Where is a sociology of adulthood?

I was not the first to bemoan the lack of a sociology of adulthood (Pilcher 1995), and others have since marvelled at its continued absence (for example, Blatterer 2007). Yet, here we are in 2012 and it remains a social category, a stage in the life course, that is largely taken for granted within sociology. A great deal of sociology is about the experiences and practices of adults – but it tends to take that ‘adultness’ as something that need not be directly addressed.

Even publications in the field of the sociology of the life course tend to sidestep the adulthood stage. Hunt’s (2005) book The Life Course: A Sociological Introduction offers a very useful discussion of  life course stages (including dying and death), but it shies away from an explicit focus on adulthood. There are chapters on childhood, youth, later life – but not on adulthood. Hunt does discuss adulthood, but in a way that only supports the points I am making here that sociologists do not always ‘see’ adulthood as being as worthy of our attention in the same way as the other life course stages are. What Hunt does is subsume his discussion of adulthood under cover of two chapters, with the titles ‘Relationships, Sexuality and Family Life’ and ‘Work, Consumption and Leisure’. His rationale for doing so is that ‘the theme of adulthood’ (his words) is best approached via a survey of the ‘settings in which adult life is experienced’ (2005: 126). But these are ‘settings’ which are not exclusive to ‘adults’, and so once again, the result is that the social category of adult is left virtually uncontested.

Attention has been paid by sociologists to transitions to adulthood in contemporary Western societies, especially in the context of the so-called ‘prolongation’ 0f youth and the ‘deferral’ of adulthood as a consequence of declining youth labour markets, the expansion of higher education and the rising age of family formation. I think this kind of work on transitions to adulthood can be very useful for our understanding of adulthood as a social category. Blatterer (2007) has been at the forefront of arguments that transitions to adulthood are changing under conditions of late modernity. He insists that, rather than morally judging young people as somehow failing to become adults, what we need to recognise is that the standard, normative model of adulthood by which they are measured is out of date. A ‘new’ form of adulthood, suited to the circumstances of late modern societies, is being practised and achieved by young people: they are full participants in society, just not in ways that are recognised by the idealised model of adulthood enjoyed by those who made their transitions during the post-WW2 Golden Age.

The ‘Inventing Adulthoods’ study by Rachel Thomson and colleagues (Henderson 2007) is an another example of how analysing transitions to adulthood can encourage deeper analytical focus on what it means to be an adult in social terms. The ‘Inventing Adulthoods’ study suggests that young people may not be achieving adulthood in terms of the (out of date) measure of attaining stable economic independence at a fixed point, but they are achieving adulthood in other ways – including ones which are often regarded as anti-social, delinquent or anti-status quo (‘early’ pregnancy, dropping out of education, travelling and working casually as a life style choice, engaging in the grey economy).

Despite this body of work on transitions to adulthood, we still don’t know enough about destinations within adulthood, and how this is changing over time. Even the National Cohort Development Study, which tracks a birth cohort from 1958 to the present, can only tell us about that cohort’s experiences of being adults (NCDS 2012). Sociologically speaking, adulthood continues to be as Graubard (1976) described it decades ago: an undifferentiated catch-all-category about which we are insufficiently informed.

Blatterer, H. (2007) ‘Contemporary Adulthood: Reconceptualising and Uncontested Category’, Current Sociology 55 (6) : 771-792.

Graubard, S. (1976) ‘Preface’ in Erikson, E. (ed.) Adulthood, New York: WW Norton.

Henderson, S. et al (2007) Inventing Adulthoods, London: Sage.

Hunt, S. (2005) The Life Course: A Sociological Introduction, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

NCDS (2012) ‘Guide to the National Child Development Study’ , http://www.esds.ac.uk/longitudinal/access/ncds/l33004.asp

Pilcher, J. (1995) Age and Generation in Modern Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.