Academic journal article Human Ecology

The Template of Our Lives: Times Have Changed, and Many of the Assumptions, Policies, and Practices That Underlie Our Society Run Counter to How Americans Want to Live Their Lives. Baby Boomers Now Approaching the Last Third of Their Lives May Want to Leave Their Jobs but Not Necessarily Retire from Work. Will They Find Productive Roles to Serve?

Academic journal article Human Ecology

The Template of Our Lives: Times Have Changed, and Many of the Assumptions, Policies, and Practices That Underlie Our Society Run Counter to How Americans Want to Live Their Lives. Baby Boomers Now Approaching the Last Third of Their Lives May Want to Leave Their Jobs but Not Necessarily Retire from Work. Will They Find Productive Roles to Serve?

Article excerpt

The day after Karen Hughes, President Bush's most intimate political adviser, went public with her resignation. Phyllis Moen received a call from a major newspaper. But Moen's comments never appeared in the paper because, she says, she didn't say what the reporter wanted to hear. Regardless of all the talk about Hughes's making a family-friendly decision, Moen saw the situation as just another example of the absence of options in the workplace.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"Even the most powerful woman in our government had no choices other than to follow the traditional template of working long hours in a full-time job or quitting," she says.

This is not the first time that Moen, the Ferris Family Professor of Life Course Studies, whose early studies spurred the founding of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center, has said what others didn't want to hear. As a pioneer in developing a life course approach to sociological research, Moen has spent the last 24 years making the invisible visible. The picture she's revealed is a whole lot more complicated than what traditional sociologists have drawn.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"In the field of sociology, as in all areas of life, individuals behave according to assumptions that are hidden; they play by rules of the game that typically go unexamined." Moen says. "Although these are arbitrary and socially constructed, they're accepted without question."

We take for granted, for example, that a red light means stop and a green light means go, that children are ready for school at age five, and that retirement happens when people are in their 60s. Too, it's never questioned that no matter how critical a worker is, she can't really do the job right unless she's in the office a full work week.

So, too, is categorization common to sociological research. Assume, for example, Moen says, that the topic is working women. "Typically, studies in this area have assigned women to categories--single, married, widowed, or divorced, for example--and then compared their experiences as they relate to the study. But life is much more complicated than that. A woman who has just been widowed is very different from a woman who lost her husband 25 years ago. The long-time widow, in fact, may have more in common with a woman who has lived as a single throughout her adult life."

As Moen's work has made clear, by employing simplistic categorization researchers fail to take into account the rich complexity of people's personal biographies. In addition, failing to recognize the power of hidden assumptions prevents researchers from seeing how personal decisions intersect with and are influenced by the social organization and culture of public and private organizations, the accustomed roles assigned to individuals at specified ages, and the policies and practices that determine much of the way the world works.

Not only do those forces influence each other, but the extent of that influence changes over time--that is, over the entire life course. By way of explanation, Moen suggests thinking of life as a river: it can surge and cut out new areas of riverbed, but for the most part its movement is channeled by the banks. What's more, those banks change over time as a result of influences outside the river's control, such as the action of human engineering or wind and rain.

Moen was first introduced to this notion of change over the life course when she was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s. Rubin Hill, the sociologist who trained her, discussed the value of looking at people's lives over time. He framed the discussion in terms of whether a person was "on" or "off" time. The idea was that not only did social conventions constrain people because of policies that, say, limited access to public education or paid work before (or after) a certain age, but they also were inside people's heads, affecting how they thought of the flow of their entire lives. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.