Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Jane Pilcher, John Williams and Christopher Pole (2003) 'Rethinking Adulthood: Families, Transitions, and Social Change'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 4, <>

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Received: 17/11/2003      Accepted: 17/11/2003      Published: 28/11/2003

Introduction: in search of a Sociology of Adulthood

It seems odd that while sociology is largely concerned with the practices and experiences of adults, there is yet no convincing 'sociology of adulthood' equivalent to the established areas of sociologies of childhood, of youth and of old age. Moreover, each of these major stages of the life course is defined, in cultural practices and in sociological theories, largely in relation to adulthood. Thus, childhood is often oppositionally paired with adulthood (Alanen, 1988), youth is the transition to adulthood (Jones & Wallace 1992) and old age is frequently seen as a decline from adulthood into dependency (Hockey & James, 1993). Surprisingly, despite the centrality of adulthood to the life course (Hockey & James 1993), it has received relatively little sociological attention as a life course stage (Pilcher, 1995).

Some research has examined the historical emergence of adulthood, via for example the exclusion of children and old people from employment (Hareven, 1978), the gradual extension of suffrage (Jordan, 1978), and the influence of middle class familial ideology centred around a male breadwinner and dependent wife and children (Hockey & James, 1993). Other studies attend to the range of markers, criteria and signifiers that combine to form adulthood, including legal and administrative markers, 'practical accomplishments' and 'a repertoire of appropriate behaviour' (Hutson & Jenkins, 1989: 95; see, also, Ferri, 1993; Hockey & James, 1993; Jones & Wallace, 1992). Some attention has also been paid to the 'new middle age' or the 'Third Age' as a stage within adulthood in the context of late modern societies (Blaikie, 1999; Featherstone & Hepworth, 1989; Hepworth, 1987; Laslett, 1989).

The new middle age is characterised by a concern with 'youthfulness', active consumerism, and the capacity for personal change in the face of the physiological, psychological and social transitions of later life. In large part, it is a reconstruction of adulthood in order to disassociate those in the 'mid-adulthood' stage from the lesser adult status represented by old age. Indeed, it is the adult stage of old age that has been subjected to the most extensive sociological attention of all in terms of a 'sociology of adulthood' (for example, Arber & Ginn, 1995; Blakemore & Boneham, 1994; Hockey & James, 1993; Phillipson, 1998; Vincent, 2003).

This special issue constitutes an early, small, step in addressing this relative absence by covering a wide range of themes and approaches to research on contemporary experiences of adulthood, linked through an overarching focus on issues of 'transition' and 'social change.' It reflects some of the central concerns of 'Reshaping the Social', the 2002 British Sociological Association Annual Conference at which earlier versions of the papers published here were first presented. Our aim in gathering together these papers, which are properly drawn from both established scholars and sociologists embarking on their academic careers, is to suggest that a more reflexive, critical approach to adulthood as a stage in the life course can enhance our understanding of the social dynamics of people's experiences in late modern societies. The papers collectively point to the range of processes through which, at a structural level, the experiences and possibilities of adulthood continue to be shaped by power, status and material resources and, at the level of agency, how practices, identities and relationships constitute adulthood.

Contemporary societies have been variously conceptualised as 'high' 'post' or 'late' modern, with a general consensus that everyday life in the present world is being transformed under the multiple processes of de-traditionalisation, individualisation and globalisation (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1991; Smart, 1990). The long established bases of modern identity and of the daily round of 'getting by' are argued to be no longer appropriate or effective in the late modern period, leaving individuals to 'choose' the construction of their now increasingly 'flexible biographies' (Giddens, 1991). The social changes that combine to make late modern societies apparently so distinctive can be interpreted as either positive or negative developments but, as argued in this volume - for example by Heaphy and Yip - and demonstrated clearly within many of the other papers, new personal, social and political challenges are becoming commonplace for contemporary adults of all ages, and few subjects are especially well-placed to negotiate such challenges.

* The Papers in this Volume

The first two papers in our volume, by Innes & Scott, and by Dermott, differentially address experiences of parenthood as one of the continuing important constitutive practices of adulthood. These two sets of authors share a concern with the ways in which labour market transitions and changing expectations of parenting - mediated, of course, by class and gender and other structuring considerations - are influencing and shaping the late modern experience of adults-as-parents.

Sue Innes & Gill Scott draw on their study of working class women with dependent children to explore a life course transition, from full-time caring to education and eventual labour market participation in a low-income area of Glasgow. The authors argue that the welfare-to-work agenda of New Labour social policy is premised on a shift from the long-established gendered and modernist models of adulthood, in which paid work was central for adult masculinity and motherhood for adult femininity. Recent social policies directed at lone mothers reflect a 'remoralisation of adulthood', one based on labour market participation for both women and men. This remoralisation of adulthood raises urgent questions for social theory and for policy as to how familial care is to be understood, supported and managed if women are either engaged in the labour market, or preparing to enter it through a return to education, and so are no longer in a position to give most of their time and energy to the unpaid work of care.

Innes & Scott demonstrate convincingly that the issues involved in managing paid work and unpaid care are particularly sharply focused for young mothers from low-income households, because they have few material resources with which to compensate for any resulting tensions or disjunctions. Without educational qualifications, and with only limited work experience in some cases, they are in a poor position to compete for wages that will significantly alter that testing and constraining set of circumstances.

Whilst Innes & Scott are concerned with ways in which adult femininity and particularly motherhood are being reshaped in a specific economic and social milieu through women's changing relationships with education, training and employment, Esther Dermott's paper focuses on the issue of changes in ideas about adult masculinity, encapsulated in the notion of 'new fathering'. Dermott reviews arguments that fathering has undergone dramatic changes in recent decades and concludes that it is not always obvious what the apparently 'new' and 'involved' fathering entails.

Dermott's paper draws on interview material with a group of 25 fathers employed in managerial/professional occupations and living in the same household as their young children. It is argued that, for the fathers in this study, the concept of 'intimacy' seems to encapsulate ideas about good fathering. This idea of 'intimate fathering' has implications for the wider analysis and understanding of practices of adult masculinity, as it appears to be largely disassociated from a direct time commitment and the carrying out of practical tasks with children. Dermott's findings suggest that this particular lived version of parental involvement allows men to avoid conflicts between paid employment and family life, and so 'family friendly' legislation that promotes fathering involvement may have only limited effect.

The third paper in this volume, by Judith Burnett, this time examines young adulthood outside of the specific parameters of parenting. Burnett's concerns are both theoretical and methodological, because she returns to some important early ideas on the sociology of generation and attempts to recast and apply this work to an examination of young adults in late modernity. Here she interrogates both the usefulness of the concept of generation in her own research, but also the appropriateness of the use of a number of established research techniques for eliciting insights and data from her respondents. She ends, intriguingly, by also suggesting that today's sociologists might usefully rethink aspects of the research process for dealing with media-savvy younger adult respondents, who are already very well versed in the late-modern discourses and experiences of 'celebrity culture.'

Our next paper, by Gaynor Bagnall, Brian Longhurst & Mike Savage, returns to the theme of parenting as an important constitutive practice of adulthood, but this time in terms of the role parenting plays in the development of adult social networks of community participation and involvement. The paper utilises data derived from in-depth interviews carried out in differing middle class locales in the Manchester area between 1997 and 1999 to provide an account of contemporary adult social identities and social involvement. The authors identify, especially, how parental involvement (particularly by mothers) in voluntary organizations connected to their children, such as Parent Teachers Associations (PTA) can be used in narratives of personal identity, as a vehicle through which late modern adults perform ordinariness, belonging and social involvement in the north of England. The authors use data from two different areas in their study, Wilmslow and Cheadle, in order to draw out some important distinctions and similarities between the areas in terms of social involvement. Narratives of participation are shown to be related to the respondents' degree of embeddedness in the locale and to the habitus of each area, but it is argued that this also has to be understood in the light of the gendering of family practices.

The theme of social networks, connections and civic participation in adult life is continued in a very different paper which follows, by Yoajun Li, Mike Savage & Andrew Pickles, in which the authors make an important contribution to the debate over social capital and its social and personal outcomes, in terms of levels of trust in society. In a detailed comparison of two sets of survey data, the authors explore changes over time in friendship patterns and participation by adults in civic organisations, such as parent-teacher associations, religious grouping, trades unions, sports clubs and political parties. Li, Savage and Pickles show that if class formation is taken to encompass issues such as the class selectivity of friendship and the extent that involvement in civic associations is class specific, a clear process of class polarization can be discerned in the distribution of social capital in England and Wales. Working class respondents are found to be disproportionately less likely to be in civic organisations in the 1990s, for example, than they were in the 1970s, whilst the service class has played an increasingly important role in staffing civic organisations and is more prominent in formerly working class organisations. The authors point, in conclusion, to the worrying implications of their findings, arguing that it is not enough to assess the changing 'stock' of social capital over time, but also to examine 'whose' social capital is changing.

The theme of social networks and community participation in adulthood is also addressed in the next two papers, which are focussed on middle and late adulthood. As noted by Brian Heaphy & Andrew Yip, serious, in-depth discussion of older lesbian and gay lives is strikingly absent from the sociological literature, whether on adult sexuality or on later life and old age. Heaphy and Yip's paper draws on ESRC funded research on non-heterosexual women and men in the UK aged 50 and over, in order to sketch out some key elements of the conceptual framework they are developing for understanding the issue of non-heterosexual ageing. They suggest that to fully understand the issue, attention needs to be paid both to the specific implications that non-heterosexuality has for patterns of living, and to broader developments in social and cultural life that have consequences for contemporary adult living and ageing more generally.

The authors outline, briefly, the implications that processes of de-traditionalisation and individualisation are said to have for some core aspects of social life, and the common argument that non-heterosexual ways of living can be viewed as 'prime' experiments which have wider relevance for understanding late modern ways of living. They discuss the notion of 'do-it-yourself' biographies that are said to be emerging in the contemporary era, and to be characteristic of non-heterosexual identities. Data are presented to indicate the 'uneven possibilities' that exist for the development of these kinds of biographies. While their data indicate the possibilities that are open for negotiated and chosen gay and lesbian relationships in late modern societies, Heaphy and Yip also alert us to the factors that clearly limit negotiation and choice for such adults in their relational lives.

In her paper, Sharon Wray also focuses on experiences of late adulthood that are often excluded from the mainstream literature on old age. Wray draws here on detailed interview data to examine the meanings that older women in Britain, from a range of ethnic backgrounds, give to agency, independence and empowerment in later life. Differences were found between ethnic minority women: in the timing of their 'old age'; in what constitutes control and agency; and in relationships with their bodies, as they grew older. Wray suggests that, influenced by western understandings of 'full' adulthood, models of 'successful ageing' often prioritise the retention of autonomy and independence in late adulthood. In contrast, her findings show that older ethnic minority women's experiences of autonomy and independence often overlapped with interdependency and involvement, and that a range of strategies were used by them to maintain a sense of control over their bodies and their lives. In the light of these findings, Wray questions current gerontological and sociological theories and concepts of ageing, in terms of the adequacy of their representation of ethnic and cultural differences in what it means to grow older in the increasingly complex and differentiated societies of late modernity.

Our last two papers also look at older adults in de-traditionalised and individualised late modern societies, but from very different perspectives. The first, by Thomas Scharf, Chris Phillipson & Allison Smith, is determined to connect issues of ageing and social exclusion and, in this context, it examines the perceptions of the local environment held by older people living in areas characterised by intense social deprivation. Findings are reported from a survey of older people conducted in nine socially deprived neighbourhoods drawn from three English cities. The paper addresses older people's views in relation to positive and negative aspects of their local environment and the degree to which people regard their neighbourhood as a 'good place' in which to grow old. The findings show the strength of older people's attachment to their locality, evident as much in the negative views expressed, as in the positive, since the former reflect the emotional and material investment people have made in their locality over time, and their feelings of frustration that changes within it were beyond their control. Scharf and his colleagues argue for the importance of examining older people's experiences and perceptions of their localities, since the views they hold are likely to influence their ability to maintain their sense of identity, and contribute to the quality of their lives.

In the final paper of this volume, by Chris Phillipson, we shift from a concern with neighbourhood and locality to the structuring of experiences in late adulthood through processes of globalisation. This paper explores how globalisation creates new agendas for social theory and social policy in this specific terrain of older adult life. Phillipson argues that local or national interpretations of ageing made sense in a world where states were in control of their own destiny, where social policies were being designed with the aim or aspiration of levelling inequalities, and where citizenship was still largely a national affair (and where there was some degree of confidence over what constituted 'national borders'). The crisis affecting each of these areas, largely set in motion by different aspects of processes of globalisation, is now posing acute challenges for the understanding of ageing, and creates new challenges, uncertainties and risks for those who are experiencing late adulthood identities in the twenty-first century.

A key conclusion reached by Phillipson is that, alongside a recognition of new life styles and consumerism, in globalised, late modern societies, it remains vital to retain a strong focus on the 'traditional' concerns of social exclusion and social inequality. Phillipson's conclusions, in fact, can be usefully applied to the volume as a whole, since taken together, these papers show that, despite significant changes in lived experience for adults in late modern societies, experiences within adulthood remain strongly influenced by the long-standing social differentiations of class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality. As argued by Heaphy and Yip, the possibilities for transforming lives are there in late modern societies, but underlying social and cultural constraints mean that they are, indeed - and are very likely to remain - profoundly 'uneven'.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003