It is common in the education world to talk of ‘peers’. For younger people, perhaps because of their physical size, it is easier to classify peer groups. Babies and toddlers are two distinct groups, as are nursery, infants and juniors. Once the secondary phase education is reached, divisions tend to be associated with a hierarchy of status defined by the school years dictated by having passed through some stages of important examinations. Therefore post 14 and post 16 seem to be major stages. After school, there is more of a diversification, as undergraduates, young workers and young jobless form the basis of some different groupings. After that, convention in western society seems to lose much definition of stages. Adults may well be grouped as independent, young couples, young families etc.
Dictated by stages of life then, the characteristics of peer groups are important. They are recognised in marketing – on the high street, there are some shops whose clientelle is drawn mainly from a certain set of peer groups. Across the world in different cultures, the groupings of childhood, junior adulthood, senior adulthood, junior elderhood and senior elderhood are reflected in things like ‘rite of passage’ ceremonies. Nevertheless, in the UK, we do not have any particular identifier for crossing into senior or elder adulthood – save for lifestyle changes and, perhaps, receiving access to pension entitlements.
This may seem obvious, but generally social groupings in our lives are based upon sharing similar traits and some of the basic are rooted in the peer group theories and systems, both informal and formal. Adults create their own peer groups, differentiated by social status, physical status, finaincial status and even interests and predjuces. It is, perhaps, easier for adults to identify which people they do not consider peers, rather than those that are – it all depends upon how wide the net is cast. But it does seem that the typical 70 year old could been seen as being a member of more than one distinct peer group.
Peer groups enable society to adapt its structure to cater for the needs of those peer groups. Toddlers, for instance, are provided for through various distinct services in all communities. Whilst toddlers are taken care of, an important sub-group is also assisted in its social bonding – that of parents, who develop their interrealtionships whilst their children are engaged. As adults age, however, the possibility of peer groups increase, but actual opportunities perhaps atre less well defined. Some grandparents benefit from having a stake in the peer group their grandchildren belong to in the same way as mentioned just above.
Whichever mechanism peer groups spring from, it does seem that having something in common is a major factor in how they are defined. But as adults show us, peer groups are not really age-related, but stage-of-life-related. The life course is diverse and people naturally seek out others similar to them, who share empathy, perhaps have a similar amount of availability and physical ability and can communicate on an equal footing. These defining characterisitcs are crucial for us to recognise if we are to even begin to provide for society as opposed to just for individual need. Economically, we cannot realistically cater for every single need of every individual, but if we cater for the wants and desires of accurate peer groups, as we do with toddlers, then we can spread the effectiveness of what is offered to more people at a lower cost.