How would you answer (today, anyway) the following question:
“What, to you, are the typical stages or phases, if any, of a normal human lifetime?”
I have asked this question to around 500 people and the answers they have given fall into three basic categories or kinds of Life Course Schemas: Linear, Cyclic, or Seamless.
If you consider a life as structured according to developmental stages, like infancy, childhood, young adulthood, adulthood, elder status (bordered by Birth and Death), or if you similarly describe critical stages such as innocence, education, marriage, career, empty nest, and retirement (still bounded by an Entry and Exit), then your Life Course Schema is a LINEAR model. This is a very popular schema and most educated Westerners have been conditioned to this model from learning about such developmental psychologists as Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget or Abraham Maslow. Erikson in particular defined eight life cycle stages that people could be expected to pass through as they mature, facing critical challenges at every stage.
But Erikson’s framework, devised in 1950, may actually have fit a typical life course better then than now. What happens when the linear expectations (one education, one marriage and family, one career) hit a roadblock? Then one might perceive themselves as falling into a midlife crisis. Nowadays, since change is more likely than stability, many people are composing their own more flexible models of the life course.
If you think of your life as being cyclic or like a spiral, with opportunities for ‘starting over’ with every cycle change, then you can plan for the next cycle or Chapter even as you finish the one you are in. Frederic Hudson, in The Adult Years: Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal, is a psychotherapist who coaches clients to reflect on where they are at in a “cocooning” phase of a Chapter in order to decide whether to improve where they are, or plan to leave and start over elsewhere. In my studies of the life course, I have found that many people whose parents divorced while they were young or who had some other sort of early critical life disruption were more likely to construct a cyclical Life Course Schema than a Linear one.
Or are you more likely to answer the above question by saying you don’t believe life has any fixed structure or pattern at all; it just happens, and you deal with what comes up? This may seem a more creative model, though I find many people expressing this schema tend not to be highly goal oriented. They love the mystery, though, of what might be up around the corner; they revel in the surprise!
Do Life Course Schemas matter? I think they might, a lot. Schemas are cognitive frames; they orient our minds according to the structures they impose. They serve like filters between our experiences and our interpretation of that experience. So they can lead us to develop self-fulfilling prophecies or to feel stuck in repeating kinds of situations (like job loss or relationship failures). Or, they can lead us to “mop it up” and try again with greater focus or even to decide in advance of a cycle’s end how we will improve the situation next time around.
So, where are you in your current Life Chapter and where do things appear to be heading for you? I invite you to reflect on your Life Course Schema. How might it help you or hinder you from making desired changes in your life?
I welcome your insights and stories!