Life Transitions

Life transitions may be defined as significant changes within the life course. According to the life course perspective, lives are composed of multiple, interrelated developmental trajectories. For example, a life course includes personal relationship trajectories, an educational trajectory, an employment trajectory, and physical health trajectories, among others. These trajectories are marked or accentuated by significant life transitions, with transitions in one trajectory often necessitating or involving transitions in another. The transition to adulthood may involve a residential transition from the family of origin to independent residence, graduation from high school and enrollment in some form of higher education or entry into the workforce, and significant relationship transitions as individuals move away from old friends and form new connections. The implications of life transitions, from a counseling perspective, vary dramatically by historical period, socioeconomic status, gender, race and ethnicity, as well as by individual factors such as personality, coping styles, social support networks, and other resources.

Life Course Transitions

A traditional developmental perspective describes developmental tasks to be completed at each stage or transition in life. For instance, a Western developmental perspective might define the transition to adulthood as involving further establishment of personal identity, and increasing social and economic independence from parents. A life course perspective acknowledges the developmental uniqueness of transitions, but emphasizes the embedding of transitions within social contexts and historic and temporal processes. Thus, the meaning of a given transition, and individuals’ ease in traversing it, depends on the social contexts within which it occurs. Similarly, the effects of social contexts on individuals depend on the stage or transition in the life course during which they occur. For example, research on the psychological and socioeconomic effects of military experiences during World War II found that effects depended on whether entry into the military occurred in early or later adulthood. For those entering the military right out of high school and before they had invested heavily in their careers, military service often resulted in positive socioeconomic outcomes in later adulthood, as it provided training and work experiences, educational, health, and financial benefits, as well as a much improved economy upon returning home. In contrast, for those entering the military in their early 30s, military experience represented a major interruption of careers and family lives, resulting in significant setbacks upon returning home.

An important distinction is whether transitions occur at normative times and in normative sequences. Life course theory posits that life transitions are age graded, meaning that they typically occur within a given age range, and in a normative sequence. Transitions that occur at unusual ages (i.e., “off time”), or out of sequence, may be particularly difficult. The loss of a parent, for example, although never insignificant, has been found to have very different consequences if it occurs early in life (e.g., during childhood) or at a more normative age in later midlife. In addition to the timing of transitions, their duration is also of consequence. Research on the effects of poverty for children, for example, finds that short spells of poverty are less detrimental than prolonged exposures to economic hardship.

Contrary to developmental perspectives that emphasize continuity and the linear unfolding of human development over time, life course theory emphasizes discontinuity and nonlinearity. For example, research into the effects of job loss and other economic strains during the Great Depression found that economic conditions interacted with personality characteristics. Men with a propensity for aggression became even more aggressive in response to these challenges, and this accentuation of personal characteristics continued across the life course. Perhaps more interesting, however, are how later life transitions may represent turning points within the life course. Research on deviance across the life course has observed an apparent paradox. When viewed retrospectively, nearly all criminals are observed to have had delinquent pasts. When viewed prospectively (i.e., forward in time), in contrast, few juvenile delinquents go on to commit crimes as adults. One reason for the change is that most delinquents are drawn away from deviance through later positive life transitions, such as obtaining stable jobs or entering good marriages. In part, this growing out of delinquency is consistent with a pattern known as adolescent limited delinquency. Other research on turning points emphasizes the social psychological and symbolic nature of changes in identities that enable one to take advantage of these potential resources in adulthood.

Life course theory also emphasizes that individuals’ transition experiences are inextricably linked to the lives of their significant others (e.g., spouses, partners, children, extended family members, friends, and other social networks). Thus, the effect of a transition is often moderated by the nature and extent of these social connections. For instance, research has found that undesirable economic transitions, such as loss of a job or loss of a family farm, affect parents, but also “spillover” to have detrimental consequences for children. Some research on gender differences in stress has found women to be more exposed to undesirable life events through their more extensive social support networks.

The Stress Process and Transitions

The stress process model offers additional insights into the potential effects of life transitions. Most broadly, the stress model predicts that undesirable life events (e.g., job loss, death of spouse) produce stress and may result in diminished psychological or physical well-being. Even desirable transitional events, such as the birth of a child or receiving a job promotion, require adaptations that may produce stress. The type or nature of a given life event is critical to understanding its potential consequences. An important distinction within the stress literature is whether a given life event or transition is acute or part of a more chronic pattern of stressors. By definition, acute stressors are of short duration. They also tend to be more randomly distributed within the population, and to have more limited and short-term consequences. Chronic stressors tend to be associated with socioeconomic and other (race and ethnicity, gender) disadvantages, and represent recurrent problems that may accumulate over the life course and result in serious outcomes (e.g., increased morbidity or mortality). For example, chronic stressors (e.g., unemployment, food insecurity, exposure to environmental hazards) and poor quality social services (e.g., schools, health care) associated with low socioeconomic and minority status are thought to produce a premature weathering of the body and increased risks of morbidity and mortality. Life events that are out of individuals’ control, are unexpected, and/or threaten salient personal identities are also found to be more stressful. For example, research has found job or economic-oriented life events to be more detrimental to men’s well-being than to women’s, as they threaten men’s identities as family economic providers. Women, in contrast, may be more influenced by undesirable life events within the family.

The stress literature also focuses attention on personal and social resources that individuals may draw upon to buffer the effects of transitional life events on well-being. Personal resources often associated with positive outcomes include self-esteem and self-efficacy. An individual’s repertoire of coping strategies may also moderate the consequences of life transitions. Persons with more active coping or problem-solving styles are often better able to deal with stressors than those who respond passively or by ignoring the problem. Research also finds that the way individuals appraise the causes of life events (i.e., causal attributions) influences outcomes. For instance, life events that can be attributable to external causes (e.g., job loss during the Great Depression) are less likely to result in negative psychological outcomes than those that are attributed to individual deficiencies. Studies of job losses have found that the more people are able to make lateral social comparisons to others in similar situations, and/or positive social comparisons to those worse off, the better they are able to cope with their own stressors. Research similarly finds that the degree to which the external community attributes life events to the person, versus external causes, influences the amount of social stigma people experience. The material and economic resources at individuals’ disposal are of obvious potential benefit for dealing with stressful life transitions. Relating closely to the life course concept of linked lives is the concept of social support. Perceived and actual social support (e.g., from spouses, external family, and social networks) is found to both directly influence well-being and to buffer against the negative effects of undesirable life events.

The life course and social stress literatures offer insights into understanding those who are best able to adapt to life transitions and other undesirable events. A variety of studies identify variables associated with resilient individuals (i.e., those able to beat the odds), including individual or social-psychological characteristics such as planfulness, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and intelligence; and social and socioeconomic resources such as community involvement, social support, human and financial capital, and high-quality public institutions and services. These perspectives also highlight the importance of considering how individuals and families actively adapt to their environments and transitional demands. In the study of families living in poor and/or dangerous neighborhoods, researchers have found that successful parents employ a variety of tactics to minimize youth’s exposure to community risks. Examples include “lock-ins,” early curfews, family chaperonage, restrictions on places children are allowed to go, and tight control over relationships with peers. Such practices might be characterized as too restrictive or “authoritarian” within lower-risk contexts, but within stressful environments, they appear to be positively adaptive.

Childhood Transitions

One of the first major transitions in life is the transition from home to formal schooling. Rather than a discrete transition, however, entry into formal schooling may include transitions from home to day care, from day care to prekindergarten (pre-K) programs, and from pre-K programs to kindergarten. Transitions from kindergarten to first grade, and subsequent grade transitions, must also be considered because of their unique developmental and social circumstances. Given associations between later academic difficulties and performance during the first several years of schooling, research and policymakers have focused on factors associated with school readiness, and interventions such as the Head Start program and other pre-K experiences. In addition to cognitive readiness, a student’s social and behavioral competencies are also critical. Entry into elementary school involves a considerable change in social context, as kindergartens and first grades are typically larger than preschool or day care arrangements, and involve a more rigid set of behavioral regulations. Most research indicates that positive relationships between children and adults (both teachers and parents) are critical to fostering readiness.

Other research has focused on the yearly transitions from school back to families and neighborhoods during summer breaks. Though children start the school year with varying abilities, research has shown that all children make gains at about the same rate over the school year. However, research has shown that educational inequality increases during the summer. It is believed that the relative lack of resources available within the families and communities of poor and minority children explain these growing disparities over the summer.

A particularly significant maturational transition during adolescence is puberty. Early pubertal development is potentially problematic for both males and females, as it is associated with early sexual activity and increased delinquency. Among boys, early pubertal development predicts both violent and nonviolent delinquency, likely due to its association with greater access to older peers. Early pubertal development among females is also associated with earlier sexual activity and greater exposure to intimate partner violence. Moreover, greater exposure to intimate partner violence may explain changing gender differences in psychological well-being during this period. Prior to puberty, males tend to have higher depression than females. This gender difference switches during puberty, with females developing higher rates of depression. This disparity is found to persist across much of adulthood. A related important issue for females is perceived body image. Negative perceived body image during adolescence has also been found to account for the higher depression and lower self-esteem of females relative to males.

Transitions from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school have also been found to be challenging. Many studies have observed setbacks during these transitions in psychological well-being and academic competence, including diminished perceptions of ability and loss of intrinsic motivations for learning. These transitions are thought to be difficult for several reasons, including ongoing pubertal development, the need to renegotiate peer relations within more diverse (e.g., in terms of ages and social statuses) student bodies, and the increasing competitiveness and stratification of schooling.

Transitions associated with family moves during childhood and adolescence may present challenges due to their disruption of friendship and other social networks. Research has found, however, that supportive parents may buffer youth against the negative effects of family mobility. The effects of family migration also vary as a function of social class and the impetus for moves. Moves associated with upward social mobility are likely to be less detrimental than are those associated with job losses, or that are necessitated by other undesirable life events. Though people’s stability in their community is generally found to be associated with positive outcomes, inability to move away from poor and dangerous neighborhoods may be associated with restricted access to resources and ongoing experiences of discrimination.

The Transition to Adulthood

Perhaps most examined is the transition to adulthood, which typically involves the multiple transitions of moving away from the family of origin, transitions to higher education and/or employment, and the formation of new family and other significant relationships. Transitions to higher education are now quite widespread, with nearly 70% of high school graduates continuing on to college as of 2005. Not surprisingly, this transition varies significantly across subgroups of the population, with women outpacing men, and Asian and White young adults more likely to be enrolled than African Americans and Latinos/as. Of increasing importance in the transition to higher education are community colleges and other 2-year institutions. Community colleges are particularly appealing to those who have traditionally been unable to pursue higher education, whether due to limited economic resources, poorer academic performance, or other risk factors. Graduate and professional degree programs have also increased in importance, further extending the transition to adulthood and delaying, for many, transitions to marriage and childbearing.

For disadvantaged youth, the transition to adulthood is becoming more perilous. Exposure to violence in poor neighborhoods and schools has been identified as a significant risk factor for poor psychological, social, and behavioral development (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder, aggression, depression). Exposure to violence undermines youth’s sense of control, frustrates learning, and may lead to a foreshortened adolescence. Exposure to street and intimate partner violence has been linked to a variety of “early exits” to adulthood, including dropping out of high school, running away from home, teen pregnancy, and suicidal thoughts. Another significant risk within the lives of disadvantaged young men is incarceration. Increasingly punitive federal and state policies and increased funding for police and penitentiary facilities over the past several decades have resulted in a tremendous growth of the incarcerated population. Most affected by this change are low-education minority men, for whom incarceration is now a nearly expected stage in the life course. For example, nearly 60% of African American males without a high school diploma will have spent some time in prison by their early 30s. For those who have been convicted of criminal offenses, the transition back into the community has also become more difficult due to increased surveillance and monitoring within the parole system, and to limitations placed on their rights to public services, employment and, in some cases, citizenship. The “collateral consequences” of incarceration to relationships between incarcerated men and their spouses and partners, children, and communities are beginning to receive increased research and policy attention. Though not widespread, comprehensive reunification and fatherhood programs within prisons and the community offer some promise for easing this transition.

Family transitions during early adulthood are becoming both more delayed and diverse. Numerous trends have affected family transitions over the past half century, including delayed age of marriage, increased rates of nonmarital fertility and single parent households, and increased cohabitation. Also contributing to fewer married households were rising divorce rates during the 1960s and ’70s, which leveled off and have declined somewhat since the early 1980s. Current projections of the likelihood of experiencing the transition to divorce vary based on assumptions about future demographic conditions. Nonetheless, between 43% and 50% of first marriages are likely to end in divorce within 15 years. These divorce rates vary considerably across subgroups, with women marrying at young ages considerably more likely to divorce than those marrying at later ages. Cohabitation prior to marriage is now the norm, but is also less likely to lead to marriage than in the past, particularly among low-income and minority couples. One very positive trend in recent years is a decline in teenage fertility, particularly among African American youth.

Policymakers have increasingly paid attention to these trends due to the mounting evidence that living in married couple families (i.e., versus single parent families) is associated with a wide range of socioeconomic, psychological, and physical health outcomes. Welfare reform, child support enforcement, and more recent marriage promotion and father involvement initiatives have each sought to change incentives related to marriage and nonmarital fertility. Critics, however, counter that marriage promotion among disadvantaged couples may not make economic sense due to the poor economic prospects of men, and may expose women and children to abuse and other risk factors in the lives of disadvantaged men. Other researchers point out that divorce may result in positive outcomes when it alleviates chronic stress or abuse within the family. As more fathers live apart from their children, researchers have sought to identify factors associated with positive outcomes for children. Fathers able to retain emotional closeness to their children and who actively engage in authoritative parenting have been found to be most successful.

The transition to parenthood is a life-changing process. Previous research finds, particularly in the case of a first birth, that the transition to parenthood frequently produces stress for the individual parents and the couple’s relationships. As with other transitions, the nature and degree of consequences depends on personal characteristics, individual and family adaptations, timing, and other contextual resources upon which parents may draw.

Midlife Transitions and Beyond

Perhaps the best-known concept associated with middle adulthood is the midlife crisis. The term usually refers to men’s lives and disappointments associated with transitions at work or within the family. Although surveys suggest that many adults expect to go through a midlife crisis at some time, it is perhaps more constructive to discuss the multiple transitions that men and women may face during an increasingly prolonged middle adulthood. Midlife has become both longer and more varied, due to improvements in health care and increased longevity, as well as changes in the nature of careers.

The notion of a single career, pursued within a single company, is a thing of the past, and was a construct that applied mostly to middle- and upper-class White men rather than all workers. It has been replaced for many by careers marked by employment for multiple companies, of mid-career “retooling” (going back to school), and significant career changes. Some have characterized this change as going from linear career trajectories to “negotiated” careers. Longitudinal studies of contemporary careers have identified several common career sequences, including the traditional stable, long-term tenure at a single firm, an upwardly mobile path with multiple transitions between jobs, intermittent careers with multiple entries and exits, and a stable part-time work trajectory. Men are more likely to follow the stable full-time and upwardly mobile paths, whereas women, especially those who are responsible for child or elder care, are more likely to pursue the intermittent and stable part-time routes.

Another common transition, particularly for women who have cut short their educations or careers due to family demands, is to go back to school and/ or reenter the labor force. For those going back to school, being a nontraditional student can be both challenging and rewarding. In addition to concerns about fitting in with predominantly younger student peers, many educational institutions are not organized to accommodate the schedules of older students. Older students are more likely to experience role conflicts or strains associated with juggling both educational and family responsibilities. More positively, however, other research points to the psychological benefits of holding multiple productive roles.

When children are economically independent enough to move out of the parental home, parents may transition into what is commonly called the empty nest phase. Far from a crisis, research has actually found that parents are happiest during this empty nest stage. For many, however, this empty nest phase is increasingly delayed or interrupted, as adult children may delay leaving home in order to pursue higher education, save up to buy their own house, or move back home following divorce or other unexpected life events. Within disadvantaged communities, and particularly in the case of single mother families, it is quite common to have multiple-generation households in which grandparents move in to provide social and economic support. The many productive roles that grandparents play within multiple generation households are receiving increased attention within both the research and policymaking communities. An adult’s parents may also move into the household due to their own deteriorating health or for economic well-being. If the children are not yet out of the house, this situation is described as a “sandwich,” in which adults are doubly burdened by caring for children and their dependent parents. Research into the effects of such multigenerational caregiving on depression suggests that the burden is higher for women, however, other research finds that having multiple productive roles confers positive psychological benefits as well.

Just as careers are becoming more varied, so too is the transition to retirement. Rather than a single transition point, retirement is better conceived of as an ongoing process. Work retirement may be gradual or intermittent, with transitions from full-time to part-time work, from private sector to self-employment, or the starting of second or third careers. For some, the transition begins many years prior to actually leaving the job, with the initiation of financial and lifestyle planning for retirement. The degree of planning for retirement, however, varies considerably by social class and other statuses. Those with unstable work histories, those at risk for job loss, and those with declining health are not able to plan for and retire on their own terms. As is true of work transitions in general, retirement is a transition that often affects more than one person. An individual’s retirement decision making is thus influenced by the career and health transitions of spouses or partners and perhaps other family members.

Due to increases in longevity, researchers are increasingly interested in factors associated with successful aging. Though definitions of successful aging (or aging well) vary considerably, most entail the absence of physical disabilities and a sense of life satisfaction. Much like the concept of resilience, being adaptive in the face of change and continued social engagement, including volunteering activities and participation in other productive roles, has been found to be associated with effective maintenance of psychological and physical health.

As life expectancies continue to rise, transitions to caregiving roles increase in both likelihood and duration. Interventions that provide information and respite to caregivers of persons with dementia or other Alzheimer’s-related symptoms are receiving increased research attention. The transition to widowhood and its duration is also of increasing importance, particularly for women who have considerably longer life expectancies than do men. Though widowhood often triggers distress and poorer physical health, these associations may be buffered by social support from family, friends, and social networks, positive health habits, and the widows’ continued participation in informal community activities.

Finally, researchers have begun to analyze the transition to death, and conceptualize positive transitions in terms of dying well. This is usually defined in terms of minimizing unnecessary pain and psychological distress, facilitating contact between the individual and his or her most significant others, as well as satisfaction of surviving family members with the experience. The quality of physicians’ care of patients, and patient and family members’ efficacy and control over decision making, are contributing factors to a relatively positive experience. In the case of sudden deaths, however, many of these ideal factors may not be possible, and thus concern focuses on the psychological adjustment of survivors.


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