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MAKING THE BEST OF LIFE: Perspectives on Lives, Times, and Aging
The study of lives from childhood or early adulthood to the later years has become a vigorous enterprise across the social sciences and the humanities, paticularly since the 1960s, but the historical roots of his work extend back at least to the turn of the century (Elder, 1985; Sorensen et al., 1986). The most distinctive feature of the new work is this consciousness of the interply between lives and times. To understand pathways of aging, one must consider social change across the life span (Riley et al., 1988). People age in different ways in response to an ever-changing world.
This observation on the interdependence of lives and times may seem obvious, but most studies of life patterns today are still carried out with minimal attention to the changing world of the aging individual. This bias is even more characteristic of the well-known longitudinal data archives on elderly Americans. They were initially constructed over the 1930s and 1940s, with little attention to the dramatic historical changes that were altering human lives in the United States.
Twenty-five years ago I became acquainted with this ahistorical bias through exposure at the University of California, Berkeley and its Institute of Human Development to three longitudinal studies: the Berkely Growth Study, the Berkeley Guidance Study (birth years, 1928-29), and the Oakland Growth Study (birth years, 1920-21) (Eichorn et al., 1981). Though initially confined to development in the preadult years, all three samples from the middle and working class have been followed up to later life and the 1980s, a period of dramatic social change. These Americans grew up in the Great Depression, experienced the mobilization of World War II, and followed careers to later life in a postwar era of unparalleled affluence. Such change was not perceived as relevant to development or aging issues. Nevertheless, the investigators did collect some information on the larger social changes which later provided this author and others with opportunities for empirical study.
Contrary to expectations at the time, we found that a great many "children of the Great Depression" in the Oakland sample succeeded in rising above their childhood disadvantages and in achieving a fulfilling life to the seventh decade (Elder, 1974; Elder, 1979; Elder, 1987). They followed a timely trajectory in that they were too old to be wholly dependent on their deprived families in the thirties and they left high school as economic opportunities were improving. Younger cohorts were at greater risk of impaired development and opportunity.
Many unanswered questions concerning this change of fortune led us to initiate another study of Californians, both middle and working class, who were born just prior to the Great Depression in the city of Berkeley (Elder and Rockwell, 1979). These Guidance Study members were only three years old when the economy collapsed and unemployment rose to over 30 percent, an age that would maximize their exposure to the pressures, conflicts, and instabilities of family life in deprived circumstances. The effects of family deprivation were generally consistent with his vulnerability picture, especially for males.
The Berkeley cohort was more adversely influenced by Depression hardship than the Oakland cohort, but this legacy of impairment and limitation did not survive to the middle years. In thei late 50s, these "children of the Great Depression" have accomplished more than one would have imagined possible in the 1930s. This study poses once again the challenging question of how so many children of disadvantage became adults who have made something of their life.
The answer involves a central idea in human development and aging, that of using one's resources and options to accomplish challenging …