Boston Review June 9, 2015
One of the deep, long-term changes in American lives has been what social historians call the “standardization” of the life course. From the nineteenth into the twentieth century, increasingly more young Americans were able to follow a common sequence: get educated, get a job, leave parents’ home, get married, have children, and become financially secure (to be followed by empty nest, retirement, and “golden years”)—the American Dream in one, widely-shared package.
In recent decades, however, Americans’ life courses have become less standardized, less shared. A new study, by Jeremy Pais and D. Matthew Ray, shows how much this historical reversal is connected to economic fortunes. The less affluent, who were late to standardization in the twentieth century, are in the twenty-first increasingly leading “non-standard” lives.
A century and more ago, many a young American’s expectations of life were overturned by the mishaps of life, such as the early death of a parent or spouse, debilitating illness or accident, and farm- or job-devastating weather or depression. Over time, life became more straightforward and predictable as death and illness retreated while affluence and security grew. (Earlier posts on this point are here, here, and here.) Life-planning way into the future became more sensible.
Over the same period, American society developed institutions that increasingly structured the life course and made it more shared. Schooling became required of all, with specific starting, grade, and graduation ages for everyone. New laws stipulated minimum ages for when one could marry, could work, and should stop working.
Americans also increasingly chose to pursue common life courses. One important indication is number of children. Around 1900, Americans often had either many children or no children at all, but by 2000 most American parents had converged to having two children, give or take another one. Rather than generating more diversity, Americans’ greater freedom from circumstance allowed them to follow shared norms.
Historian David Stevens reported in 1990 that the correlation between how old Americans were and when they took critical life steps strengthened from 1900 to 1970. That is, Americans increasingly took these steps at the same age.
After about 1970, diversity in the sequencing of life transitions grew: children before marriage, full-time employment while still living with parents, being unmarried late in life, long delays in attaining financial security, and so on. In that same 1990 study, Stevens found that the age-transition correlation–that is, standardization–began reversing after 1970. Later studies showed the trend accelerating. Indeed, the seemingly new disarray and unpredictability of life for twenty-somethings (actually, a throwback to a century ago) gained an academic label, “emerging adulthood,” and an accompanying academic journal.
The most likely factor in de-standardization is the economic setbacks—not the cultural shifts—of the last few decades.
This historical reversal of standardization might be attributed to cultural shifts since the 1960s: acceptance of divorce, of cohabitation, of women breaking old restraints, and so on. The extended education that at least middle-class youth pursued also contributed. But the most likely or most important factor seems to have been the economic setbacks—or, more precisely, the unequal economic setbacks—of the last few decades.
In their new study, Pais and Ray describe what they label the “Adult [Male] Attainment Project,” another way of viewing the standard life course. The American ideal, they write, is that, by about age 40 men should have attained, and sustained, these five statuses:
- working (or studying);
- living independently with their wives;
- settled parenthood—i.e, living with their children; and
- owning a home.
These attainments did, indeed, generally come as a package; adult men who had one tended to have the others. Pais and Ray found that, from 1980 through 2010, almost half of American men aged 35 to 45 had the whole package, the American Dream.
However, the proportion of American men who occupied these statuses declined from 1980 to 2010, and much more so among the less affluent. In 1980, men who were in the top two-fifths of family income were four times as likely as men in the bottom two-fifths to have completed the “adult attainment project”; in 2010, they were eight times as likely. The class gap in being married and in residing with children widened especially.
The regularization and predictability of American life that had developed over a few generations and culminated in the post-war era seems to have started unraveling, at least for the less advantaged. The era of standardization may have been a passing phase; unpredictability may be the long-term norm. Perhaps, but if so, today’s non-standard patterns must be–given that early death and similar misfortunes are still at historical lows—the result of other factors, largely economic inequality, it appears.