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Chapter 4: Socialization

4.3 Socialization Through the Life Course

Most theories and discussions of socialization concern childhood. However, socialization continues throughout the several stages of the , most commonly categorized in industrial societies as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Pre-industrial societies, being less complex, have fewer stages. Within each of these categories, scholars further recognize subcategories, such as early adolescence and late adolescence, early adulthood and middle adulthood, and so forth. This section sketches some important aspects of the major life course stages.

People learn different lessons and have different experiences depending on the stage they are in. This is necessary for the individual’s survival and for society’s continuation as well, since this is how society is perpetuated. When a person passes from one stage to the next is both a biological reality as well as a social one. That is, puberty happens when the body begins to release different hormones, but when this process begins can be impacted by access to food (and even the type of food consumed). Similarly, each society determines when someone is considered old; in a place where few survive living to 40 makes you old. In the United States, where people often live to be 100, 50 is still (relatively) young.

image of three women from a family, presumably, grandmother, mother and daughter

Three generations of the same family will be going through different stages of the life course at the same time, and thus experiencing different forms of socialization. Robert Stokoe Pexels

The early stages of the life course are devoted to , where the individual learns the basic skills needed to function in society. Done primarily by those who raise us, it consists of learning how to communicate, basic beliefs about right and wrong, and skills such as using a fork and how to tie your shoes.

Later stages are given to and usually occur outside of the home. It happens during and after childhood through interaction with other groups and organizations such as schools and the workplace. People experience secondary socialization their entire lives, since any new encounter (going to college, getting a new job, moving to a new city) requires them to learn the norms of that new setting.

As people pass through the life course, they will transition from one stage to the next which results in a change in their status. Recall the explanation in Chapter 1 that a status is the position a person occupies in society; this concept includes a person’s stage in life, since there are different expectations for each age. Particularly important transitions may be accompanied with a , or an event that marks an individual’s transition from one status to another. Most familiar are rites of passage associated with puberty to mark the shift from childhood to adulthood in the eyes of society. Jewish boys and girls may celebrate turning 13 with a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. Latina girls may celebrate their 15th birthday with a quinceañera party, while in the Bemba culture girls undergo a month-long initiation ceremony called the chisungu, in which girls learn songs, dances, and secret terms that only women know (Maybury-Lewis, 1998). Other rites of passage found in industrialized societies may not indicate a completely new stage in the life course but are useful markers within them. Often enforced by an authority such as the government, getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school and registering to vote are all important milestones in a person’s life. Rites of passage are helpful for the individual because they grant the person entry into a social group which will support them. Rites of passage are also functional for society because they publicly acknowledge the individual’s transition and new status, highlighting society’s expectations for them in an effort to maintain cultural norms.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

What other rites of passage mark a person’s transition through the life course from childhood to old age?


It’s important to keep in mind the effect of time and place on aging. The aging process is influenced by when and where a person ages. Childhood was treated differently in 1920 compared to today, just as childhood is viewed differently in China compared to the United States. One reason social location includes a person’s age is because of the intersection between a person’s developmental stage and historical events. People in the same , or those born within the same 5–10-year time span, experience events differently than those from different age cohorts. For example, think of how children born after Barack Obama became president will view his historical presidency; for them, there has always been a Black president, and its significance is muted. Or how your reaction to the COVID pandemic might differ if you were 5, 10 or 15 when it first occurred. A society’s also matters. This will be covered more in the chapter about demography, but for now think about how a society has to adjust depending on the ages of its members. If there is a baby boom, provisions for the young like schools and teachers need to be in place. If there are many who grow old, health care has to be addressed.

image of two photos, the first an older photo of boys working in a factory and the second contemporary photo of a child and man making bricks

Attitudes about child labor vary, depending on time and place. In the early 1900’s, child labor was an accepted and necessary practice in many factories in the United States. Beliefs about child rearing changed in the following years, leading to laws against child labor. In countries like Bangladesh, children contribute to the family economically and are expected to work. Lewis Wickes Hine, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke – Public domain and Shanjoy – CC BY 3.0 – Wikimedia Commons


Despite increasing recognition of the entire life course, childhood (including infancy) certainly remains the most important stage of most people’s lives for socialization. It’s impact on cognitive, emotional, and physiological development is crucial; this topic will be discussed in greater detail in section 4.5. We have already discussed what can happen if an infant does not receive “normal” socialization from at least one adult, and feral/isolated children are a sad reminder that socialization is necessary to produce an entity who not only looks human but really is human in the larger sense of the word. A person’s first sense of self is formed at an early age, something that is difficult to change later. Ideally, a child experiences support, and is able to trust and feel a sense of security. In the United States there is a belief that childhood should be a time of innocence, protected from the harsh realities of the larger world, so matters of sexuality, politics, and work are not to be discussed – though this varies from family to family.

Beyond this basic importance of childhood, however, lies an ugly truth. In regard to education, health, and other outcomes, many children do not fare well during childhood. Moreover, how well they do fare often depends on their social location—their social class, their race-ethnicity and their gender. The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (FIFCFS) regularly publishes a report called America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being. This report provides an annual update of how children are faring on more than three dozen measures. The latest report from the FIFCFS, published in 2020, provided some disturbing facts about children’s well-being, and it also showed the difference that social location makes for their well-being (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2020).

To understand, consider the act of reading to small children. Different studies have identified the many benefits of reading to a young child, from stimulating the brain (Hutton, 2015), to increasing phonemic awareness (Trelease, 2019), to simply building knowledge (Anderson, 1985). In one important finding, while 81% of children aged 3-5 had a family member read to them each week, this figure varied by income level and family structure. Only 71% of children in families below the poverty level profited by being read to the 3-5 times per week, compared to 87% of children whose families’ incomes were at least twice as high as the poverty level. In addition, families with two parents present were 11% more likely to read regularly to their children than those families headed by one parent. (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2020).

In other important findings, 16.2% of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2018, a figure that rose to more than 30% of African American and approximately 24% of Latinx children. Additionally, in 2018, 15.2% of children were in families that sometimes were “food insecure,” meaning they had trouble providing food for at least one family member. In addition, 39% of households with children in 2017 were characterized by crowded or physically inadequate conditions.

image of parent reading to a child

About 55% of children aged 3–5 who are not in kindergarten have a family member read to them every day. Social class affects the likelihood of reading to children. Lina KivakaPexels

What happens during childhood can have lifelong consequences. Traumatic experiences during childhood—being neglected or abused, witnessing violence, being seriously injured, and so forth—put youngsters at much greater risk for many negative outcomes. They are more likely to commit serious delinquency during adolescence, and, throughout the life course, they are more likely to experience various psychiatric problems, learning disorders and substance abuse. They are also less likely to graduate high school or attend college, to get married or avoid divorce if they do marry, and to gain and keep a job (Adams, 2010). The separate stages of the life course are really not that separate after all.


As a stage in the life course, adolescence is a recent addition caused by the development of industrialized societies. In previous societies, a person simply went from childhood to adulthood, often indicated with a rite of passage to mark the transition, usually occurring at puberty. The complexity of industrial societies lengthened childhood, as societies needed more time to teach their young all they needed to know before adulthood. Since the individuals would be past puberty, but not yet considered adults, they were categorized as adolescents.

Adolescence can be a very challenging time. Teenagers want their independence, but parents and teachers keep telling them what to do. Peer pressure during adolescence can be enormous, and tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use become a serious problem for many teens.

These are all social aspects of adolescence, but adolescence also is a time of great biological change—namely, puberty. Puberty obviously has noticeable physiological consequences and, for many adolescents, at least one very important behavioral consequence—sexual activity. But early puberty also seems to have two additional effects: among both boys and girls, it increases the likelihood of delinquency and also the likelihood of becoming a victim of violence (Schreck, Burek, Stewart, & Miller, 2007). These twin consequences are thought to happen for at least two reasons. First, early puberty leads to stress, and stress leads to (which can also result in violence against the teen committing the behavior). Second, teens experiencing early puberty (early maturers) are more likely to hang out with older teens, who tend to be more delinquent because they are older. Because of their influence, early maturers get into trouble more often and are again more likely to also become victims of violence.

Romantic relationships, including the desire to be in such a relationship, also matter greatly during adolescence. Wishful thinking, unrequited love, and broken hearts are common. Dating multiple partners is thought to contribute to delinquency and substance abuse, in part because dating occurs at parties and in other unsupervised settings where delinquency and drug use can occur, and in part because the emotional problems sometimes accompanying dating may result in delinquency, drug use, or both (Seffrin, Giordano, Manning, & Longmore, 2009).

As the discussion on childhood suggested, social class, race and ethnicity, and gender continue to affect the experiences of individuals during adolescence. Adolescence can certainly be an interesting stage of the life course, but how we fare during adolescence is often heavily influenced by these three fundamental aspects of our social location.


What Do You Think?

In 2008, there was great financial upheaval in the United States. Rampant housing foreclosures and bank failures set off a chain of events sparking government distrust, loan defaults, and large-scale unemployment. How has this affected young adults in the U.S.?

Millennials is a term that describes the generation born during the early 1980’s to mid-1990’s. While the Great Recession was in full swing, many were in the process of entering, attending or graduating from high school and college. With employment prospects at historical lows, large numbers of graduates were unable to find work, sometimes moving back in with their parents and struggling to pay back student loans.

According to the New York Times, this economic stall has caused the Millennials to postpone what most Americans consider to be adulthood: “The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life” (Henig 2010). The term Boomerang Generation describes recent college graduates, for whom lack of adequate employment upon college graduation often leads to a return to the parental home (Davidson, 2014).

The five milestones that define adulthood, Henig writes, are “completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child” (Henig 2010). These social milestones are taking longer for Millennials to attain if they’re attained at all. Sociologists wonder what long-term impact this generation’s situation may have on society as a whole. (Griffiths, et. al., 2015).

Some sociologists have noticed that in our post-industrial society, there is now a ‘pause’ between adolescence and adulthood, particularly for people in the middle class. Applying roughly to those from the ages of 18 – 22 and fitting into neither category, they suggest a new stage in the life course, facetiously called ‘adultolescence.’

What do you think? Has our society stretched out childhood to the point where we need a new category in the life course?



Adulthood is usually defined as the 18–64 age span. Obviously, 18-year-olds are very different from 64-year-olds, which is why scholars often distinguish young adults from middle-aged adults. In a way, many young adults, including most readers of this book, delay entrance into “full” adulthood by going to college after high school and, for some, then continuing to be a student in graduate or professional school. By the time the latter obtain their advanced degree, many are well into their 30s, and they finally enter the labor force full time perhaps a dozen years after people who graduate high school but do not go on to college. These latter individuals may well marry, have children, or both by the time they are 18 or 19, while those who go to college and especially those who get an advanced degree may wait until their late-20s to mid-30s to take these significant steps.

One thing is clear from studies of young adulthood: people begin to settle down as they leave their teenage years, and their behavior generally improves. At least two reasons account for this improvement. First, as scientists are increasingly recognizing, the teenage brain is not yet fully mature physiologically. For example, the frontal lobe, the region of the brain that governs reasoning and the ability to consider the consequences of one’s actions, is not yet fully formed, leaving teenagers more impulsive. As the brain matures when we are in our 20’s, impulsiveness declines and behaviors improve (Ruder, 2008).

Second, as sociologists recognize, young adulthood is a time when people’s stakes in society and conformity become stronger. Many get married, some have children, and most obtain their first full-time job. These turning points instill a sense of responsibility and also increase the costs of misbehavior. If you are married, your spouse might not be very happy to have you go barhopping every weekend night or even more often; if you are employed full time, your employer might not be very happy to have you show up hungover. Marriage and employment as turning points thus help account for the general improvement in behavior that occurs after people reach adulthood (Laub, Sampson, & Sweeten, 2006).

image couple at their wedding

Marriage and parenthood are “turning points” in many young adults’ lives that help them to become more settled and to conform to a higher degree. Amol Nandiwadeskar – Pexels.

Social class, race and ethnicity, and gender continue to affect how people fare during adulthood. Subsequent chapters discuss this important but discouraging fact of our social world.

Old Age

Curiously, the urge to conform to expectations of adulthood causing people to settle down, form relationships and start families, does not result in life satisfaction. That is, happiness levels are at their lowest points when people are in adulthood. They do not rebound until after the pressures of work and family life abate, that is, until old age. As Figure 4.4 “People Saying they are Very Happy, by Age,” demonstrates, perception of happiness is lowest when people are in early adulthood, and rises beginning in the mid-30’s, reaching a peak after the age of 65.

Figure 4.4 People Saying they are Very Happy, by Age

Bar chart showing People Saying they are Very Happy, by Age, with 25% of 18-34 year olds agreeing, 34% of 35-49 year olds, 32% of 50-64 years olds and 36% of 65+ year olds agreeing.

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2018

This “old age” stage of the life course unofficially begins at age 65. Once again, scholars make finer distinctions—such as “young-old” and “old-old”—because of the many differences between people who are in their 60’s and 70’s compared to those who are in their 80’s, or even older. This stage includes significant adjustments, such as, retirement, loss of significant others, health concerns, a loss of status, possible decline in income. Responsibilities decline, but industrial societies have not provided many acceptable new roles for its elderly members. While most older people find this a very happy stage, much depends on their own ability to reflect on and accept the life they’ve lived.

image of man at a beach looking happy

More than ⅓ of people aged 65 and older state that they are very happy. Happiness also correlates with other factors such as economic well-being, health status, issues related to social inequality, and the like. Srudyanderson – CC0 – Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, for some people, old age is filled with anxiety and problems, with social location (social class, race and ethnicity, and gender) once again often making a considerable difference. These problems are compounded by the negative views and even prejudice that many Americans have toward old age and toward people who are old.

Test Yourself


Section 4.3 References

Adams, E. J. (2010). Healing invisible wounds: Why investing in trauma-informed care for children makes sense. Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute. 

Anderson, R. C. (1985). Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Washington, D.C: National Academy of Education.

Davidson, A. (2014, June 20). It’s Official, the Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/magazine/its-official-the-boomerang-kids-wont-leave.html.

Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. (2020, September). America’s children in brief: Key national indicators of well-being, 2020. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.  Retrieved from https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/94307.

Henig, R. M. (2010, August 18). What Is It About Twenty-Somethings? New York Times.  Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/magazine/its-official-the-boomerang-kids-wont-leave.html.

Hutton, J. S., T. Horowitz-Kraus, A. L. Mendelsohn, T. DeWitt and S. K. Holland; C-MIND Authorship Consortium. (2015). Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories. Pediatrics, 136(3), 466-78. 

Laub, J. H., R. J. Sampson and G. A. Sweeten.  (2006). Assessing Sampson and Laub’s life-course theory of crime. In F. T. Cullen (Ed.), Taking stock: The status of criminological theory, 15, 313–333. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. 

Maybury-Lewis, D. (1998). Tribal wisdom. In K. Finsterbusch (Ed.), Sociology 98/99 (pp. 8–12). Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill.

Ruder, D. B. (2008). The teen brain: A work in progress. Harvard Magazine, 111(1), 8–10. 

Schreck, C. J., M. W. Burek, E. A. Stewart and J. M.  Miller.  (2007). Distress and violent victimization among young adolescents. Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency, 44(4), 381–405. 

Seffrin, P. M., P. C. Giordano, W. D. Manning and M.A. Longmore.  (2009). The influence of dating relationships on friendship networks, identity development, and delinquency. Justice Quarterly, 26(2), 238–267.

Trelease, J. (2019). Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook. 8th edition. New York: Penguin.

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Barr, Scott, Sarah Hoiland, Shailaja Menon, Cathay Matresse, Florencia Silverira and Rebecca Vonderhaar.  (n.d.) Introduction to Sociology. Introduction to Sociology | Simple Book Production. Lumen Learning.  License: CC BY 4.0. License Terms:  Access for free at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-introductiontosociology/.

Conerly, Tonja, Kathleen Holmes, Asha Lal Tamang, Jennifer Hensley, Jennifer L. Trost, Pamela Alcasey, Kate McGonigal, Heather Griffiths, Nathan Keirns, Eric Strayer, Tommy Sadler, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones. (2021).  Introduction to Sociology 3E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/1-introduction.

Griffiths, Heather, Nathan Keirns, Eric Stayer, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Tommy Sadler, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones.  (2015).  Introduction to Sociology 2E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-2e/pages/1-introduction-to-sociology.

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