Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Being Off-Time in the Life-Course

When we think of going through life, we often think in terms of how old we are. Children celebrate birthdays, middle-aged people wear t-shirts proclaiming that they are over the hill, and drug stores have rows and rows of birthday cards.

Another way to keep track of life is in terms of age-graded life stages. A life stage is a set of roles and activities that we participate in. They can be based on any number of things such education, marital status, employment, hobbies, even the condition of our bodies. Some stages are age-graded, meaning that society norms exist regarding when we should experience these stages. For example, with education, we’re supposed to attend elementary school as children, then middle school, then high school, and then, maybe, college in our late teens and early twenties. With work, we can work part time while in school, maybe bounce between jobs after we graduate, but by our late twenties or so we should probably have settled down in our careers.

Given that there are social norms regarding when we go through these life stages, it’s interesting to examine what happens when people violate these norms and either don’t go through a life stage or do so at the wrong time. This is called being “off-time,” and it can have a wide range of consequences.

Let me tell you about a friend from college. Back in school, he was completely on-time, and he was enacting age-appropriate roles. He was single, a college student, and he really enjoyed partying—all things that are fitting for someone in their late teens or early twenties. Then, after he graduated, he got a good job, started making some good money, and he bought a fancy sports car. So far so good. After that, however, the trouble started, at least from a life-course perspective. You see, he sort of never left that fun-single-guy stage, but now he’s in his late-forties.

What was appropriate then seems awkward now. He still wants to date attractive young women, but they don’t really want to date him. His desire to “party” used to be fun but now it’s a cause for concern. He would like to start a family, but the women his age are now more likely to pull out pictures of their grandchildren. To make matters worse, he got tired of his old job, and he is trying to get into a new career, which means he has to start at an entry-level job.

My friend’s situation illustrates some of the problems with being off-time. It can lead to a loss of social opportunity. For example, he is less likely to find an eligible marriage partner now that he’s older. He’ll also probably have a harder time on the job market as he competes with younger people. His life situation also puts him out of synch with his friends. When he wants to go out and have fun, they’re going home to their families. It’s also a source of embarrassment, for he feels awkward in social situations where he’s the only older single person.

Another example of the detrimental effects of being off-time comes from criminology research. Studies have found that girls who hit menarche (i.e., go through puberty) early are more likely to be involved in criminal activity than girls who are more on-time. Why? When a young girl starts to develop into a woman, she starts to attract older boys, and teenage boys are more involved in criminal activity than just about any other segment of society.

This is not to say that being off-time is always bad. Having enough money to retire in your forties would make you off-time, but many people would still want that option. Also, we can be off-time in one area but on-time in others. An example would be someone in their thirties who is married with kids (on-time) and goes back to school for their college degree (off-time).

Still, being off-time can cause a variety of problems and raise some eyebrows, and not because we’re doing something wrong, per se, but rather we’re doing it at the wrong time of life.


Knumb said...

Learning to hang glide in your forties is, sadly, off-time. I look at my unemployed (or barely employed) recent aero engineering graduate friend who flew to the Miller Brewery in San Dimas yesterday. I am not just amazed at his flight, I am jealous of his not having to work on a Monday.

Erin said...

Some of the timelines are contextual, too. I delayed having kids into my early thirties. This situation was perfectly normal in the last place I lived, but I've since moved to a different part of the country, where I seem to be 8-10 years behind. I definitely experience the awkwardness of being off-time, made more obvious by the near-unanimous wave of relief from women friends now that I finally am expecting.

Brad Wright said...

Good point, Erin, about how expectations change across place (as well as time). We had our kids late, but here in college-town New England, it's very common.