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Applying a Life Course Perspective to Understand the Effects of COVID-19

What are the big questions for the future?
Source: StreetMuse

By now, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has had and will continue to have wide ranging effects on society. Researchers in all fields have been working to study and understand its implications, but this is only the beginning. In an article by Richard A. Settersten Jr. (Oregon State University), Laura Bernardi (University of Lausanne), Juho Härkönen (European University Institute and Stockholm University) and 15 other colleagues, they explain how a life course perspective can make an important contribution to understanding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals, families and populations.

In this early phase, many questions are being raised that will have to be explored and answered in the years to come. It will be especially important to identify and track long-term effects and to focus both on the effects of being infected by the virus as well as of being affected by the economic and social consequences of the pandemic.


  • How do accumulated biological, psychological and social exposures affect health during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Life course epidemiology emphasizes the potentially long-lasting influence of prior exposures to disease and social adversity. For example, poor nutrition in early life is a risk factor for metabolic syndrome (a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity), which is a risk factor for severe COVID-19. An important task for research is to identify how these exposures affect the risk of having a severe form of COVID-19 as well as affect psychological and physical health reactions due to the societal responses to the pandemic.

  • How will children suffer effects from the pandemic related to health and well-being?

There is a need to examine the effects on children from different age groups and compare their development over time to identify physical and mental health effects. As COVID-19 creates instability in a family’s economic well-being and relationships, the developmental and health outcomes of children, youth and young adults are likely to be long-lasting, especially in the most vulnerable families.

Personal Control and Planning

  • What will be the effects of instability and uncertainty on different age groups in society?

This pandemic has created much uncertainty and to varying degrees based on age, gender, social class, race/ethnicity and the welfare system in one’s home country. Depending on one’s stage in life, instability poses distinct challenges.

For example, young people trying to enter the labour market may have to lower their expectations and accept there will be fewer opportunities to collect experience for some time. Those who are in their thirties may be especially vulnerable because they entered the job market during the financial crisis a decade ago and many now have families to support. However, younger people also have a longer period to adjust and potentially recover while those in midlife carry great responsibility for others and have less time to redirect their careers.

  • What will be potential differences based on one’s socio-economic status (SES)?

Differences in SES also mean that individuals and families have different capacity to adapt to these changes. The authors posit that those with low SES status and precarious work may be in “survival mode” and without any long-term backup plans. Those with a more favourable SES status and more secure employment may have trouble adjusting, but still be in a better position to resume their goals at a later point.

Social Relationships and Family

  • As individuals and couples decide to delay family transitions due to the pandemic, will this have a significant long-term impact?

The pandemic may lead partners to postpone moving in together, marriage or fertility, and increase separations and divorces. Research must examine how COVID-19 is changing family formation and dissolution, and whether such changes are temporary shocks or longer-term trends that will more permanently alter the schedule of family transitions.

These shifts can affect population structure and dynamics, with larger societal consequences related to greater delays in the transition to adulthood and growing rates of singlehood, childlessness and population ageing.

Education and Training

  • Will the pandemic increase SES differences in children’s education?

As students have switched to home school or virtual schooling, the effects of SES can become stronger as some students have access to better resources, i.e. faster internet, a personal tablet or laptop, space at home to concentrate. When parents work from home, they are able to better monitor and assist students with school work.

  • If students delay their transition to the labour market or higher education, what could be the effect?

Delays in the transition from school to work may also mean larger cohorts graduating and looking for jobs and homes at the same time. This could create a situation similar to a baby boom. It would increase competition with those who were already trying to do these things when the pandemic began.

Work and Careers

  • Which cohorts will be most affected by the pandemic?

The economic repercussions of the pandemic will affect cohorts differently. For example, labour market entrants may suffer long-lasting “scarring effects” due to a difficult school-to-work transition. As noted above, cohorts that started their working lives during the financial crisis a decade ago are now experiencing another shock to their careers.

  • How are women specifically affected by the pandemic?

This pandemic has especially impacted women’s careers as they juggle working from home, school closures and any care responsibilities related to the virus. Unlike a typical economic recession, women are being more affected than men because lockdown measures increased household chores and care work for others. This could lead to either a setback in the progress towards gender equality as families revert to a more gendered division of labour, or it is possible that societies will begin to better appreciate and value women’s work. These effects will need to be monitored in both the short and long term.  

Migration and Mobility

  • How is the pandemic affecting immigrants, including those that have immigrated temporarily and those planning to immigrate?

The restriction of movement, calls for social distancing, and border closings have decreased mobility and both internal and international migration. Immigrants that leave their families for seasonal or care-related work are unable to provide financial support to their families back home and are also separated from them. Those who were in a transition phase and looking to pursue their education or move for a new job opportunity are now unable to fulfil these goals. Those needing refuge because their lives are in danger will also suffer if they are not able to leave their homes.

Moving Forward

  • Why do we need a life course perspective of this pandemic?

With a life course perspective, researchers can make time-based comparisons as the impact of the pandemic will depend on one’s age and life stage. Researchers are compelled to consider individuals’ past biographies to understand why certain people may be more vulnerable. They can also look at the future to see how delayed transitions, for example, will affect an individual’s future development or how the uncertainty affects their perceptions of and plans for the future.

  • What data are needed?

 As the pandemic unfolds, we must continue to monitor which societal changes will be temporary, which will be long-lasting and even lead to permanent systemic change, and how these will affect the life courses of individuals, families and whole populations. Due to the centrality of time and time-related phenomena in life course research, longitudinal data will naturally be the most important data resource on the COVID-19 pandemic. The greatest data gains will be made by building on ongoing longitudinal projects that link information on life before COVID-19 to experiences during and specific to the pandemic. Ad hoc data collection will also be needed to examine how policy contexts, institutional responses, social networks, and personal agency and sense of control affect virus spread and the lived experience of a COVID-19 diagnosis and/or the changes brought about by the larger pandemic.

Emily Lines