The phases of life and social roles
Families are typically thought of as the wellspring of civil society and an important source of social capital. The aim of this series is to bring the relationship between families and social capital under some scrutiny. The section will cite research that defines the concept of social capital and review the literature on social capital within and beyond family networks. Drawing this information together will discuss the gaps in knowledge of what it is about family life that generates social capital and, in turn, strengthens civil society. The discussions will draw from international literature to highlight the need to strengthen family-based networks and norms - and thus family-based social capital - through values-based education reforms.
Like the seasons, the four phases of life blend one into the other, guided by a rhythm that allows variation. Where a season's length is determined by the time from solstice to equinox, the length of each lifecycle phase is determined by the span of time between birth and the coming of age into young adulthood. In Australian society, the ritual acknowledgment today occurs at 21, the age of college graduation and initial career launch. Afterwards, a person is deemed to be an autonomous adult. The length of life's first phase fixes the length of the other life phases as well. Once one batch of children has fully come of age, it and it alone comprises the society's young adults, casting its next-elders into a midlife social role. This usually happens when the latter reach age 42, and, in turn, the group entering midlife pushes another into an elder role, now starting around age 65, today's median age for receiving one's superannuation or first old-age pension.
Since the number of people able to survive the elderhood phase of life has grown enormously over the last decades, it makes sense to define a new phase of life: late elderhood (age 85 on up). The social role of late elders is pure dependence, the age of receiving comfort from others. Apart from consuming resources, few of the very oldest of today's Australians are altering the quaternal dynamics of the lifecycle. If late elders ever swell in number, or if they ever collectively assert an active role, the impact on the saeculum (and on history) could be substantial.
Students are relatively self-centred. Typically, they demonstrate behaviours and actions within settings that are familiar to them, such as in the classroom, school grounds, or within their friendship group; and their teachers often guide their behaviours and actions.
- Young Adulthood (inventus, ages 21-41). Social role: vitality: serving institutions, testing values
Individuals are looking beyond themselves and their immediate surroundings. Typically, they demonstrate their behaviours and actions in an increasing range of contexts (including less-familiar settings and an increasing variety of groups) and an increasingly independent manner, although they sometimes seek the guidance of teachers in more complex situations.
- Midlife phase (virilitas, ages 42-65). Social role: power: managing institutions, applying values
Individuals have a more global perspective, are more empathetic and are developing a social conscience. Typically, they demonstrate their behaviours and actions in a variety of contexts, including in unfamiliar (and sometimes non-supportive) environments; they work independently; and actively seek opportunities to put their values into action.
- Elderhood (senectus, age 66-84). Social role: leadership (leading institutions, transferring values).
- Late Elderhood (age 85+). Social role: dependence (receiving comfort from institutions, remembering values).
The concept of social capital has been deployed by Australian policy activists since the mid-1990s to strengthen families and communities and increase social inclusion by building networks, shared norms, values and understandings. But the relationship between social capital and social exclusion is often overlooked. Much of the scholarship on social capital seems influenced by an uncritical, backward looking idealisation of the family and community with somewhat naive appeals to solidarity, empowerment and inclusion.
Emphasis on the social role of this age group is more on the baby-boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) that is, those, who become unemployed and have a greater chance than any other age cohort of going on to become long-term unemployed or under-employed. This scenario has far-reaching implications and consequences for the baby-boomer generation, most of whom commenced their working lives with expectations that full-time and lifetime employment would continue to be available for them. This is coupled with the traditional expectation that some form of state-funded aged pension will be received by the majority of people, which would be augmented for many by personal savings and assets to facilitate a comfortable lifestyle in their retirement.
Dramatic shifts in the labour market, changes to eligibility criteria for both income support and the pension, together with the shift towards the increasing reliance on self-funded retirement provision, have resulted in these expectations being severely undermined for a growing numbers of unemployed mature-age workers. The recent policy changes, particularly in terms of financial wellbeing for people, indicate that many individuals in mid-life are finding themselves facing the unforeseen and daunting spectre of being without income support.
How can this shift in social policy operate effectively?
The Fourth Turning presents some options by taking you on a journey through the confluence of social time and human life. It helps to understand the cultural changes and mood shifts in the 21st century and suggests some tools for thinking through possible scenarios.
For example, institutions must provide educational structures with opportunities. Teachers must have an appropriate learning environment in which students can demonstrate behaviours and actions consistent with the underlying principles of democratic process, social justice and ecological sustainability. Students must have the opportunity to demonstrate these behaviours and actions consistently over a period of time and in a variety of contexts. Learning programs must be inquiry based, student centred, based on free and open communication to foster students' development as active citizens. Discussions must encourage participatory decision-making and open-ended tasks to facilitate teachers' observations and monitoring of students' behaviours and actions.
Ref: The Fourth Turning, http://www.fourthturning.com.
How does education help?
Education is the complete process of developing and revealing those abilities that allow people to learn, to expand their potential to perform, to take action, to solve problems and to establish relationships based on the results of this process. It not only determines the economic success of a society, but above all, it is essential for entrance into the employment market, professional success and the achievement of individual potential.
In 1998 an English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA) was introduced for Year 7 students. Measuring the progress of each student gave parents an indication of their child's learning stage, allowed teachers and parents to identify areas in which the child may benefit from help, and provided a mechanism to ensure that the requirements set by the syllabus are being met at school level.
The ELLA results assisted NSW teachers in assessing students' strengths and weaknesses and in ensuring that students do not slip through the literacy net. According to Bob Carr, Premier of NSW, "In 2002, an international study found that NSW students were among the best in the world when it came to literacy levels. Our results were on a par with first place-getters in Finland, Canada and New Zealand. On an Australia wide basis, NSW was second to the ACT". Subsequently, other NSW schools have opted to introduce the ELLA program.
This year most primary schools undertook the voluntary option to have Years 3 to 5 students tested. In addition, Year 3 and 5 students from systemic schools in the NSW Catholic Dioceses, as well as many independent schools and home schoolers also elected to run the test. Thus, on 7 August 2003 over 174,000 Year 3 and 5 NSW school students sat for the largest school test in Australia - the NSW Government's Basic Skills Test (BST). It required basic skills, consisting of a literacy and numeracy component.
Skills can assist in developing a mind-set for critical thinking and problem solving through the phases in life.
When it comes to problems in social relationships, most seniors seem to experience difficulties in their relationships with their children rather than with the grandchildren. At one extreme, some seniors are concerned that their children have failed to produce any grandchildren! At another extreme is the situation of seniors who have a lot of grandchildren and feel that they receive too much attention from them.
In The eternal triangle: grandparents, children, and grandchildren Moghaddam (2000) discusses the results of a survey with a group of seniors. Relationships between grandparents and grandchildren were generally trouble-free and smooth compared with relations between parents and children. One grandfather told his children: Don't come to see me, just send the grandchildren!
The findings in Moghaddam's survey concluded that social relationships are one of the most important issues of concern in the category of the eternal triangle. So, how can social relationships help people arrive at the right balance?
The educational role of grandparents
During one's life, each person has different roles, both in the family and in the social spheres. Such roles are different according to the different experiences and activities in which a person is involved. Among the various events that lead a person to find new roles there is the birth of a grandchild, which deeply changes the relationships of the various components of the family structure, from the parents to the grandparents. New relationships among three generations are created, with strong emotive and affective implications, since the grandparents start a direct, instinctive and often very stable relationship with their grandchildren, sometimes in harmony, others in contrast with their parents. The fact of being grandparents requires a redefinition of roles, competences and functions, it also produces new energy and satisfaction, but it can also create conflicts and regression. This experience is lived differently, according to the individual characteristics of each person: some people acquire positively their role of grandparent, considering it a pleasant experience, a new incentive to live that enables them to maintain their generative function; on the other hand, being grandparents for other people means only becoming old, useless, and being replaced by their children, who have now become parents themselves, being excluded by the sphere of fertility and procreation, until they reach a phase when they refuse the role.
Now, the role of grandparents, which in the past was neglected, has become the subject of interesting studies and research. In the past, grandparents used to be identified with senior citizens, and their problems used to be studied in connection with old age. Then, scholars understood that there are two separate groups with different characteristics, which should be studied separately. Indeed, not all the elderly are grandparents, and not all grandparents are old. Now, being grandparents is a new role, which cannot be compared to the traditional one of the patriarch grandfather, who was a font of culture and wisdom. This was a perspective linked with the traditional world.
The deep changes that have affected society and the family have also influenced the relationship between parents and children and have also created a new image of the grandparents. Therefore, this new role requires a reinvention of a model that no longer suits the present situation. This can create difficulties in adapting to the new reality that grandchildren represent. Nevertheless, in our multimedia and multiracial society, the different culture, which constitutes the legacy of the grandfather, can also be a chance for grandchildren to widen their horizons and overcome cultural barriers.
In today's society, where certainties and big plans have disappeared and they have been replaced by confused and incoherent ideologies, grandparents can be essential for the development, enrichment and socialization of children. Grandparents can transmit their values without imposing them on their grandchildren, and while accepting their grandchildren as they are, respecting their different identities - an essential condition to promote dialogue.
Rather than trying to obtain their grandchildren's affection only by giving them presents and material satisfaction, grandparents should listen to their grandchildren, observe them, and keep updated concerning the meaning and process of child education. In this way they will really be educators and not only guardians. In other words, in order to build an enriching relationship grandparents should be active, read and develop their creative potential, as well as cultivate social relationships and hobbies: they should feel comfortable with their age and the reality that surrounds them without looking constantly towards the past.
This is an interesting theme that we may explore further. We may research the many reasons why scholars dedicate themselves to studying grandparents as a source of dialogue and enrichment for all the members of a family.
13 august 2003
- Ageing: the art of living. Exhibition. The Second National Rural Conference on Ageing. http://www.csu.edu.au/faculty/health/ralg/photo_comp.htm
- A study of the relationships between grandparents and teenage grandchildren, Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, Glasgow University, http:/www.crfr.ac.uk
- Developing a policy framework for a society for all ages: Highlights of an expert consultation. Report of the Secretary General, International Year of Older Persons 1999: activities and legacies, Annex of A54/268.
- Four life phases. LifeCourse Associates, www.lifecourse.biz/whatwebelieve/fourphases
- Gecchele M and Danza G. "Nonni e nipoti: un rapporto educativo". Grandparents and grandchildren: an educational relationship. Translated by Luisa Fiorentino, http://www.lillonline.net/5.0/aufsaetze/luisafiorentino/grandparents.htm
- Health and Age. Novartis Foundation for Gerontology, http://www.healthandage.com
- 70 UP: a multimedia project about women's ageing. http://www.70up.org
- The Fourth Turning, http://wwww.fourthturning.com.