Understanding context: Life span, life stages and predictable crises of growing up

September 29, 2010

Excuse the mess around here.  I’ve just moved to a self-hosted blog and am playing around with images, headers, widgets and all that stuff.

I want to think about context. When you are trying to understand what matters to your audience, there are a whole slew of things that have an influence.  Very commonly, we focus on the immediate response to our questions, and we act as though that’s all there is.    In particular, the focus on the internet and social media seems to strip us back to pure text without bodies.   This online conversation feels real and solid.  But in order to understand it properly, I need more context.    I need to know about you: who you are, how old you are, what you surround yourself with.

My first context is age, but I’ll call it, more properly, the life span.  Here’s a famous speech:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow…

(Here’s the full text from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’)

Back in the days when I put together market research questionnaires, thinking about the customer in terms of life stage was absolutely essential.   Marketing loves a nice definition.   Nappies for new parents, totally obvious.  Our cardinal stages were single, married/living together, young kids at home, older kids at home, empty nesters.    That’s about as far as it went.  I knew that mixing these stages in focus groups could create an absolute holy nightmare.

For anyone interested in thinking about life stages a little more deeply, I can thoroughly recommend Leonie Sugarman’s brilliant little book, ‘Life span Development: Frameworks, accounts and strategies.’ This does exactly what it says on the tin, taking the reader through a set of different theories and perspectives on adult development over the course of a life.   I’ve found it a real treasure trove of models and ideas. She examines different ways that psychologists and others have theorised about adulthood. Here’s a quick guide.

Stage theories

Stage theories, like the one sketched out by Shakespeare, assume a certain psychological timetable with predictable points of crisis and adjustment.    Erikson’s theory of adult development suggests 8 stages over a lifetime, with each stage characterised as a struggle between two forces: intimacy versus isolation in the case of young adults, generativity versus stagnation in the case of middle-aged adults.   Erikson’s work has been most influential in thinking about adolescence and the search for identity.  Even if you don’t agree, his dualities are thought-provoking.

Dan Levinson came up with a similar theory, this time based on extended interviews with American men.  One of his core concepts is the pursuit of ‘The Dream’, the goal that adults dream of reaching in theirlife (usually focused on career, house and family).  He’s not much studied now, but his work was popularised in Gail Sheehy’s book, Passages.   He also wrote a companion piece on women’s development which has dated rather more horribly – basically the male model did not easily fit women’s lives.

(I should also mention Donald Super, who came up with the world’s most depressing career stage theory, all wrapped up in a happy rainbow: Growth, Establishment, Maintenance, Decline. Thanks, mate.)

Life events, cohorts and convoys

Major life events – leaving home, first job, new baby – bring huge change with them, and one of the helpful aspects  of life-stage theories is that they help you examine these transitions in more depth.  For example, going to university has become a major point of personal change for 18-year olds, one where individuals seek to reinvent themselves for an adult world.   Parenthood is another obvious, huge transition.  These transitions cause turmoil and crisis because they involve a real renegotiation of who we are, what we want to do and how we spend our lives.

Age and stage isn’t everything: external historical circumstances also shape you and your contemporaries.  These kinds of cohort theories have been done to death in Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and so on, but beneath the hype there is a truth.  Living through World War 2 obviously shaped our parents and grandparents in particular ways.  Growing up with mobile phones and Facebook will no doubt shape the futures of current teenagers.

Sugarman also talks about an interesting partner concept to the cohort: the social convoy.  The convoy model, created by Kahn and Antonucci, looks at your social support networks and how they change over time.  Some convoys are  stable, others change markedly (think of work friendships and the way that they can evaporate when people move on).

What’s the use of life stage theory?

Life stage is ever-present. In the workplace, it’s deeply unfashionable to mention it, but it may shape our deepest ideas of careers, promotion and relationships.  If you are trying to communicate with an audience who are in the throes of crisis or transition, you are likely to communicate better if you understand those feelings.   For example, the students mentioned earlier may crave both security and adventure.

In my own work, I’ve found two life-span concepts incredibly helpful.   The first is the idea of personal identity as something which is continuously renegotiated over a lifetime.  The second is the concept that events in our lives provide a continuous challenge to our sense of self.  In Erikson’s terms, events cause an existential crisis, and we eventually absorb and resolve their meaning.   Sometimes these crises may seem utterly happy (a wedding, moving in together), at other times they are more obviously present as tension and pain.

I like Erikson’s caregories, although there aren’t very many of them, and it’s a useful parlour trick to listen to your audience and have a think about what forces they may be trying to reconcile.

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