Using a life course perspective to predict short- and long-term consequences of COVID-19

Settersten, R. A., Jr., Bernardi, L., Härkönen, J., Antonucci, T. C., Dykstra, P. A., Heckhausen, J., Kuh, D., Mayer, K. U., Moen, P., Mortimer, J. T., Mulder, C. H., Smeeding, T. M., van der Lippe, T., Hagestad, G. O., Kohli, M., Levy, R., Schoon, I., & Thomson, E. (2020). Understanding the effects of Covid-19 through a life course lens. Advances in Life Course Research (In Press, Corrected Proof, Full Text Access):

Summarized by Monica Arkin

Notes of Interest:

  • 18 behavioral and social scientists from Europe and the U.S. used a life course lens to explore the potential impacts of COVID-19.
  • They explore short- and long-term impacts for those who have been touched by the virus itself as well as those whose lives have been altered due to the pandemic’s influence on society (socially, economically, culturally).
  • A life course perspective is important to capture the differential effects of the virus across various developmental stages as well as cohort effects for those who may be susceptible to the psychological effects of the pandemic due to previous life experiences (e.g. Great Recession).

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

The Covid-19 pandemic is shaking fundamental assumptions about the human life course in societies around the world. In this essay, we draw on our collective expertise to illustrate how a life course perspective can make critical contributions to understanding the pandemic’s effects on individuals, families, and populations. We explore the pandemic’s implications for the organization and experience of life transitions and trajectories within and across central domains: health, personal control and planning, social relationships and family, education, work and careers, and migration and mobility. We consider both the life course implications of being infected by the Covid-19 virus or attached to someone who has; and being affected by the pandemic’s social, economic, cultural, and psychological consequences. It is our goal to offer some programmatic observations on which life course research and policies can build as the pandemic’s short- and long-term consequences unfold.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The pandemic is reshaping transitions and trajectories in every domain of life, and instigating turning points that redirect life. Many of these are negative, or at least challenging. The transition to adulthood, for example, has become longer, more variable, and risk-laden in many countries in recent decades. The pandemic is likely to heighten these trends through its effects on educational transitions, youth labor markets, chances for regional mobility, family formation, and general trust in the future. Likewise, at the other end of working life, the transition to retirement may become more difficult due to insecure pensions or insufficient savings or assets, just as leisure and volunteering activities or the grandparent role may become more difficult due to limited mobility or concerns about exposure to Covid-19. Indeed, throughout the life course, the age-based rhythm of many transitions may loosen in the face of uncertainty and de-standardize life trajectories.

Some changes associated with the pandemic are positive and have direct relevance for life course analysis, interventions, and policies. The pandemic is raising awareness that experiences across life domains such as health, family, work, and education are highly interrelated, and that these spheres are overlaid with institutions that have different time- based expectations and rhythms. It is bringing newfound recognition that people and places both near to and far from us are linked in fundamental ways that must be made more visible. Ironically, just as the pandemic has isolated people from one another, it also seems to be fostering a sense of collective solidarity, community action and cooperation, and the inherent need for mutual support. It is exposing in-equalities in life course processes and outcomes, differentially affecting groups based on age, gender, race and ethnicity, social class, and other social categories. It is increasing consciousness that stability in human life is fragile and dependent on social institutions – and on governments and policies – that are nimble, work well together, and address vulnerabilities and systemic inequalities in the life course. In many societies, these conditions are not met. It is challenging assumptions about the organization of the life course and opening opportunities for innovation and flexibility.

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