Western societies have typically viewed the human life span as consisting of a series of periods or stages, beginning with conception and ending in death. The prenatal stage, from conception until birth, is divided into the germinal period (first 2 weeks), the embryonic period (2-8 weeks), and the fetal period. The time from birth to the end of the second year is infancy, and early childhood is the preschool period from 2 to 5 or 6 years. Middle childhood is from age 6 to puberty, and adolescence is from the start of puberty to age 20 (or adulthood). The third and fourth decades of life (ages 20-40) are known as early adulthood, age 40 to 65 is middle adulthood, and age 65 until death is known as later adulthood, or old age. Each stage is characterized by certain milestones in the development of physical and psychosocial characteristics. As indicated earlier in the chapter, today, many physically mature individuals remain dependent on their parents or other caretakers and do not assume the economic and social roles of adulthood until well past their twentieth birthday. Consequently, at least from a socioeconomic and a psychosocial perspective, these individuals are not yet adults.
The stage- or age-grading of development and its association with social status also occurs in non-Western societies and cultures, though the designations are not the same as those in Western cultures. For example, the St. Lawrence Eskimos have only a two-stage system consisting of boys and men or girls and women. The Arusha people of East Africa, on the other hand, group males into six social strata according to age—youth, junior warriors, senior warriors, junior elders, senior elders, and retired elders. The Arusha also place adolescent boys who have been circumcised in the coming-of-age ceremony in a separate group. Other societies employ other methods of grouping according to age (Keith, 1990).
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