The Oakland Growth and Berkeley Guidance Studies of the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley

Description of the Study and Data Collection

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, two pioneering studies of children were launched at the Institute of Child Welfare (now Human Development) at the University of California, Berkeley:

  • The Oakland Growth Study, under the direction of Harold Jones and Herbert Stolz, was launched in 1931 to study the normal physical, intellectual, and social development of boys and girls, and commenced data collection in 1932. The 167 children who were intensively studied from 1932 to 1939 were initially selected from the fifth and sixth grades (birth years 1920-1921) of five elementary schools in the northeastern section of Oakland, California. There were five waves of data collection during the adult years, finishing in 1980-1981. These follow-ups generally included interviews, health assessments, personality inventories, and fact-sheet questionnaires.
  • The Berkeley Guidance Study, under the direction of Jean Macfarlane, started with a sample of 248 infants who were born in Berkeley, California in 1928-1929. This sample was divided into two groups; an intensively studied group, which provided detailed annual information on socioeconomic conditions and family patterns, and a less intensively studied “control” group, which was matched on social and economic characteristics. Most of the children were Caucasian and Protestant, and two-thirds came from middle-class families. The basic cohort includes 214 of these children and their families who participated in the study through the 1930s and up to the end of World War II. Annual data collection ended in 1946, but there were two adult follow-ups (1959–1960 and 1969) in which most of the children participated.

Research Program

Elder’s most famous book and a source of life course theory, Children of the Great Depression, was based on his work with the Oakland cohort. In that book, he combined a social-historical and developmental approach to assess the influence of the economic crisis on the life course of those 167 people born in 1920-1921. The book was published in 1974 (a 25th Anniversary edition includes a new chapter) and is based on data collected through the early 1960s. This chapter investigates the impact of World War II and includes the results from comparative studies with a younger birth cohort, the Berkeley Guidance Study.

Contrary to expectations at the time, Elder and his colleagues found that a great many of the children in the Oakland sample succeeded in rising above their childhood disadvantages and in achieving a full life to the seventh decade. The Oakland children encountered Depression hardships after a relatively secure phase of early development in the 1920s, and they left home after the worst years of the 1930s for education, work, and family.

This historical pattern differed strikingly for the members of the Berkeley Guidance study born at the end of the 1920s. These children experienced the vulnerable years of childhood during the worst years of the Great Depression, a period of extraordinary stress and instability. Their adolescence coincided with the “empty households of World War II” when parents worked from sunup to sundown in essential industry.


A life course theoretical orientation toward understanding the social and psychological development of these two cohorts led Elder to propose five paradigmatic principles, which together define “life course theory”:

  1. The principle of lifelong development and aging (see Elder & Johnson, 2002).
  2. The principle of historical time and placeThe life course of individuals is embedded in and shaped by the historical times and events they experience over their lifetime.
  3. The principle of timing in livesThe developmental impact of a succession of life transitions or events is contingent on when they occur in a person’s life.
  4. The principle of linked livesLives are lived interdependently, and social-historical influences are expressed through this network of shared relationships.
  5. The principle of human agencyIndividuals construct their own life course through the choices and actions they take within the opportunities and constraints of history and social circumstances.

Selected Citations

Elder, Glen H., Jr. 1974. Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (1999, reissued as 25th Anniversary Edition, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.)

Elder, Glen H., Jr. 1979. “Historical Change in Life Patterns and Personality.” Pp. 117-159 in Life-Span Development and Behavior, edited by P. Baltes and O. Brim, Jr. (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., and Jeffrey K. Liker. 1982. “Hard Times in Women’s Lives: Historical Influences Across 40 Years.” American Journal of Sociology 88(2): 241-269.

Liker, Jeffrey K., and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1983. “Economic Hardship and Marital Relations in the 1930s.” American Sociological Review 48(3): 343-359.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Jeffrey K. Liker, and Catherine E. Cross. 1984. “Parent-Child Behavior in the Great Depression: Life Course and Intergenerational Influences.” Pp. 109-158 in Life-Span Development and Behavior, edited by Paul B. Baltes and Orville G. Brim, Jr. (Volume 6). New York: Academic Press.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Jeffrey K. Liker, and Bernard J. Jaworski. 1984. “Hardship in Lives: Depression Influences from the 1930s to Old Age in Postwar America.” Pp. 161-201 in Life-Span Developmental Psychology: Historical and Generational Effects, edited by Kathleen McCluskey and Hayne Reese. New York: Academic Press.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Tri Van Nguyen, and Avshalom Caspi. 1985. “Linking Family Hardship to Children’s Lives.” Child Development 56(2): 361-375.

Caspi, Avshalom, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1986. “Life Satisfaction in Old Age: Linking Social Psychology and History.” Psychology and Aging 1(1): 18-26.

Elder, Glen H., Jr. 1986. “Military Times and Turning Points in Men’s Lives.” Developmental Psychology 22(2): 233-245.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Avshalom Caspi, and Geraldine Downey. 1986. “Problem Behavior and Family Relationships: Life Course and Intergenerational Themes.” Pp. 293-340 in Human Development and the Life Course: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Aage B. Sørensen, Franz E. Weinert, and Lonnie R. Sherrod. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Avshalom Caspi, and Tri Van Nguyen. 1986. “Resourceful and Vulnerable Children: Family Influences in Hard Times.” Pp. 167-186 in Development as Action in Context: Problem Behavior and Normal Youth Development, edited by R.K. Silbereisen, K. Eyferth, and G. Rudinger. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Geraldine Downey, and Catherine E. Cross. 1986. “Family Ties and Life Changes: Hard Times and Hard Choices in Women’s Lives since the Great Depression.” Pp. 151-183 in Life-Span Developmental Psychology: Intergenerational Relations, edited by Nancy Datan, Anita L. Greene, and Hayne W. Reese. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Caspi, Avshalom, Glen H. Elder, Jr., and Daryl J. Bem. 1987. “Moving Against the World: Life Course Patterns of Explosive Children.” Developmental Psychology 23(2): 308-313.

Elder, Glen H., Jr. 1987. “War Mobilization and the Life Course: A Cohort of World War II Veterans.” Sociological Forum 2(3): 449-472.

Caspi, Avshalom, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1988. “Childhood Precursors of the Life Course: Early Personality and Life Disorganization.” Pp. 115-142 in Child Development in Life Course Perspective, edited by E. Mavis Hetherington, Richard M. Lerner, and Marion Perlmutter. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Caspi, Avshalom, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1988. “Emergent Family Patterns: The Intergenerational Construction of Problem Behaviour and Relationships.” Pp. 218-240 in Relationships within Families: Mutual Influences, edited by Robert A. Hinde and Joan Stevenson-Hinde. New York: Oxford University Press.

Caspi, Avshalom, Glen H. Elder, Jr., and Daryl J. Bem. 1988. “Moving Away from the World: Life Course Patterns of Shy Children.” Developmental Psychology 24(6): 824-831.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., and Elizabeth C. Clipp. 1988. “Combat Experience, Comradeship, and Psychological Health.” Pp. 131-156 in Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress: From the Holocaust to Vietnam, edited by John P. Wilson, Zev Harel, and Boaz Kahana. New York: Plenum.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., and Elizabeth C. Clipp. 1988. “Wartime Losses and Social Bonding: Influences Across 40 Years in Men’s Lives.” Psychiatry 51: 177-198.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., and Elizabeth Colerick Clipp. 1989. “Combat Experience and Emotional Health: Impairment and Resilience in Later Life.” Journal of Personality 57(2): 311-341.

Elder, Glen H., Jr. 1999. “Beyond ‘Children of the Great Depression’.” Pp. 301-343 (Chapter 11) in Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience, by Glen H. Elder, Jr. 25th Anniversary Edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., and Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson. 2002. “The Life Course and Aging: Challenges, Lessons, and New Directions.” Pp. 49-81 in Invitation to the Life Course: Toward New Understandings of Later Life, Part II, edited by Richard A. Settersten, Jr. (Chapter 2).  Amityville, NY: Baywood.