Adulthood: Changing Concepts and Definitions


  • Julia Brannen
  • Ann Nilsen

Document type: Encyclopedia Entry

Appears in: Work and Family Encyclopedia

Year: 2003


  • Age or Aging
  • Dependent Care
  • Gender
  • Older Workers


  • Sociology


In the work-family policy field, the interest in adulthood has shifted in recent years from a focus upon working adults who have family responsibilities, in particular for children and elderly relatives, towards a focus upon a much broader range of commitments which is reflected in the arrival of concepts such as ‘work-life’ and ‘work-personal’ life. These concepts beg a number of questions however. Whether personal commitments have a similar status or legitimacy as do care commitments is questionable since care of family members involves a sense of obligation. In some cases such obligations may be negotiable but not in others, notably with respect to children. At a policy level, it may seem reasonable to expect employers and/or the state to take account of demands on employees’ working time in relation to family obligations, especially in situations of significant ‘need’ as when children are young and close relatives are ill. However it is more questionable whether similar entitlements ought to be available to those who choose to take time off when their commitments are less pressing and when they lack any element of obligation to others. Such calculations bring to the fore the ethics of care and the importance of understanding inter-dependence (Tronto, 1998) as well as issues framed in terms of the welfare of those who cannot fend for themselves in the market place. It may be possible to navigate such dilemmas by adopting a ‘whole life’ perspective in which every citizen is allocated an entitlement to a maximum period of absence from the workforce spread over the course of their lives, for whatever reasons and taken whenever and in whatever way he or she wishes. Such ideas need to address how such periods of leave play out between men and women and the extent to which they may create gender inequity especially if there is to be no compensation for lost pension contributions.

Link:Adulthood-Changing_Concepts encyclopedia