This text was written to be ready for classroom use, covering a broad range of topics and cultures while introducing questions for discussion and debate. When teaching the text, you might start by considering the title words, “transition” — as in moving through the life course, and “transformation” — as in the changes that happen in society as more and more people enjoy a long life. How do these two intersect? Do they have similarities to other characteristics of social life? While no aspect of identity or personhood is completely fixed, age is always on the move. Think about how this compares to gender, race, or even class, for example. Age transitions have typically brought out questions concerning human development and adapting to changes in the body, so this seems like a natural place to begin.

Chapter 1. Changes in the Life Course: Strengths and Stages
Mary Catherine Bateson


Chapter 2. Narrating Pain and Seeking Continuity: A Life-Course Approach to Chronic Pain Management
Lindsey Martin 

Chapter 3. Venting Anger From the Body During Gengnianqi: Meanings of Midlife Transition Among Chinese Women in Reform-Era Beijing
Jeanne L. Shea

Chapter 4. “I Don’t Want to Be Like My Father:” Masculinity, Modernity, and Intergenerational Relationships in Mexico
Emily Wentzell


  1. How does the Eriksonian life course model account for historical and cultural differences?

  2. On what basis does Bateson add a new stage of development after adulthood rather than just extending Erikson’s framework or adding at the end?

  3. How does is the life course embodied, and how does illness and pain affect bodily narratives?

  4. How does the individual body articulate with cultural and national narratives? What possibilities do transitions bring to this articulation?

The life course also brings up questions about different experiences of spatiality and time. The next section concentrates on the ways anthropologists recognize the significance of historical, environmental, and spiritual contexts that challenge the notion of age as a linear process that proceeds the same way despite the surroundings.


Chapter 5. Shifting Moral Ideals of Aging in Poland: Suffering, Self-Actualization, and the Nation
Jessica C. Robbins

Chapter 6. A Window into Death: Euthanasia and End-of-Life in the Public-Private Space of the Dutch Home
Frances Norwood

Chapter 7. Temporality, Spirituality, and the Life Course in an Aging Japan
Jason Danely


  1. How does memory affect the experience of social change across the life course?

  2. Is aging a private matter? How does the arrangement of space affect the ways it can or cannot become public?

  3. What other ways might one experience aging aside from a linear and progressive sequential model? Why might these persist in aging societies?

Parts 4 and 5 are more focused on “transformations,” although they all keep the anthropological perspective of viewing these transformations from the everyday lives of individuals. What becomes apparent right away is that older individuals’ life courses are also linked to younger ones, and these inter-generational relationships are often critical to grasping how the life course is part of broader social changes. In the chapters on family, inter-generational links are described in terms of care.


Chapter 8. “I Have to Stay Healthy:” Elder Caregiving and the Third Age in a Brazilian Community
Diana De G. Brown

Chapter 9. Grandmothering in Life-Course Perspective:  A Study of Puerto Rican Grandmothers Raising Grandchildren in the United States
Marta B. Rodríguez-Galán

Chapter 10. Care Work and Property Transfers: Intergenerational Family Obligations in Sri Lanka
Michele Ruth Gamburd


  1. How does the presence of an older family member provide a source of care, and how does this affect family life?

  2. How does transnational migration provide an opening for new ideas and ideals of care to emerge?

  3. How do older caregivers and care receivers maintain agency in the family, even as they become aware of new limits?

The word “economy” derives from the Greek oikos, meaning “home.” In the previous section, domestic life, age, and care was also linked to economic concerns and strategies. In the final part of the book, we focus more directly on ways older people contribute to transformations taking place in public economic spheres.


Chapter 11. Personhood, Appropriate Dependence, and the Rise of Eldercare Institutions in India
Sarah Lamb

Chapter 12. Membership and Mattering: Agency and Work in a New England Factory
Caitrin Lynch

Chapter 13. Life Courses of Indebtedness in Rural Nigeria
Jane I. Guyer and Kabiru K. Salami


  1. How are traditional forms of dependence and global forms of market dependence reshaped by a growing older population?

  2. How old is too old to work? What are ways that current economic systems might adapt to include more older workers?

  3. Inheriting property and goods is often cited as a case where economy and kinship face challenges, but how does one negotiate passing on debt?

The Afterword brings up even more points of further questioning, especially from the point of view of youth. It is a good chance to reflect on how different points in the life course accentuate not only differences, but affinities as well. Hope some of these questions prove to be good starting points for your lessons.