The connection between chronological age and biological age has been broken. Healthy ageing means they move independent of each other. The period when “health interferes with living” has remained relatively stable. Compared with the massive gains in years of life, the Fourth Age has increased by months.
We are remaining competent cognitively. Often well beyond the benchmarks implied by the age stereotype. Chronological age is no longer a predictor of cognitive age. Even the age based benchmarks like retirement at 65 are no longer helping. If age is not a good way of thinking of life is there an alternative? Researchers in gerontology and the psychology of ageing have an answer. They suggest what they call the “Life Course” Model.
The Life Course Model
“The Life Course” approach sees life as a series of events. As a concept it was first developed in sociology. It assumes ageing is an individual development process. Its perspective is that there are sequential life stages. The transitions from one stage to the next form pathways. Each transition generates stressors. Our responses to those stressors develop us. Those stages can affect us our financial status like “getting a job” or “buying a house”. They can be transformational when we move from being an “individual” to being a “parent”. Others can change our perspective on life. To lose parents or close friends can have profound effects on our motivations. The impact depends on our trajectory.
The Life Course goes beyond the idea of lifestyles. We accept being pidgeon-holed based on our socio-economic profile. We may be a DINK or “Dual Income No Kids”. We may be a C1 or C2 “middle class” or “retired”. These are static definitions trying to capture our lifestyle today. They do not convey the journey we have been on to reach that point.
Within marketing a research stream focuses on the impact of the “transitions”. on consumer behaviour. As long ago as 1984 there was a study. It collected retrospective data on twenty three major life changes. These were things like going to or graduating from college, divorce or separation. It was able to show that the number of changes predicted brand change and satisfaction. It was the number of changes not their specific nature. It was a better predictor than all other socio- economic variables.
How do events that happen when we are children influence our role as consumers? We learn to be consumers when we are young. Up until the age of four we do not see the difference between a program and an advertisement. By the age of eight we can spot the ads and suspect their purpose. It is not until we become a teenager that we recognize their persuasive power and bias. All this comes partly from within ourselves as we develop mentally. It also comes from the events of our lives large and small.
The impact of different life events.
The events can influence our satisfaction with life. A recent study tried to forecast life satisfaction. They used chronological age. (Studies show that life satisfaction has a low point in mid-life). They also constructed for individuals the pattern of their life course. It was clear that the life course was the best predictor of life satisfaction. Not the current status of ones life but the history that got you to that point.
Today about seventy percent of life courses follow a recognizable stereotype. Life unfolds sequentially. Education comes before work. Stopping work comes later in life. The patterns are breaking down. Marriage is less and less a rule for having children. More and more people are divorcing. More and more older people are divorcing after retirement. Inheritance comes in time to pay off the last mortgage not to provide money for the first home.
Inventing new Life-Courses
The “Hundred Year Life” is a real prospect for many of todays children. The current stereotypical life model is hardly going to be enough. A single career in a work life of sixty years is hardly going to be viable. Can we find a partner for life if we are to live to one hundred? Individuals will need flexibility. They may need retraining or even re-educating. A pension may have to become a vehicle that pays for time for re-invention. There are people working on alternative life courses. There is no common template yet. Indeed that may be the very definition of how todays young children may live their lives.
Maintaining Life Satisfaction
The challenge will be to maintain the personal progression. Development is a key part of our subjective age. Are life’s events to be a challenge to be overcome? How do we view each one as a development opportunity? How do we avoid being swamped instead of growing? How do we stop the stress from taking over? It is bad for our health and indeed super agers seem to have had less stress. Those attitudes to ageing influences health and even mortality. If we still have “things to do” we will not give up on life. One solution is to maintain “control” or “perceived control”.