TitleFlux: Insights into the Social Aspects of Life Transitions
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsSettersten, RA, Thogmartin, A
JournalResearch in Human Development
Pagination360 - 373
Date Published10/2018

Life transitions are often conceptualized and studied as individual experiences. But in reality, transitions are rarely individual: they are relational. We offer a set of insights into the social aspects of transitions. Transitions are experienced with and alongside others in states of interdependence. Family and other relationships can be key sources of support for transitions but also create risks. Changes in the transition patterns of cohorts are fertile ground for intergenerational tension in families and societies. Much of the action relevant to understanding life transitions is also found in the mind, in processes related to inequality, and in invisible forces related to history, demography, and institutions. Illustrations reinforce the principle that to understand the personal, we must look beyond the personal. Because transitions have strong social aspects, they can be strengthened through interventions, institutions, and policies.

Transitions are at the heart of human experience. All of human life occurs in time; time brings change; and, as the saying goes, there is nothing more constant than change. As we grow up and older, our individual motivations, desires, aspirations, expectations, personalities, and social personae change. Our lives join with and are challenged by changing environments: as we move through family settings, schools, communities, workplaces; generations in families, age groups in the population, and a slice of national and world history.

The world outside also seems to be changing even faster than we are. We feel as if we cannot keep pace with and are unprepared for these changes, and we feel unsettled at our core—a hallmark of human experience that American writer and political commentator Walter Lippmann (1914 Lippmann, W. (1914). Drift and mastery: An attempt to diagnose the current unrest. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
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) observed more than a century ago. In expressing this idea, Lippmann could not have possibly imagined the degree and types of change, for better and for worse, that human beings would experience in the 100 years to come.

All of these things leave the circumstances of our lives, and our identities, in flux. Life transitions are often conceptualized and studied as individual experiences, with a strong focus on psychological aspects. But in this article, we put forward nine insights to illustrate that many of the most important, but often invisible or taken-for-granted, aspects of life transitions are instead social in nature. Transitions are inherently social experiences, with social determinants and social consequences. Because of this, they are also malleable and can be strengthened through interventions, institutions, and policies.

Short TitleResearch in Human Development