Paper presented at the WAPOR seminar “Quality Criteria in Survey Research V”, Cadenabbia, Italy, June 24-26, 2004.


Age and Sex and Opinion Research·

By Hans L Zetterberg, ValueScope AB, Sweden

Prior to the advent of opinion measurements by surveys, newspapers had stories about opinions in the business community, opinions in the military, in the church, the Washington establishment, university campuses, et cetera. Many journalists continue to write in this vein, as do historians and some social scientists concerned with the study of total societies.

When national opinion surveys started in the 1930s in the United States, the pollsters could not easily, if at all, present their results in this way. Instead they took a clue from another nationwide enterprise, the census. In a United States census, people were counted and sorted by sex, age, race, and national origin. At the same time, demography became embraced by the universities as a social science, not only a part of mathematical statistics. In the introductory courses in social science, students learned that the base of society is the numbers of men and women, young and old, and their division into races. These categories were called ‘ascribed positions’ by anthropologists (Linton 1936, pp 115ff). An individual can do nothing, or next to nothing, to change them by his own actions.

To the pollsters, the categories of age, sex, and (in the United States) race became what latitude and longitude are to geographers: stable references in which new discoveries are fitted. They became the backbone of quota sampling which dominated opinion research for many years. In probability sampling they formed the grid of routine post-stratification. They became known as “background questions” in the writing of questionnaires. In the analysis of public opinion they became standard table heads. In the reporting of opinions they sometimes were imbued with causal meanings; differences in opinions were “explained” by demographics.

The pollsters’ use of demographic units of analysis rather than real communities and groups was the most serious criticism leveled at the young polling enterprise in the middle of the twentieth century (e.g. Blumer 1948). By using only demographic categories in its analyses, the critics gave opinion research limited relevance for the serious study of the actual processes and the actual existing structures in society. 

Nowadays it has become known that race is no longer considered weighty by biology; it is not a profound but rather a superficial (“skin-deep”) division of mankind. There is today also a process of redefining the categories of sex and age by using concepts such as ‘gender,’ and ‘life course.’ These terms bring out a social and flexible content of the previously fixed and ascribed categories.

It may be time for pollsters to pause and reconsider their “demographics.” In this paper I will summarize some considerations from social science that might be helpful in providing opinion pollsters with ideas for revising or supplementing the background factors of age and sex, and will propose to pollsters some new vistas for their use in interpreting modern societies.


Part 1. Old and New Categories Derived from Age

Key terms here are age, life course, and personality development.

Age matters. It is an inescapable biological fact that the human body is small and weak in the beginning years of life. Often, the human body is also frail during its final years. Sexual maturity takes years before its onset in the human being. Chronological age also sets a limited period for childbearing in a women’s life. But other stages in life are more set by social realities than physical time or biological realities. In childhood and adolescence, age grading is important, but thereafter, many of the feverish celebrations of birthdays in our society are non-events; only some signify real change.

Our understanding of old age has become dominated by medical diagnoses of failing bodily functions, deteriorating memory, and dimming of the senses. We shall give biology its due, but only the study of the interpenetration of the social and biological gives us full understanding.

A sequence of common stages that a number of persons pass between birth and death we call a 'life course'. Here we focus on shared trajectories. There are, certainly, also individual trajectories that are not shared by others. There are many life stories illustrating the workings of serendipity, chance, and coincidence, which fascinate social scientists with a humanistic bent.

In general there is more diversity in the middle of human life than at its beginning and end. In the first years of the nineteenth century Charles Hooton Cooley (1902) conceived of a common "cradle of mankind" in the form of "primary groups" in which every human journey through life begins and which contribute to the shaping of human nature. His idea of "primary groups" survives in spite of the expansion since his time of historical and ethnographic knowledge of childhood.

Likewise, the modern study of old age finds common denominators across societies and cultures when persons reach the ultimate stage from which there is no transition to a following stage in this world. Like book ends, the common primary and ultimate stages mark the beginning and end of ever so varied life stories.

The Primary Stage of Any Life Course and the Renewable Age

With the concept of 'primary relations' that we have inherited from Cooley, we refer to the organizations and networks in which we as children live face-to-face in familiar and more or less lasting relations with others: household, family, kin, neighbors, nurseries, and playmates. They are primary in the sense that they are first on our social stage. Through these relations of infancy and childhood we get not only the necessities of life such as food and shelter, but through them we also acquire language, ways of handling our aggressions, and learn how to perceive social reality. When we are newly born we have the full genetic code of a human. In the interaction between the genetic code and the environment of primary relations we become fully functioning human beings.

The discovery of the role of primary relations in society amounted to a correction of the idea propounded by French and American revolutionaries that all people are born to participate in society on the same conditions. If dysfunctional primary relations and unpropitious genes push some individuals toward delinquency rather than toward lives as civilized citizens, they have had unequal points of departure for their later participation in society. It is doubtful whether all such inequalities can be compensated in later life.

The entrance into adulthood means a break from one’s primary relations, particularly from one’s parents. This break presents a dilemma that we all must resolve: we want the support of our primary relations, but do not want them to inhibit and limit our development into full adulthood. A successful break from the primary group is as important for the adolescent as a well-functioning primary group is for the child. Such breaks enable the young person to obtain a sure footing on the life course that lies in store. We will discuss this stage as "The Renewable Age."

Life Courses Based on Kinship and Procreation

Let us first look at life courses based on common sequences of positions. The concept of ‘status-sequence’ was introduced by Merton (1957) but the idea is much older.

Where stable family relationships prevail, kinship positions become significant categories that determine many actions and can be used to define a life course. Ethnographers describe widely different stations in life, and the transition rituals between them. In our culture they may be mainly the positions of children, youth, married, parents, grandparents, widows/widowers. 

The Incest Norms

Life stages based on kinship presuppose two basic norms prohibiting incest.

If sexual relations between siblings were allowed, it would easily lead to rivalry between brothers and between sisters. This would apply particularly if the proportions between the sexes were unequal, as when a family consisted of two brothers and one sister. Since, at least until recently, it has been impossible to predetermine the proportion between the sexes of offspring, it has not been possible to come upon a general rule that would protect the solidarity among siblings from the dangers of jealousy and envy. If a relation between brother and sister should result in a child, the brother would not only be the child’s father but also its uncle, and the sister would not only be its mother but also its aunt. Conventional kinship relations that teach us to behave differently to a father than toward an uncle or to a mother than toward an aunt would then be out of commission.

Were sexual relations between parents and children permitted, the sexual rivalry between mother and daughter and between father and son that could ensue would endanger family solidarity. The children born of such a union would sunder all habitual relations. A son born of a union between father and daughter would be brother to his mother, son to his sister, and a grandson to his father. Confusion within the family and between generations would be total; it would preclude building society on bonds of kinship and organizing part of it as a series of kinship relations in which the individuals assume responsibility for one another according to their position in the kinship structure. (Kingsley Davis 1949, pp. 402-403)

The incest taboo is thus a necessary rule if life courses based on kinship are to survive. Our present society is not based on kinship relations to the same extent it was earlier. We nonetheless uphold the two incest taboos as an expression of humanitarian concern for children and youth, and they are prosecuted in the same way as other “outrages” and “encroachments on integrity.” Sometimes the taboos are defended on genetic grounds.

Life Courses Based on Kinship and Household

In contemporary advanced societies where each generation usually has its own household, the life course follows other stages from infant daughter or son to widow/widower than in the three-generation family with a Life Course Based on Kinship and Procreation. Its stages are many: infant or toddler or child living with parents, young man or woman living alone or with peers, young man or woman living with spouse, parents with small children, parents with teenagers,  parents whose children have households of their own, parents with grandchildren, and finally widow or widower. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Stages in Three Contemporary Life Courses.

100 yrs

Kinship and


Education and



<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<< Ultimate Stage >>>>>>>> >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>









Spouse & Parent with Grandchild(ren)





Post-career jobs



Partial Retirement




Employees &
moving between






Reformer (Societally Conscious)

Mover (Achiever)



Spouse & Parent with Child(ren) Moved to Household(s) of their Own











Spouse & Parent with Teenage Child(ren) at home






Experience-Seeker (Experiential)


Spouse & Parent with Small Child(ren)








Young Living with Partner or Spouse






Students in


Young Offspring Living Alone or with Peer(s)



Infant, Toddler, Child Living with Parents










Education in primary groups






Subsistence-Minded (Survivor)

0 yrs

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<< Primary Stage >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Read this table from bottom up. Terms in parentheses in the column Personality Development are those used by Mitchell (1983).


A Life Course Based on Kinship and Household is correlated with chronological age but is not synonymous with growing up, maturing, and growing old. It is neither comprehensive, nor universal. Many persons never marry (13 percent in the US at the turn of the century), others have multiple marriages. Many married remain childless. Many with children die before having grandchildren. Many sequences are interrupted by separations of the biological parents or the death of one or both of the parents.

An example: The number of Swedes under 25 who had not lived with both biological parents prior to moving from home added up to 26 percent in 1995; 5 percent had a deceased parent and 21 percent a separated parent (Busch Zetterberg 1996, p 16). One hundred years earlier about a quarter of all children grew up without one of the biological parents until moving from home, but then the main cause was the death of a parent, not a divorce.

Recommendation: The traditional life course that we called Kinship and Household is easily tabulated from a questionnaire in survey research with rather ordinary background questions. Questions about age of children, and whether they have left home, must be added as well as a question about grandchildren. This may not seem very relevant in more advanced societies, but as survey methods reach other societies these questions appear more appropriate.

Life Courses Based on Education and Job

The first stage in the Life Course Based on Kinship and Households − Infant, Toddler, Child who Lives with Parents − coincides with the first stage in the Life Course Based on Education and Job, i.e. the socialization of the young in primary groups. A life cycle of this kind is shown in the middle column in Figure 1. It is very central to modern society. The state of knowledge about it can be gathered in a volume edited by Marshall, Heinz, Kruger & Verma (2001).   

Under slavery and serfdom everyone except the very youngest had a long period of compulsory service before being relieved by incapacity. When free labor markets became the rule in industrialized society, the standard stages were employment (with wages or salaries) and retirement (with pension).

A period of formal schooling of young people has defined a definite stage in life for them as pupils and students. When schools became compulsory everyone had to go through this stage. With the introduction of ideas such as “on the job training” and “lifetime learning” education becomes a companion also in adulthood.

 The Educational Phase

The ideals and practices of education have been affected by the increasing dominance of the Life Course Based on Education and Job. After World War II the educational system in most western countries placed a priority on early specialization. The number of years spent in liberal education has been shortened, and the number of years spent in vocational training has increased. Less room has been provided for that which was called studium generale, “general education,” and which preceded education aimed at a career or job.

A heroic attempt to re-establish general education with new (or reinvented) pedagogy was undertaken at the University of Chicago after World War II. This studium generale consisted of a set of courses in certain subjects with a tradition of basic research. All beginning college students – in Europe the equivalent of the last year or last two years of the Gymnasium or Lycée − were afforded reading, discussion, and analysis of the most prominent original works in philosophy, physics, history, literature, and the social sciences. The aim was not to have the students learn the whole series of “Great Books of the Western World” selected by Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. The goal was to develop critical thinking through associating in seminars, not only with teachers and other students, but with the foremost thinkers in the western world.

The Chicago model was soon copied at Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Brown, and other ambitious undergraduate colleges in the United States. Fifty years later all these programs were withering away, victims of students’ wishes for easier courses with direct relevance to future jobs and to the attacks on their contents mounted by Marxists, ecologists, feminists, and crusaders for multicultural curricula (Bloom 1987).

The Job Career

The position of employment in a paid job is probably the most important position for an individual in advanced societies of our time. The job determines the major rhythm of man's life. The rhythm of jobs can be organized by the seasons, by the days of the week, by the hours of the day. Jobs are patterned, not haphazard, scattered events. Jobs give us social contacts. A widespread fear of being without a job exists in modern society. While the economic losses of unemployment can be compensated by social assistance, nothing of the sort can make good the human losses to someone out of a job and, consequently, without the companionship and social capital a job offers.

The job stage of a life course is divided into occupations and employments. To have one and the same occupation and one and the same employment throughout working life is a pattern derived from agricultural society that lingered on in the industrial society. Labor unions may prefer it since it provides for a stable membership, but the job market favors flexibility. This life course is now perceived as a sequence of different employments and often also as changes of occupations in the course of one's working life.

An equally arresting fact is that the Life Course Based on Education and Job has become common for both sexes. A lifetime position as housewife is no longer a realistic option for most women in the modern world. A long period of formal education and jobs with pay has become self-evident parts of practically all women’s lives. (More on this in the section on “Life Courses and the Sexes” below.)

The stage of pensioner in this Life Course Based on Education and Job was formalized in 1881 when Bismarck began to introduce legislation dealing with the welfare populations in Germany. After a decade, the ambitious program was on the whole accomplished: the disability pension in 1883, industrial disability insurance in 1884, and the old age pension in 1889. In this legislation, especially in respect to the pension, there were several innovations, among others, a fixed age (67) at which the pension began, which became the standard in a number of European countries. Another innovation was a fixed pension payment, which was financed from taxes paid by those who were then working, an arrangement which meant that one did not need to save for his own pension. It was a pension for those who at that time were very old; when the reform began in 1889, the average length of life in Germany was 44 years. In the year 2000 the life expectancy at birth is about twice that age.

Ever since the system started in 1899 the ranks of German pensioners have swollen. Here, as in other countries, the number of people reaching retirement has increased because of improved health levels, but also because of a decline in retirement age. In the welfare states with pay-as-you-go financing of social security, the cost of pensions are usually the largest in the consolidated budgets of the governments.

Toward the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century we notice an emerging stage of post-career jobs, sometimes called “bridge jobs” if perceived as bridges to retirement. These may involve a partial retirement instead of a full retirement from the old career job. But more commonly, they may be new "plus-jobs" that add meaning to life without the level of responsibility, working hours, and pay of the career job. After their retirement from the career job an increasing number of modern people look can look forward to the plus-jobs and partial or postponed pensions, not a stage of the full-time pensioner.

In post-war Japan the stage of the post-career job became structured already in the 1950s by a retirement age of 55 for a majority of employees in big industry and government except for those tapped to become top bosses. Since few could afford to retire so early they took new and easier jobs with lower pay, often with the same employer. Japan never had an extensive government-run social security program of the Bismarck type.

In other economically advanced countries post-career jobs is a spontaneous way in which The Life Course Based on Education and Job adjusts to the unmanageable size and costs of the numbers of retired persons. It does seem to be a more humane adjustment than the technocratic response to this problem from ministries of finance which call for an increase in the legal retirement age.

Recommendation: To use the life course of Education and Jobs, a survey researcher needs to extend their existing list of background questions to include information about continuing education beyond the pupil and student days of youth, information about no longer working in a main career job, and having left all jobs.

Life Courses as Stages of Personality Development

Personality studies define the stages of growth from psychological immaturity to a rich and full adult life. Their inspiration comes mainly from Erik H Erikson (1950), David McClelland (1961), and, above all, Abraham H Maslow (1960). This research tradition has been given a reinterpretation by Arnold Mitchell (1983, Chapter 2) with the thesis that there are two parallel paths to ego development, one outer-directed and one inner-directed. Mitchell’s “double hierarchy” is presented in the last column in Figure 1.

Everyone starts his or her psychological development with a primacy of the basic needs of nutrition, sleep, and physical security, followed by basic emotional needs of trust and belonging. Those who retain these priorities also in adulthood are called "Survivors," "Sustainers," and "Belongers" by Mitchell.

Among Post-Belongers there are two alternative options. First, those who give priority to their need of esteem are called Outer-Directed and found on the right-hand side the column Personality Development in Figure 1. Mitchell divides those whose adult priority is the need for esteem into two levels, the "Emulators" and "Achievers."

The other route − on the left-hand side of the column Personality Development in Figure 1 − concerns self-development. Those who put their priority here are called Inner-Directed. The Mitchell team distinguished in the United States of the late 20th century between three levels of self-development: "I-Am-Me," "Experiential," and "Societally Conscious."

At the joint top of both paths, Mitchell places a small number of exceptional individuals who are able to successfully balance all phases and priorities, the Integrated. Not everyone reaches this level.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Mitchell’s system became widely used under the trade name VALS in marketing and advertising research, mostly in the United States. When some of us adopted it for use in European markets we preferred other labels for the stages; they are found in the in Figure 1. Here are capsule descriptions of personality developments that are also stages in a life cycle.

Sustenance Stage 1: The Subsistence-Minded. Infants fill their time by meeting basic needs such as eating and sleeping and moving about. Grown-ups who seem overly stuck at this stage tell you that they get along all right, but that it is a struggle. Young school dropouts are often Subsistence-Minded. Others are social misfits, and are living proof that also in the mature welfare state there are pockets of need and misery. Still others are not down-and-out, but available for odd jobs and seasonal jobs. If self-employed, their business does not survive them but maintains them at a level well below that of a worker employed in industry or service. As consumers Subsistence-Minded concentrate on their basic needs. Price, of course, is paramount - they want the cheapest they can get of everything. They are attracted by rebates and special sales and yesterday’s bread at half price.

Sustenance Stage 2: The Security-Minded. Having security as one's lodestar is normal in childhood, but some never leave this stage and stay content with their lot at this station. They usually want to own the right to a job as their parents often owned a plot of farmland. They drive a safe car, have an account in the savings bank, and look forward to their Social Security payments. In the store they look at prices, but are also concerned about guarantees.

Sustenance Stage 3: The Group-Faithful. The Group-Faithful have belonging as their key to living, starting with their belonging to the primary groups of their childhood. As adults they may be reluctant to move from their hometown. They put in overtime at their job in order not to let their fellow workers down. They become the pillars within the organizations they belong to. Divorce hits them hard even if love has left the relationship. In politics the Group-Faithful are unlikely to stray from the party line. As consumers they prefer familiar brands of standard products.

Outer-Directed Stage 1: The Status-Seeker. To the Status-Seekers, becoming an adult means being competitive and being set on a career, striving for better living quarters and better jobs. The people they most of all like to associate with belong to a group that they admire and aspire to, represented by the upper rungs of their particular social horizon. Their purchases are usually guided by what they consider appropriate for the roles they aspire to and identify with at the time.

Outer-Directed Stage 2: The Movers. The Movers (a designation used here as in the phrase “movers and shakers”). They move out of the belonging and status-seeking stages. Efficient, active, externally oriented individuals who get things done, they can sometimes become driven by their own demands for accomplishment. As consumers they appreciate quality but also products that save time during their busy days.

Inner-Directed Stage 1: The Self-Faithful. The Self-Faithful grew up by going beyond the belonging stage and setting off as self-contained individualists who are sufficient unto themselves − however flamboyant that self may appear. Since they prefer to go their own way and not melt into the mainstream, they go to stores that offer a wide or special assortment and sales personnel that refrain from trying to influence their purchases.

Inner-Directed Stage 2: The Experience-Seeker. To Experience-Seekers maturation does not end with the assertion of the self; they are particularly receptive to fresh ways of looking at experience and its meanings. They value a rich inner life, and emotion and intuition are meaningful words for them. Mental health is as important to them as physical health. As consumers the Experience-Seekers are difficult to influence through worn-out advertising or marketing approaches. As employees they much prefer to work with people rather than with machines.

Inner-Directed Stage 3: The Reformer. Reformers have developed strong inner convictions: they are convinced of the merits of their values and want to change society to correspond with their values, not adjust themselves to society. On balance, they seem to prefer one-issue groups to political parties. They want to maintain or enhance the quality of their daily lives. They do not rush through the day, but rather pace themselves in order to avoid stress. As consumers Reformers are distrustful of advertising and critical of commercialism.

The Mature Stage: The Integrated. The Integrated persons are mature. They command fully both Inner-Directed and Outer-Directed paths of life. They are comfortable and embrace their life in the present, but, if need be, they have faith that they can change conditions and at the same time grow as persons.


In total, this makes for a life course with seven possible final stages of development. Along the routes from the Primary Stage of childhood to full maturity, different people achieve some but not necessarily all of the different levels of personality development. They continue to exhibit the traits of their final levels until they meet the Ultimate Stage. It never seems too late to start growth into the next level.

There is a correlation between chronological age and these stages of personality development but it is not strong. For example, in the late teenage period one is more likely to be Self-Faithful as hippie, punk, or whatever, than in middle age. At the other pole, The Integrated exhibit what is often called "the wisdom of old age," but in fact you can become an Integrated person much earlier in life.

Measuring Stages of Personality Development by Questionnaires

VALS mixed some demographic information into its classification of stages. There is nothing wrong in doing so, but the correlations with chronological age and other demographics used in the classification are then not discoveries, but are built into the stages by the researcher in the construction of his measurements. It is possible to measure the Stages of Personality Development without reference to demography. You may, for example, confront your respondents with the statement "I have to count my pennies and live frugally, and I always buy the cheapest of everything." With a high probability those who agree belong in the Sustenance stages. Confront those who disagreed with another statement "Feelings are just as important in making decisions as numbers and cold facts." Those who agree belong probably in the Inner-directed stages and those who disagree in the Outer-directed stages.

Using a number of statements of this kind in interviews we can place people in the stages of personality development. In a 1981 survey conducted in Sweden by the Swedish Institute for Opinion Research (no. 81057 in Sifo's archive) the respondents were asked to indicate to what extent they agreed with 69 statements. The extent of their agreement was given by the respondents on a 5-point scale on the questionnaire. The answers were first used to divide the respondents into the Sustenance, Outer-Directed, and Inner-Directed stages. We found that the stage “Integrated” could not reliably be classified in this manner: it called for in-depth interviews. Secondly, cluster analyses within each stage provided the sub-categories developed by Mitchell. Thereafter, to make practically useful scales, all 69 statements were reduced to a minimum of 12 by means of factor analysis. Using logit regressions these then classify the respondents according to the results obtained from all the answers. Without mixing in demographics, our following surveys provided the seven stages – through only 12 questions. That is almost as easily managed as when one asks for other background variables such as sex, age, or education.

We found in the Swedish data that the correlation between chronological age and personality development is overwhelmed by the correlation between education and personality development. The older generations have much less formal education than the younger. Education has a remarkably strong and lasting effect on personality development, particularly if it includes the impressionable teenage years. See the table in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Stages of Personality Development. Ages 18-75 nationwide in Sweden 1982





































Source: Sifo Diagnostica 1982. The numbers in the table are Target Group Index (TGI). They are based on 2400 interviews. TGI = (Share of target group / Share in total population) * 100.

Recommendation: To use Life Stages of Personality Development in survey research, special questions must be added to the questionnaire. They should reveal personality and values and do not at all look like the usual background questions in survey research. The questions look more like those in psychometric scales measuring traits or disorders, but they are not many and they are analyzed by statistics that produce a tree structure.

The Ultimate Stage of Any Life Course

The stages of the life courses become part of the identity of the individuals and they are often commented upon by people in their groups and networks. Sometimes they are embedded in legislation such as the obligatory school age, the lowest permissible age for marriage, the age for Social Security payments. The childhood stage is particularly well structured by the family and educational system, coordinating the children's biological, intellectual and emotional development. Children who deviate from the expected pathway in spite of the social controls may be put into separate correctional or remedial institutions. In adult life, stages are separated by titular designations such as Miss or Mrs. or Grandmother in family life, exams and degrees in the educational world, job titles in careers.

Stages of personality development are not so clear-cut. They are more like geological sediments; parts of the older sediments remain while new ones are added. However, people who rise above the basic stages of subsistence and security do receive recognition and sometimes admiration for their qualities. The Integrated usually get more deference for their maturity than people at earlier stages of personality development.

At all stages of all life courses, the occupants have a sense of what the next stage will bring. You can look forward to something that you have seen in others. Even the "young-olds" can still conceive of a new residence, a new love, a new hobby. But when you reach the 'ultimate stage' there is no longer any stage to move into. This stage coincides roughly with "old-old" age as it nowadays is called by gerontologists.

We distinguish between biological death and social death. They need not concur. An established family in ancient Egypt could mummify its dead and keep the mummies in the family home, drink toasts to them at dinner, perhaps take them out for a hug or a dance on the floor. Their biological death had occurred, but not their social death. In the contemporary world the old-old often suffer a slow social death with successive disengagements from established roles prior to an ultimate disengagement through biological death. Their deteriorating appearance may seem scary and ugly to the non-old. They impose on the non-old the unwelcome thought of everyone's inevitable death. And many die a social death ahead of their biological death.

In the ultimate stage chronological time loses its iron grip. This may simply be due to failing memory, but other processes may also be at work. In the ultimate stage the old-old themselves may develop a dual personality. One internal personality reshuffles memories, reformulating acts in their biography over and over again. A second, external, personality responds more or less adequately, but often superficially, to the routines of their settings: greetings, goodbyes, mealtimes, bedtimes, and what have you. (Hazan 1994, Chapter 7)

Part 2. New Categories Derived from Sex

The key terms are sex, gender, sexuality, and sexual relations. We are born as biological female or male (i.e. sex with either XX or XY chromosomes) but in our symbol environment we become women and men (i.e. gender). We may prefer hetero-, bi-, or homosexual relations and may seek bodily pleasure in genital, oral, or anal sex, or, with larger areas of the body in s/m (i.e. sexuality). The partners may be adults, children, or animals (i.e. sexual relations). These combinations give rise to a multitude of sexual identities.

Queer Communities

It is today a common research strategy in the sociology of sex to focus, not primarily on the most common outcomes − called "normal" by laymen − of these choices, but on what is odd or “queer.”

Biological inclinations may be fully decisive for a few atypical sexual identities, but they do not tell the whole story of all queer populations. For example, homosexuality is not a mental disease, as many psychiatrists maintained well into the middle of the twentieth century. Its typical roots may rather be biological processes and social processes in cross-penetration. In queer communities people with similar sexual inclinations gather in support and development of queer identities and lifestyles. In big cities it is easier for the queer to locate others with the same inclination than in the small village. Thus emerges the common observation and image that the city is more homosexual than the countryside.

The interplay of more or less ambiguous biological inclinations and queer communities shapes most of the various sexual lifestyles. Queer identities, like any other positions in society, may be fixed or flexible, public or private. In recent times the gay parades have resounded with gusto: "We're here, we're queer, get used to it!" Some nations have got more used to it than others. Their understanding is facilitated by the fact that in non-sexual respects these lifestyles may be entirely non-queer. In many cases they actually express the core of "family values," for example, the commitment to love and respect one another, and to care for and support one another, until death does the parting. Such values are formalized in straight marriage contracts. At the time of this writing some Western countries allow same-sex marriages, or “registered partnerships” that contain all marital rights except the right to a legal adoption of children.

The Impact of Contraception Practices

The technology of contraception has had a great impact on the relations between the sexes and the organization of family life. In a study for a commission on sex education I dealt with this impact in Sweden of the 1960s. (Zetterberg 1969).

Sweden had been a “sexually restricted society,” where sex was controlled by social norms narrowing the range of partners for intercourse and by systematically restricting sex information and carnal knowledge. Sweden became a “contraceptive society,” where a wider range of partners became available for socially acceptable intercourse, and social control shifted to norms requiring birth control and general civility in matters of sex. The study was used to shape new directives for sex education in public schools. The old directive allowed for information about the reproductive mechanism but forbade the teaching of contraception on the ground that youth in school should not have sexual intercourse. The study showed, however, considerable sexual activities during school years and a need for more information about them. The new directive made sex education, including the instruction of the use of contraceptives, a regular part of the school curriculum.

The study was also used as a background for a reform of the abortion laws. When social control of sexuality becomes based on the use of contraceptives, one must allow for the fact that no contraception is 100% effective. There are also moments of passion that may distract even the well-trained practitioner of contraception. The study showed that sexually active women who had experienced an unwanted pregnancy had about the same sexual habits and contraceptive practices as those who had only wanted pregnancies. Why should they have to face, at a time not of their choosing, the enormous expectations of parenthood and the accompanying disruptions of educational and career plans when their sisters could wait for a time of their choosing? Thus abortions are an integral part of a contraceptive society. A Swedish law of 1974 made abortion freely available through the Swedish national health service.

In the contraceptive society the combined effects of technology and legislation on abortion, sexual harassment, and custody gave a new position to women. By 1980 a Swedish woman could by herself decide:

·         whether or not she wants to go to bed with someone when the opportunity is present;

·         whether or not she would let herself become pregnant;

·         and, if pregnant, whether the pregnancy should be aborted or completed;

·         and, if completed, she decides who should raise the child: she alone, she and the biological father, or, she and someone else;

·         and, if she shared raising of the child, whether she would continue this relation or separate/divorce;

These are major changes in the power relations in family life, i.e. in reproduction patterns and blood relations. The power has clearly changed from men to women. The story is different when it comes to power in household life. In patterns of food preparation and doing the dishes, cleaning house, washing clothes, making beds, et cetera, women have not generally achieved equality, let alone sole power to decide who shall do what in the household.

Recommendation: The strategy of focusing research on the queer may be applied to all forms of opposition to mainstreams of society. There are queer schools of thought also in politics, art, religion, and other realms. The queer protests in this broader sense represent both threats to the old and opportunities for the new. They open the possibility of a creative destruction of society. Opinion research in the service of democracy focuses on majorities; opinion research in the study of general social change might do well to focus more on minorities.


Part 3. Use of Life Courses in Some Analyses

Life Courses and the Sexes

The modernization of society implies among many other things a shift in the dominant life course, from a Life Course Based on Kinship and Households to a Life Course Based on Education and Jobs. The change affected both men and women, first men and then women, and it probably affected women more than men.

In a standard work, The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi (1944) tells the story of the first generations of men who left their traditional agricultural tasks to work for wages in the new English capitalist and industrial society. At great cost and sufferings, they created a new life course based on wage-earning jobs. They faced massive changes. For example, as a matter of course, they had brought their children along to assist them at their new workplaces, only to find that the children did not work for them but were exploited by the factory owners and managers. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the struggle for better working hours, living wages, job security, workman's compensation for injuries, workman's education, vacations, and pensions is in the main a story of men's struggles to shape their version of the Life Course Based on Education and Jobs.

In the twentieth century the focus changes to women. In increasing numbers in the advanced countries they, too, adopted a Life Course Based on Education and Jobs. They fought to get into the same schools as men, to get into the same occupations as men, to get the same wages as men, and the same positions of power as men. This struggle has been facilitated by the fact that the goals have been well understood; they had already been achieved by men. But the women's struggle is more difficult since it has to overcome patriarchal sex roles, particularly in the organization of households, which is a structure much older than industrialization. A standard work on the Great Transformation for women comparable to Polanyi's book remains to be written. The major insights of the transformation are found in feminist literature, beginning with Simone de Beauvoir (1949) and Betty Friedan (1963).

The transformation for men was facilitated by collective actions congenial to the Group Faithful in the Life Course of Personality Development. The transformation for women seems to have been more influenced by ideas from more advanced stages, often the inner-directed ones, in The Life Course of Personality Development.

Life Courses and Population

The life course of Education and Jobs is superimposed in our society on the older life course of Kinship and Household. Usually when couples have young children, they also are faced with heavy demands of jobs and careers. Jobs and career tend to win out over family and children. Thus birth rates decline and many modern societies cannot replace their populations except through immigration.

The childbearing stage can more or less fully fill the fertile period in women. Marriage can take place at puberty as, say, in old India, or much later, as in most of Europe. Traditionally, Western Europe has promoted a shorter stage of childbearing. The interrelation between the life courses based on training and jobs and the life course based on kinship and procreation separated this part of the world from others already in the Middle Ages.

Guilds generally did not permit apprentices to take a wife until they had finished their training, and this regulation meant that a substantial portion of the urban population had to postpone marriage for a considerable number of years after it was physiologically possible. In agriculture, numerically the most important sector of the late medieval and early modern economies, farmhands were almost members of a farmer's family, and thus were under no social or economic pressure to marry early. Men were induced to put off assuming parental responsibilities until they had acquired the means to care for a wife and children. This meant in many cases that they never married, but lived as fully accepted members of a household headed by an older brother, who because he had inherited the family plot was able to be a "husband" (which means, literally, householder). As a result of this personally onerous but socially effective system of birth control, Europe's population generally did not press as heavily on the subsistence available to it as in the Asian civilizations; compared with China or India, Europe was relatively free of great famines. And at the beginning of the modern era, the continent was still relatively sparsely populated (Petersen 1964, p. 126).

Europe's share of the world population was 21 percent in the year 1800. It rose to 27 percent in the year 1900 when Europe was at the peak of its power, mostly because the more advanced hygiene and medicine was available than in the rest of the world. The large-scale emergence of The Life Course Based on Education and Jobs for both men and women cemented birth rates at comparatively low levels in Europe during the twentieth century. By the year 2000 Europe's population had declined to 13 percent of the world total. In the year 2100 it is expected to be about 7 percent of the world total.

Jobs and the Life Course of Personality Development

Many aspects of living are affected by the Life Course Based on Personality Development. Let us single out how it affects work, a key stage in the Life Course Based on Education and Jobs.

In the Sustenance stages jobs are sheer breadwinning. Here you look for survival and security, and often long for faith in the authorities. At this stage, you do not ask for amenities on the job — except perhaps the right to phone home from the job during a break and the right to join a union — you ask for a job. Marx held that capitalists always and everywhere press workers' wages to sustenance levels, or below. In the main, however, our research findings on this score run contrary to the common assumption of Marxist scholars (e.g. Braverman 1974) that jobs are getting more controlled from above, more subdivided, and voider of human content, and that workers are exploited by the lowest wages. The contrary is true (Yankelovich et al. 1985). In the last few decades of the 1900s, the worker’s discretion on the job is increasing. Also, in eras when economic performance is bleak and there are too few jobs to go around, much effort is being put into existing jobs, with the result that they are improving and becoming more interesting. The labor market in the advanced countries is increasingly populated by persons in the Outer-Directed and Inner-Directed stages of personality development and they want jobs that suit them.

In the Outer-Directed stages, jobs mean material success. Here you work for an improved standard of living and a career. These values are favorable to production, and they welcome advances in technology. A better overcoat, a better home, a better car, a better job, in short a better standard of living, is important here. External signals of success loom large. This view of life goes hand-in-hand with economic growth, an alliance very prominent in the advanced economies of the 1950s.

In the Inner-Directed stages expressivism prevails. Here you look for creativity, self-realization, harmony with nature, and a good and deep inner life. You work to develop yourself. Inner signals of success are more important than the external ones. Quality of life becomes as important, or more important, than a material standard of living. This view of life grew rapidly in the industrial world in the early 1970s and seemed at that time to be at cross-purposes with economic growth.

It is with jobs as with marriages: what is a mismatch for one may be a good match for another. One person may desire a husband or wife who is stylish and elegant. He places less importance on emotional depth and intelligence. Another puts a premium on deep emotional contact and attaches less importance to external attributes. Depending on our stage in the life course, certain jobs will be mismatched and others will be matched to us.

In the Sustenance stages people give their best to jobs with steady remuneration and complete job security. The older blue-collar generation of industrial workers fits into this category. Here, one is willing to forego other amenities and opportunities if there is enough to provide for self and family.

People in the Outer-Directed stages give their best to jobs with incentive pay, advancement opportunities, and clear and fair rules for promotion.

People in Inner-Directed stages give their best to jobs that allow for personal, not just material, growth. They give their best when the job allows for creativity and self-development.

In interviews from the 1970s mismatched people were many: forty-nine percent in the United States, forty-two percent in Israel, forty-seven percent in West Germany, sixty-three percent in the United Kingdom, forty-four percent in Sweden, and sixty-eight percent in Japan. (Yankelovich et al. 1985)

In the 1960s and 1970s, many people in the Inner-Directed stages of their life course gave up on their jobs and thought they could only realize their values during leisure time — by being close to nature, walking in the mountains, sailing on deep waters, meeting with close friends. These persons were a drain on working life. In the 1980s and 1990s, the story changed. People in these stages of their life course increasingly looked for jobs that allowed them to live out their inclinations on the job rather than outside it. And they loved the newly created jobs with their freedom of decision-making and opportunities for creativity.

Generation and Opinion

Let us now continue our exploration of age but turn from life courses to the study of generations, i.e. cohorts of the same age group.

Every member of a generation inherits a gyroscope for its orientation in life. The gyroscope spins in a way set by parental values and experiences. Its course is set in what we, following Cooley (1902), have called the “Primary Stage,” i.e. ages from infancy to pre-puberty. It represents primarily lessons that are learned from generation to generation.

Every member of a generation also is equipped with a radar screen that constantly scans what happens among contemporaries. It picks up unique events and the reactions to them that each generation experiences. These events may re-evaluate traditions and make the opinions of peers more important than those of one’s parents.

The radar is especially sensitive during an interval ranging from the height of puberty through the first years of adulthood. During this period many young people have personalities that are “Group-Faithful” and “Self-Faithful.” In these years, they are especially impressionable by ideals, they are unusually open to embracing extreme opinions, to recruitment into queer groups, and are quick to go through conversions, be they in fashion, politics or religion. It is believed that what happens in this period may color much of the later life of a generation (Mannheim 1928). I will call this period the “Renewable Age,” in the dual meaning of this word; it is capable of reaffirming and/or changing what was learned in the Primary Stage, and it is able to be sustained throughout adult life.

Organized educational, religious, political, or commercial interests can more easily exploit the “Primary Stage” and the “Renewable Age” than other periods. For example, many stable preferences in food, religion, sports, et cetera are set in the Primary Stage. Many lasting preferences in music and politics are set in the Renewable Age. Most suicide bombers are apparently recruited during their Renewable Age.

The gyroscope and the radar that orient every generation may have unequal importance. Riesman (1953) suggested that the radar generally became dominant in the United States by the middle of the twentieth century. Peers then became more significant than parents.

With these analytical ideas we may better understand the shifting tides of the last half of the 20th century.

People who experienced the Depression of the 1930 usually found it difficult to defend individualism in a liberal and capitalist order. They found it easier to embrace collectivism in the form of fascism or socialism. Although fascism was discredited with World War II, the post-war years and the 1950s were imbued, on one hand, with sympathy for a victorious Soviet Communism which gained many fellow travelers in the West, at least as long as Stalin’s terror was ignored. On the other hand, a majority in many western countries came to believe in a kind of “collective liberalism.” (The term is Edward Shils’; in Europe it covers the reform socialist, social democratic, and welfare-liberal currents.) Collective liberalism combined democracy with economic growth, full employment, an awe of science, and, not least, political engineering of various “reforms,” from child benefits to old-age pensions. Despite the cold war, western nations seemed briefly to be living in an idyll. Old ideological conflicts were defused; Daniel Bell entitled one of his books End of Ideology. A new promising era had begun.

European colonies were freed, and there was hope for the Third World. But there was a darker side to world affairs. The war efforts and the cold war had resulted in an oversupply of armaments. Cheap firearms and new weapons of mass destruction had made it ever so easy to kill and ever so hard to defend oneself. However, most people suppressed the thought that peace is really another term for an interwar period. “Make love, not war” became the slogan among youths reaching the Renewable Age in the 1960s and 70s.

This was part of the growing liberation from tradition and discipline in the West that had a breakthrough in the 1960s. Emancipation was not just about sexual morals. Churches abdicated from their traditional leadership, patriotism was ridiculed, knowledge was mocked, populism extolled. Hierarchies crumbled and equality was proclaimed to be the natural order of things. Only old fogies did not wear jeans. The Vietnam War added a sizeable dose of anti-American sentiment to the cultural climate in the world. Marxism came out of its ghetto, and Marxist-colored teaching at colleges and universities was called “critical social science.”

In the aftermath of the youth rebellions of 1968, the environmental movement gained ground. It was followed by other movements such as women’s lib. Their proponents described them as progressive, and they gained credibility since many of the artists, journalists, academics and other intellectuals in the West gladly joined in the criticism of central powers, tradition, and authority.

Reagan and Thatcher — or rather Reaganomics and Thatcherism — undermined collective liberalism, particularly its predilection for political governance of the various parts of society outside of the strict body politic. Unshackled market forces created great prosperity in the West. The Berlin Wall was torn down by people desirous of freedom and hankering for consumption. The Soviet regime fell. The old individually centered liberalism had returned and was called neo-liberalism in Europe and neo-conservatism in the United States. But the surprisingly rapid growth of globalization became a new object of hatred.

People from the former colonies streamed to the cities of the former colonial powers. Civil wars and minor wars added to the influx of refugees. European nations were somewhat taken by surprise when they discovered that they had become multicultural, just as the United States and Canada, but without the cohesive force of the national ideologies of the latter. The field was open for the growth of xenophobia, an ingredient in a new fascism.

The decisive events for every generation of youths after 1968 have been many and multifaceted. Generation X, influenced by AIDs and Chernobyl, adopted a reserved, ironic attitude. Generation Y (or whatever we shall call it) learned to live and express their identities with cellular phones and on the Internet. The impact of September 11, and of the rise of  Muslim extremism with a terrorist agenda yet to be studied.

None of the experiences of these generations were as great as those of the Depression and the Vietnam War, which were so overwhelming to those who had lived through them that they reverberated among their children. The children of the generation that had demonstrated during the Depression years became the protest-wise generation that made itself heard and seen in 1968. Then it was time for the children of the ’68 agitators to make their own protests. The emergent generation of youths during the first decade of the 2000s – we can call it generation Z – is more eager to protest and more sophisticated in agitation than both the X and Y generations.

The antagonism toward authority, capital, and central powers is on the upswing. In the period after the millennium, growing agitation, demonstrations, riots, violence directed against globalization and the establishment have become the order of the day. The esteem and dignity of the authorities have been diminished. The police have, as usual, become a target for protest, and their "zero tolerance" has become a particular object of hatred.

A serious study of these changing tides would have to recognize that all eventful circumstances may (and usually do) affect all people of all ages to some extent. However, to identify major influences, we must record three different circumstances and measure their impact:

• The eventful circumstances shaping the parents at their Renewable Age which would become included in the gyroscopes of their children in the Primary Stage of the latter.
• The eventful circumstances that were contemporary with the Primary Stage of the same children.
• The eventful circumstances of their own Renewable Age.

These three effects are enhanced if the generation experiencing them is large in numbers. The size of the generations is given in the census. The great impact of the many postwar “baby boomers” is often noted in contemporary generational analysis.

Recommendation: Opinion research has a great role in documenting and analyzing the generational shifts in priorities mentioned here. The usual background questions should be supplemented by information of the age of parents when the respondent was born. Archives of polls with data going back two or three generations are useful. Cohort analysis, developed in the science of demography, should be the method of choice[1]. “Age” recorded in the surveys is converted to “Year of birth,” which is grouped in appropriate categories. The attitudes and some behaviors of the cohorts can be recorded from the archives of opinion surveys. 

It is striking, however, that so far, few or no examples of cohort analysis of opinion polls can be found in writings about the generational changes mentioned above.

By Way of Conclusion

It is tempting to summarize what we have written by saying that we have rediscovered the four stages of the Hindu vision of the full human life. In this vision, the first quarter of a full life is celibacy and learning, the second is marriage and child-rearing, the third quarter is community service, and the final quarter of a human life is to be devoted to spiritual contemplation. This is not an entirely accurate summary of this paper, but it points in the correct direction.  

I have attempted to show that new combinations and redefinitions of age and sex are open for opinion researchers and others to use. They are not substitutes for the study of opinions in real-life networks and organizations; Blumer’s critique on this score is still valid. But opinion researchers need not be trapped in mechanical, old-fashioned ways of using demographic categories. Age may be redefined as life courses. We presented three different life courses and some of their interactions: “Kinship and Procreation,” “Education and Jobs,” and “Personality Development.” Sex may be redefined into “Gender,” “Inclination of Sexuality,” and “Sexual Relations.” Such conceptions of age and sex allow for a more profound analysis of a contemporary society by survey methods than the critics have envisaged. We have illustrated this by brief analyses of a series of topics, for example, power shifts between the sexes in the wake of contraception, population growth, the transition to wage-earning for the majority of men and women, matches between jobs and personality development, and generational impacts on opinion climates.

The new typologies are not assumed to be fixed structures like the old ones mistakenly were. They too, will vary in their meaning over time and space. 




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· © Hans L Zetterberg.

 This paper draws in large part on a chapter in a book manuscript under preparation, entitled The Many-Splendored Society.

In preparing this paper I am grateful to Greta Frankel in several ways. In the 1980s she participated in the Swedish research on personality development cited in this paper. She has translated fragments of this paper that were originally written in Swedish. She has edited the entire manuscript and initiated fruitful discussions about its content and formulations.


[1] For a brief introduction to cohort analysis, see, for example, Glenn (1977).