerts social workers to the spe-cific opportunities and challenges faced by members of particular cohorts and may sug-gest ways to tailor interventions to the charac-teristics of a particular cohort. For example, younger cohorts may respond better to Inter-net and wireless-supported interventions than older cohorts (National Association of Social Workers, Association of Social Work Boards, Council on Social Work Education, & Clinical Social Work Association, 2017).

The LCP emphasis on linked lives is con-sistent with the National Association of Social Worker’s (2017, p. 1) stated value of the “importance of human relationships.” It sup-ports social work’s historical tendency to engage in family, small group, and community interventions. It recommends interventions that enhance social support and open lines of com-munication. Life course research is beginning to provide evidence that family-friendly pub-lic policies support family solidarity and alter individual and family life course trajectories,

findings with implications for social work involvement in legislative advocacy. The LCP emphasis on linked lives also calls social work-ers to keep a laser focus on how lives are linked in systems of institutionalized privilege and oppression and to seek ways to advance “social, economic, and environmental justice” (Council on Social Work Education, 2015, p. 7).

LCP emphasis on transitions, trajectories, life events, and turning points can inform practice at multiple system levels. Research on human reactions to transitions alerts social workers to the possibility of at least tempo-rary dysfunction in relationships at times of major transition and suggests that targeted interventions may help to avoid communica-tion breakdowns and stress pileup in times of pronounced change. Indeed, social work-ers have often targeted interventions to peo-ple involved in transitions, such as the use of support groups for children involved in divorcing families and for people living with a recent major loss. Life course research also indicates that transitions can create opportu-nities for positive change and social workers should be mindful of such opportunities. Imber-Black (2016) proposes the use of ther-apeutic rituals to assist families with difficult transitions and life events.

With its emphasis on life stories (trajecto-ries) that unfold over time, the LCP is a particu-larly good fit with narrative approaches to social work. Narrative practice focuses on helping clients examine the meanings they attribute to events in their life journeys. It attempts to uncover clients’ dominant story lines and to help them move from problem-centered stories to coping and empowering stories (Burack-Weiss, Lawrence, & Mijangos, 2017). Narra-tive approaches to practice can be used with families, small groups, communities, and orga-nizations, as well as with individuals. For exam-ple, the appreciative model of organizational change seeks to engage organizational stake-holders in identifying positive components of the organization and shared dreams of what it can become. Stakeholders are encouraged to recall and tell stories about events when the organization was vibrant, energetic, and lively (Newhard, 2012).

362 Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 100(4)

Research on life events suggests that social workers should be alert to recent stressful life events when assessing individuals, families, and communities, as well as to stressful life events, especially traumatic ones, in earlier life stages that may be impacting current function-ing. The expanding research on turning points in life trajectories can help social workers design turning point interventions that help to break cycles of dysfunction in individuals and the social systems with which they interact.

The LCP emphasis on human agency is con-sistent with social work approaches that focus on individual, family, community, and organi-zational strengths. It is a source of hope even in the most intractable situations. Making careful assessments about whether circumstances call for personal agency of the client, proxy agency by the social worker or some other advocate, or for organizing for collective agency opens more opportunities for action. Enhancing col-lective agency is a major goal of family, small group, and community interventions.


The Council on Social Work Education (2015) states that social work practice is guided by “knowledge based on scientific inquiry” (p. 5) and informed by “multi-disciplinary sources and multiple ways of knowing” (p. 8). It fur-ther states that social workers critically evaluate and apply theories of human behav-ior to engage with, assess, intervene with, and evaluate practice with individuals, families groups, organizations, and communities. This article has demonstrated that the LCP is a theo-retical perspective on human behavior that is informed by multiple methods of scientific inquiry in multiple disciplines. It shows that the LCP and the research that supports it have implications for practice with families, groups, organizations, and communities, as well as with individuals. It is an important perspective for social workers to add to their multi-theoret-ical tool kit.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


Elizabeth D. Hutchison -0002-9344-8757


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  5. Clіck оn “PRОCEED TО CHECKОUT” at the bоttоm оf the page.
  6. Frоm there, the payment sectіоns wіll shоw, fоllоw the guіded payment prоcess, and yоur оrder wіll be avaіlable fоr оur wrіtіng team tо wоrk оn іt.

Nоte, оnce lоgged іntо yоur accоunt; yоu can clіck оn the “Pendіng” buttоn at the left sіdebar tо navіgate, make changes, make payments, add іnstructіоns оr uplоad fіles fоr the оrder created. e.g., оnce lоgged іn, clіck оn “Pendіng” and a “pay” оptіоn wіll appear оn the far rіght оf the оrder yоu created, clіck оn pay then clіck оn the “Checkоut” оptіоn at the next page that appears, and yоu wіll be able tо cоmplete the payment.

Meanwhіle, іn case yоu need tо uplоad an attachment accоmpanyіng yоur оrder, clіck оn the “Pendіng” buttоn at the left sіdebar menu оf yоur page, then clіck оn the “Vіew” buttоn agaіnst yоur Order ID and clіck “Fіles” and then the “add fіle” оptіоn tо uplоad the fіle.

Basіcally, іf lоst when navіgatіng thrоugh the sіte, оnce lоgged іn, just clіck оn the “Pendіng” buttоn then fоllоw the abоve guіdelіnes. оtherwіse, cоntact suppоrt thrоugh оur chat at the bоttоm rіght cоrner


Payment Prоcess

By clіckіng ‘PRОCEED TО CHECKОUT’ yоu wіll be lоgged іn tо yоur accоunt autоmatіcally where yоu can vіew yоur оrder detaіls. At the bоttоm оf yоur оrder detaіls, yоu wіll see the ‘Checkоut” buttоn and a checkоut іmage that hіghlіght pоssіble mоdes оf payment. Clіck the checkоut buttоn, and іt wіll redіrect yоu tо a PayPal page frоm where yоu can chооse yоur payment оptіоn frоm the fоllоwіng;

  1. Pay wіth my PayPal accоunt‘– select thіs оptіоn іf yоu have a PayPal accоunt.
  2. Pay wіth a debіt оr credіt card’ or ‘Guest Checkout’ – select thіs оptіоn tо pay usіng yоur debіt оr credіt card іf yоu dоn’t have a PayPal accоunt.
  3. Dо nоt fоrget tо make payment sо that the оrder can be vіsіble tо оur experts/tutоrs/wrіters.


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