Chapter 5. Socialization

5.4. Socialization Across the Life Course

Socialization is not a one-time or even a short-term event. People are not stamped by some socialization machine as they move along a conveyor belt and thereby socialized once and for all. In fact, socialization is a lifelong process. Human development is not simply a product of the biological changes of physical maturation or the cognitive changes of psychological development, but follows a pattern of engaging and disengaging from a succession of roles that does not end with childhood but continues through the course of people’s lives.

In North America, socialization throughout the life course is determined greatly by age norms and “time-related rules and regulations” (Setterson, 2002). As people grow older, they encounter age-related transition points that require socialization into a new role, such as becoming school age, entering the workforce, or retiring. At each point in life, as an individual sheds previous roles and assumes new ones, institutions or situations are involved, which requires both learning and revising one’s self-definition: You are no longer living at home; you have a job! You are no longer a child; you in the army! You are no longer single; you are going to have a child! You are no longer free; you are going to jail! You are no longer in mid-life; it is time to retire!

Many of life’s social expectations are made clear and enforced on a cultural level. Through interacting with others and watching others interact, the expectation to fulfill roles becomes clear. While in elementary or middle school, the prospect of having a boyfriend or girlfriend may have been considered undesirable. The socialization that takes place in high school changes the expectation. By observing the excitement and importance attached to dating and relationships within the high school social scene, it quickly becomes apparent that one is now expected not only to be a child and a student, but a significant other as well.

Adolescence in general is a period stretching from puberty to about 18 years old, characterized by the role adjustment from childhood to adulthood. It is a stage of development in which the self is redefined through a more or less arduous process of “socialized anxiety” (Davis, 1944), re-examination and reorientation. As Jean Piaget described it, adolescence is a “decisive turning point … at which the individual rejects, or at least revises his estimate of everything that has been inculcated in him, and acquires a personal point of view and a personal place in life” (1947). It involves a fundamental “growth process” according to Edgar Friedenberg “to define the self through the clarification of experience and to establish self esteem” (1959).

In some cultures, adolescence is marked and ritualized through a clear rite of passage, a ritual that marks a life cycle transition from a previous status to a new status. Wade Davis described the rite of passage of Algonquin boys of northeastern North America when they hit puberty: Traditionally, the boys were isolated from the rest of the tribe in longhouses for two or three weeks and consumed nothing but a hallucinogenic plant from the datura family (1985). During the long disorienting period of intoxication brought on by the plant the boys would forget what it meant to be a child and learn what it was to be a man.

In modern North American society, the rites of passage are not so clear cut or socially recognized. Already in 1959, Friedenberg argued that the process was hindered because of the pervasiveness of mass media that interfered with the expression of individuality crucial to this stage of life. Nevertheless, North American adolescence provided a similar trial by fire entry into adulthood: “The juvenile era provides the solid earth of life; the security of having stood up for yourself in a tough and tricky situation; the comparative immunity of knowing for yourself just exactly how the actions that must not be mentioned feel…the calm gained from having survived among comrades, that makes one ready to have friends” (Friedenberg, 1959).

Graduation from formal education — high school, vocational school, or college — involves a formal, ceremonial rite of passage yet again and socialization into a new set of expectations. Educational expectations vary not only from culture to culture, but from social class to social class. While middle- or upper-class families may expect their daughter or son to attend a four-year university after graduating from high school, other families may expect their child to immediately begin working full-time, as others within their family may have done before them.

In the process of socialization, adulthood brings a new set of challenges and expectations, as well as new roles to fill. As the aging process moves forward, social roles continue to evolve. Pleasures of youth, such as wild nights out and serial dating, become less acceptable in the eyes of society. Responsibility and commitment are emphasized as pillars of adulthood, and men and women are expected to “settle down.” During this period, many people enter into marriage or a civil union, bring children into their families, and focus on a career path. They become partners or parents instead of students or significant others. Just as young children pretend to be doctors or lawyers, play house, and dress up, adults also engage anticipatory socialization, the preparation for future life roles. Examples would include a couple who cohabitate before marriage, or soon-to-be parents who read infant care books and prepare their home for the new arrival. University students volunteer, take internships, or enter co-op programs to get a taste for work in their chosen careers. As part of anticipatory socialization, adults who are financially able begin planning for their retirement, saving money, and looking into future health care options. The transition into any new life role, despite the social structure that supports it, can be difficult.

Socialization is ongoing throughout adulthood in another sense as well. The study of contemporary society reveals an increasing fluidity of roles, as opposed to previous eras when one could expect to be married only once, live in one location, or to have a single career. This experience is part of what Zygmunt Bauman has called liquid modernity, “a society in which the conditions under which its members act change faster than it takes the ways of acting to consolidate into habits and routines” (2005). As opposed to previous eras when one could expect to have a predictable sequence of role transitions — from school to work to retirement, from single to married to parenting to empty nest, etc. — the expectation today is that the individual will experience an increasing fluidity of roles. It is more difficult to view socialization as a smooth and uninterrupted process. Rather, life is increasingly fragmented, “cut into a succession of ill-connected episodes” (Bauman, 2004). As a result, social identities have become more flexible, more adaptable to unpredictable transitions, more open to taking on new roles or picking and choosing from a globalized palette of cultural values and practices.

Bauman observes that this has lead to a new basis of calculation when it comes to passing through the stages of transition in the adult life cycle. In the absence of any clear, permanent, institutional structures of continuity and stable transition through the life course, people are thrown back on themselves to provide their own continuity. Jobs disappear overnight, marriages end, friends and family move, and online communities emerge. Under these circumstances each life choice is regarded as temporary and provisional and, thereby, it involves a calculated trade off between maximizing flexibility or commitment. It is a risk to put all one’s eggs in one basket. The individual has to continually decide “which one of the alternative identities to select and how long to hold on to it once the choice has been made?” (Bauman, 2004). Therefore, individuals enter jobs with an eye to their exit strategy, seizing opportunities to continually retrain, upgrade skills, and make contacts to be prepared for a better job to show up. They enter into amorous relationships on the basis of what Anthony Giddens calls “confluent love:” “a relationship that lasts only as long as, and not a moment longer than, the satisfaction it brings to both partners” (Bauman, 2004). In love, dumping the partner is a normal event to be planned for. They cultivate a wider network of “weak ties” rather than committing to deep friendships.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Long Road to Adulthood for Millennials

A Y hanging on a wall
Figure 5.21 Generation Y. (Image courtesy of Patrick Marione/Flickr.) CC BY-NC 2.0

Millennials, sometimes also called Gen Y, is a term that describes the generation born during the early 1980s to early 1990s. They are the generation that is approximately between the ages of 30 and 40. While the “dot-com bubble burst” recession was in full swing after 2000, many were in the process of entering, attending, or graduating from high school and college. With employment prospects at historical lows, large numbers of graduates were unable to find work, sometimes moving back in with their parents and struggling to pay back student loans.

According to The New York Times, this economic stall caused the Millennials to postpone what most North Americans consider to be adulthood: “The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary … jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life” (Henig, 2010).

In Canada in 2013:

  • 30 per cent of Millennials found it difficult to support themselves on their low wages
  • 44 per cent found it difficult to pay for their education
  • 38 per cent were strapped by loan payments
  • 51 per cent still lived with their parents
  • 90 per cent felt overwhelmed and experience excessive stress (Tsintziras, 2013)

On the other hand, Statistics Canada reports that the Millennials, while being the most educated generation ever, are also the most unequal generation (Heisz & Richards, 2019). The top 10 per cent of millennials hold 55 per cent of the total wealth of their generation. They hold a median net worth of $588,600 as a result of university education, high income, low debt and home ownership, as well as other financial assets. They are doing very well, while the bottom 90 per cent of millennials continue to struggle with high student debt loads, unaffordable housing and stagnant wages.

The outcome is that there does not appear to be a Millennial middle class, which has implications for sociologists attempting to conceptualize socialization into “adulthood.” The five milestones, Henig writes, that define adulthood, are “completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child” (2010). These social milestones are taking longer for Millennials to attain, if they are attained at all. Sociologists wonder what long-term impact this generation’s situation may have on society as a whole. It is possible that adulthood, as it has been previously conceived, is simply a 20th century middle class phenomenon and will need to be redefined with new milestones.

Meanwhile, preliminary survey research on Generation Z, born between the late 1990s and early 2010s, suggests that these children of the post-boomer Generation X are both completely fluent in digital technology and raised to be more self-reliant. It is also estimated that for each Generation Z member to enter the workforce, three baby boomers will be retiring. However, the world they confront is characterized by monumental global risks such as climate change, geopolitical insecurity and increasing inequality (Bland, 2016). Surveys of mental health suggest that grow­ing up and being socialized into an age of increased stress and anx­i­ety has impacted Generation Z more heavily than previous generations, although they are also more likely than previous generations to seek mental health counselling (Bethune, 2019).


In the process of resocialization, old behaviours that were helpful in a previous role are removed because they are no longer of use. Resocialization is necessary when a person moves to a senior care centre, goes to boarding school, or serves time in jail. In the new environment, the old rules no longer apply. The process of resocialization is typically more stressful than normal socialization because people have to unlearn behaviours that have become customary to them.

The most common way resocialization occurs is in a total institution where people are isolated from society and are forced to follow someone else’s rules. A ship at sea is a total institution, as are religious convents, asylums, prisons, residential schools or some cult organizations. They are places cut off from a larger society. The 15,000 Canadians who lived in federal prisons or penitentiaries at the end of 2012 are also members of a total institution (Sapers, 2013). As another example, every branch of the military is a total institution.

Personnel entering a gas chamber during a training exercise, No. 2 CWAC Basic Training Centre, Vermilion, Alberta
Figure 5.22 Personnel entering a gas chamber during a training exercise, No. 2 CWAC Basic Training Centre, Vermilion, Alberta (1943). In basic training, soldiers are taught to walk, move, and look like each other. (Photo courtesy of Lieutenant Ken Bell (1914-2000), Library and Archives Canada, [1967-052 NPC] PA-141008.) Public Domain

Many individuals are resocialized into an institution through a two-part process. First, members entering an institution must leave behind their old identity through what is known as a degradation ceremony. In a degradation ceremony, new members lose the aspects of their old identity and are given new identities. The process is sometimes gentle. To enter a senior care home, an elderly person often must leave a family home and give up many belongings which were part of their long-standing identity. Though caretakers guide the elderly compassionately, the process can still be one of loss. In many cults, this process is also gentle and happens in an environment of support and caring.In other situations, the degradation ceremony can be more extreme. Erving Goffman referred to the process of being stripped of ones external identity as a “mortification of the self” (1961). New prisoners lose freedom, rights (including the right to privacy), and personal belongings. When entering the army, soldiers have their hair cut short. Their old clothes are removed and they wear matching uniforms. These individuals must give up any markers of their former identity in order to be resocialized into an identity as a soldier.The accounts of Aboriginal people forced to attend residential school, like Mike Mountain Horse’s report (above), describe the colonial aspect of cross-cultural degradation ceremonies. Daniel Kennedy’s account was similar:

In his memoirs, Daniel Kennedy, an Assiniboine man, recounted, “In 1886, at the age of twelve years, I was lassoed, roped and taken to the Government School at Lebret. Six months after I enrolled, I discovered to my chagrin that I had lost my name and an English name had been tagged on me in exchange” ( Kennedy 1972, p. 54). Until he went to school, his name had been Ochankuga’he, meaning “pathmaker.” The name honoured a trek his grandfather had led through a Prairie blizzard (ibid.). The new name, Daniel Kennedy, referred to the Old Testament’s Daniel of the lion’s den (Gresko, 1992, p. 80). The school interpreter later told Kennedy, “When you were brought here, for purposes of enrolment, you were asked to give your name and when you did, the Principal remarked that there were no letters in the alphabet to spell this little heathen’s name and no civilized tongue could pronounce it. ‘We are going to civilize him, so we will give him a civilized name,’ and that was how you acquired this brand new whiteman’s name” (Kennedy, ibid.).

Kennedy lost more than his name on that first day.

“In keeping with the promise to civilize the little pagan, they went to work and cut off my braids, which, incidentally, according to the Assiniboine traditional custom, was a token of mourning—the closer the relative, the closer the cut. After my haircut, I wondered in silence if my mother had died, as they had cut my hair close to the scalp. I looked in the mirror to see what I looked like. A Hallowe’en pumpkin stared back at me and that did it. If this was civilization, I didn’t want any part of it. I ran away from school, but I was captured and brought back. I made two more attempts, but with no better luck. Realizing that there was no escape, I resigned myself to the task of learning the three Rs” (ibid.). 

(Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015, p. 173 [excerpt]).


After new members of an institution are stripped of their old identity, they build a new one that matches the new society. In the military, soldiers go through basic training together, where they learn new rules and bond with one another. They follow structured schedules set by their leaders. Soldiers must keep their areas clean for inspection, march in correct formations, and salute when in the presence of superior officers.

In Asylum (1961), Goffman provides an acute analysis of some of the perverse implications of resocialization within the structure of total institutions. In institutions of resocialization, inmates pass through a standard sequence of changes with respect to how their capacity to act “morally” (i.e., as someone answerable for their actions) is established, recognized, and affirmed by others (and by themselves). Goffman refers to this as their moral career.

Figure 5.23 Riverview mental hospital ws opened in 1913, in Port Coquitlam, B.C. After a lengthy process of deinstitutionalization and repurposing it was closed in 2012 (Image courtesy of Niall Williams/Flickr.) CC BY-SA 2.0

Goffman observed that the stratagems for securing recognition of viable selfhood or moral capacity from others — mental patients from ward staff, for example — often undermined the stated goals of rehabilitation. As it was the psychiatric authorities who decided who had viable selfhood and who did not, and as tangible benefits of status and privileges were at stake, the setting of the mental institution provided the conditions under which amoral strategies of self became effective. Patients found that “it is not very practicable to sustain solid claims about oneself” because these were easily torn down by staff after glancing at the patients records (Goffman, 1961). Instead it was easier give up the goal of moral rehabilitation and just mimic what the staff wanted to get privileges.

Goffman writes:

Learning to live under conditions of imminent exposure and wide fluctuation in regard, with little control over the granting or withholding of this regard, is an important step in the socialization of the patient, a step that tells something important about what it is like to be an inmate in a mental hospital. Having one’s past mistakes and present progress under constant moral review seems to make for a special adaptation consisting of a less than moral attitude to ego ideals. One’s shortcomings and successes become too central and fluctuating an issue in life to allow the usual commitment of concern for other persons’ views of them. It is not very practicable to try to sustain solid claims about oneself. The inmate tends to learn that degradations and reconstructions of the self need not be given too much weight, at the same time learning that staff and inmates are ready to view an inflation or deflation of a self with some indifference. He learns that a defensible picture of self can be seen as something outside oneself that can be constructed, lost, and rebuilt, all with great speed and some equanimity. He learns about the viability of taking up a standpoint — and hence a self — that is outside the one which the hospital can give and take away from him.

The setting, then, seems to engender a kind of cosmopolitan sophistication, a kind of civic apathy. In this unserious yet oddly exaggerated moral context, building up a self or having it destroyed becomes something of a shameless game, and learning to view this process as a game seems to make for some demoralization, the game being such a fundamental one. In the hospital, then, the inmate can learn that the self is not a fortress, but rather a small open city; he can become weary of having to show pleasures when held by troops of his own, and weary of how to show displeasure when held by the enemy. Once he learns what it is like to be defined by society as not having a viable self, this threatens definition — the threat that helps attach to the self society accords them — is weakened. The patient seems to gain a new plateau when he learns that he can survive while acting in a way that society sees as destructive of him (Goffman, 1961).

Learning to deal with life after having lived in a total institution requires yet another process of resocialization. In the Canadian military, soldiers learn discipline and a capacity for hard work. They set aside personal goals to achieve a mission, and they take pride in the accomplishments of their units. Many soldiers who leave the military transition these skills into excellent careers. Others find themselves lost upon leaving, uncertain about the outside world, and what to do next. For those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), these issues are compounded. The process of resocialization to civilian life is not a simple one.

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Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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