Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Introducing social work: a starter kit

3.1 Life span theory

Terms such as ‘the life course’ and ‘life span theory’ are both used widely in the literature on development and change. These terms challenge common assumptions that individuals follow a fixed linear life cycle and that only children and young people experience development. Although there may be some confusion surrounding the difference between life course and life span, these theoretical perspectives are complementary and can be used together to understand development and growth as being lifelong, multidimensional, contextual and dynamic.

Life span theory acknowledges that, across the life course, humans are influenced by many different social structures, relationships and experiences, leading to continuities and discontinuities in development. This was an extension of a prevailing early twentieth-century view that human development occurred exclusively during childhood and youth. In the late twentieth century, it was acknowledged that existing theories provided an inadequate explanation of adult lives:

New and difficult questions were raised about continuity and change in adult lives over time, about social settings that structure movement through these years, about connections between lives, time, and place, and how to handle these complexities in theory and research.

(Settersten, 2003, in Alwin, 2012, p. 209)

Life span theory as developed by Baltes (1987) covers the period from conception to death. It perceives development as a continuous and dynamic process involving transitions during which individuals adapt to new contexts and circumstance. For example, it considers the influence of culture, socio-economic circumstances and history.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371