The Life-Course Perspective in Social Policy

The Life-Course Perspective in Social Policy

Why and how it could be useful

Author(s): Pascal Maeder

The life-course perspective can:
  • set the guiding principles for social and public policies aimed at individuals and social groups who are vulnerable to long-term and cumulative effects of critical life events and situations
  • sustain the claim for support structures to help people’s ability to navigate responsibly through difficult life situations using coping mechanisms drawn from developmental psychology
  • offer access to most advanced methods in social science to assess over time social developments and welfare schemes and so measure the need for intervention and improvement

While conventional social policies amount to an assorted mix of interventions “from the cradle to the grave”, the life-course perspective suggests an action framework for policy-making that recognizes the connections across all stages and domains in life. It views human development in a holistic way, physically and psychologically linking individuals to the social, cultural and historical context. Specifically, it looks into critical life events and situations and their impact over time and cumulatively on individuals, families and social groups. The life-course perspective thus blazes the trail for new and innovative research in social science and psychology on issues such as social inequality, poverty, unemployment, discrimination, burn-out, physical and mental health, school-to-work transitions, ageing, parenthood, divorce or the loss of family members. In so doing, it generates research-based knowledge and evidence aimed at informing public debate and decision makers, public administrators, teachers and educators and professionals in community associations and NGOs working in the field of social policy and related areas. Moreover, while setting the stage for social innovation, the life-course perspective also offers access to advanced research tools and methods to assess and evaluate long-term social developments and public initiatives, using large longitudinal data based on repeated surveys, thus providing a particularly strong measure to identify potential for improvement and, ultimately, reduced welfare needs and cost.

Social Innovation through Life Course Research

At the most basic level most significant life events and situations have an impact on people and social groups over time. Take the example of schooling: it provides skills and competencies without which later in life individuals may encounter difficulties on the labour market or in interpersonal relations. Or take the example of a parent’s loss of a child: while most immediately this may lead to depression and be detrimental to one’s employment, in the long run the loss of a child may deprive the parent when frail and elderly of a vital source of emotional and material support.

Policies informed by the life-course perspective draw on insights gained in psychology and the social sciences for the study of such long-term impacts and the paths that lead to their occurrence. In contrast to looking at what happened, life course research focuses on the dynamic interplay of changes and continuities across multiple life domains, examining data across time and searching for links, frequencies, clusters and patterns. It relies on repeated surveys and uses advanced statistical models to analyze individual pathways in terms of education, work, residence, personal relationships, family status, health, welfare needs, age, income or a combination thereof.

By taking the long view, a life course analysis may identify different types of dynamics, including cohort effects, typical sequences of events associated with personal hardships, a collection of factors that over time has the potential to cause harm, gate keepers and facilitators that impede or allow individuals and social groups to move in and out of employment or education, or a set of behaviours and traits which deviates from the most common pathways. Given its scope and the wealth of insights that can be gained, life course research may therefore serve as a powerful tool to assess, develop and innovate policy, identify gaps, pre-empt welfare needs, optimize existing schemes and generate new policies.

See, for example, NCCR LIVES assessments and surveys on:

Vulnerability and Social Security

Welfare systems generally cover risks only once they have materialized. Considered from the life-course perspective, such risk-based welfare regimes primarily lend support to manifest vulnerabilities, whereas latent forms fall through, generally to the detriment of the individual (who suffers) and society (which has to make funds available for welfare schemes). It is as if orange on the traffic lights signals no warning and only red signals entitlement to assistance. By focusing on both manifest and latent vulnerabilities and advocating for psychological and social resources through facilities or cash payments, the life-course perspective steers welfare systems towards reference points which favour prevention and the use of social and psychological resources in order to trigger compensation or coping mechanisms as put forth in developmental psychology and its emphasis on the dynamics of loss and gain across interdependent life spheres and life dimensions.

Life course research draws attention to the dynamic nature of risks. Across time risks change, gain in importance and intensity or worsen in combination with other risks, thus corresponding to a time period during which individuals and social groups are vulnerable but not necessarily eligible for welfare support. Certain vulnerabilities (e.g. illiteracy) may be invisible for years until a critical event or situation (e.g. job loss as a result of a recession or structural change) leads to a long-lasting dependency (e.g. long-term unemployment) with damaging effects on the individual and society. Among young adults, other vulnerabilities may constitute an important obstacle to enter the labour market (e.g. social marginalization). In all of these cases it is vital to recognize these vulnerabilities so as to avoid such pathways to happen. From the life-course perspective, this suggests the use of preventative measures (e.g. life-long learning) as well as psychosocial resources (e.g. team sport) so as to reinforce elements in one life domain (e.g. group ties) in order to strengthen, for instance, the determination to succeed in another life domain (e.g. successful job search).

 See, for example, NCCR LIVES studies on:

Longer Transitions and Longer Lives

Life expectancy and the timing and duration of transitions such as school-to-work, adult-to-parenthood or retirement-to-death have significantly changed over the past decades. Compulsory schooling no longer paves the way to the factory floor and instead leads to a wide array of “intermediary solutions”, internships or schools. Motherhood has also changed and is now increasingly associated with full or part-time work, while men, though only a small minority, now start to reduce their working hours with fatherhood. Perhaps the most striking example of social change is evidenced through the dramatic increase in average life expectancy. Since the introduction of public retirement schemes in Switzerland and elsewhere, the experience and the meaning of old age have completely changed.

Such profound social and demographic changes call for a renewal of social-policy making. Viewed from the life-course perspective, social and public policies must increasingly take into account long-term consequences for increasingly longer lives and life transitions. Research shows, for example, that leisure activities during working life may be associated with mental health in old age. Might therefore sabbaticals in mid-careers not be a social policy tool to promote longer and healthier lives? Moreover, looking at the increasing number of divorced parents who hover just above or below minimum subsistence level with rather grim retirement prospects due to underfunded pension plans, could their quality of life not be substantially improved through social policies that promote female careers with the added benefit that welfare needs and costs be cut?

These are the types of questions for which the life-course perspective can offer research-based knowledge. It takes into account social and demographic changes and may inform innovative policy making by providing key evidence for the development of new or modified welfare initiatives such as, for example, life-course sensitive savings plans, the greater appreciation of volunteering or novel forms of work organization and support for parenthood.

See, for example, NCCR LIVES research on:

Suggested Further Readings:

Sapin, M., Spini, D., Widmer, E.. (2014). Les parcours de vie. De l'adolescence au grand âge. Le savoir suisse (2nd éd.). Lausanne: Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes.

Sapin, M., Spini, D., Widmer, E.. (2010). I percorsi di vita. Dall'adolescenza alla vecchiaia. Bologna - Italia: Il Mulino

Settersten, R.A., Jr. (ed.). (2003). Invitation to the Life Course: Toward New Understandings of Later Life. Amityville: Baywood

Naegele, G. (ed.). (2010). Soziale Lebenslaufpolitik. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften

LIVES Impact (ISSN: 2297-6124) publishes regularly briefs with policy-relevant research findings from studies  conducted at the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES “Overcoming Vulnerability: Life-course perspectives” (NCCR LIVES). It is aimed at professionals, public officials and representatives active in social policy and related fields.

Series Editor: Pascal Maeder, KTT Officer, pascal.maeder@hes-so.ch

Archives: www.lives-nccr.ch/impact