Life Transitions in America

Life Transitions in America


Copyright © Francesco Duina 2014
The right of Francesco Duina to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2014 by Polity Press
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ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8231-0
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Figures and Tables
I Introduction
  1.  Discourse and Transitions in Life
II Eight Transitions
  2.  Starting College
  3.  Getting Married
  4.  The First Child
  5.  Losing a Job
  6.  Surviving a Life-Threatening Disease
  7.  Divorce
  8.  Parents’ Death
  9.  Retirement
III Conclusion
10.  Transitions in America
Appendix: Data Sources Overview

Figures and Tables


4.1    Percentage of Households with Children
5.1    Unemployment Rate in the United States
9.1    Retirement and Leisure


1.1    Transitions in American Discourse
3.1    Marriage, Order, and Boundaries
10.1  The Dominant American Discourse on Eight Transitions
10.2  The Dominant American Discourse on Four Additional Transitions


This book benefited greatly from the suggestions of a number of academics and experts in various fields of sociology, including the life course, culture, demography, gender, and health. Jonathan Eastwood (Washington and Lee University), Liah Greenfeld (Boston University), Roberta Strippoli (SUNY Binghamton), Tim Marjoribanks (LaTrobe University, Australia), and John Glenn (US Global Leadership Coalition) shared with me valuable ideas about the overall direction of this project, the text, and life transitions in different countries. My comparative perspective was further enhanced in 2012 when I visited McGill University in Montreal, Canada, to discuss this book with leading sociologists and demographers. There, Professors Shelley Clark, John Hall, Céline Le Bourdais, Michael Smith, and Elaine Weiner offered substantive and methodological insights. My time at the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning with former president Pat Steele and current president Colin Hudson also proved very fruitful.

I wrote several of this book’s chapters while on sabbatical from Bates College (an American small Liberal arts college in Maine, where I taught from 2000 to 2013) in 2012. The College also supported me with funding for research, which allowed me to hire Kevin Regan during his senior year at Bates: his help was invaluable, and this book owes much to him. My departmental colleagues – Professors Emily Kane, Heidi Taylor, and Sawyer Sylvester – proved themselves, as always, unfailingly supportive and helpful. I was able to present my research on this project at two departmental research lunches in 2011 and 2012, where many of our majors were present. Bates, and its Sociology Department in particular, is lucky to have such inquisitive and intelligent undergraduates on campus. Their questions and reflections helped me refine several of my claims. I joined the University of British Columbia in 2013. Immediately upon my arrival, I received generous financial support to review the proofs of the book and benefited from a supportive intellectual environment.

At Polity Press, Jonathan Skerrett once again embodied all the qualities that authors wish all editors could have: a keen intellect, a deep understanding of the material at hand, vision and the ability to offer constructive criticisms, and total reliability and clarity. Ian Tuttle copy-edited the manuscript with attention and precision. Four anonymous reviewers, in turn, greatly helped me improve the book. They were at once supportive and able to offer profoundly useful suggestions for changes. What follows owes much to them as well.

Finally, I would like to thank my wife Angela and our two children Sofia and Luca. In many ways, I wrote this book with them in mind: life is full of transitions, and many of these have to do with family. Yet, writing this book meant spending endless hours away from them. They never objected and instead supported me with a positive and loving spirit throughout.

Part I


1  Discourse and Transitions in Life

Transitions are an important part of life. We start experiencing them at a very early age – we begin kindergarten, or join and then leave a summer camp – and continue to do so as we grow into adults and old age. Transitions provide texture to our lives. They are also moments of potentiality and definition. Something comes to an end, and something new presents itself to us. In some cases, the “new” is already somewhat defined or will give us only a few chances to pause and think: we have gotten a new job or our first child is born, for example. In other cases, the “new” is rather fuzzy at best and quite often allows us time for reflection. Something that took up much of our energy and attention is suddenly over. We have purchased our first home, obtained our divorce, run the marathon, or finished our college thesis.

In all of these moments, an apparently innocuous but in fact challenging and often frightening question presents itself to us: What’s next? With the force and logic that propelled us forward to this point now less relevant, we stare at what is in front of us and wonder what, exactly, should happen now. We sense the infinity before us. Some of us decide that we cannot afford to think for too long and are eager to come to some sort of resolution. Others begin to feel depressed. And still others rejoice and savor the opportunity to craft their future. Reflecting on the past, we wonder about its possible connections to whatever our next steps might be. Are we progressing toward something? Are we leaving the past behind once and for all? Are we alone? We feel time going by, the pulse of life itself. These are some of the most defining moments in our lives.

This book explores the dominant discourse on life transitions in America: the “ensemble of ideas” and “concepts,” to use the words of prominent Dutch political scientist Maarten Hajier, which are constantly articulated in the media, the statements of leading figures, the majority opinions in survey polls, the stances found in the policies and programs of powerful organizations, movies, leading websites and blogs, greeting cards, and other elements of what we may call public culture, and which give “meaning”1 to those transitions and, in fact, as social theorist Anthony Giddens sees it, help us make sense of and organize in practice those transitions.2 What common language and themes do we encounter? What interpretations and recommendations are consistently being put forth? How are we told to think about and make use of transitions?

The analysis will reveal that there are two primary approaches to transitions in the American dominant discourse – what I call New Beginnings and Continuity with Others. The first approach emphasizes newness, openness, and personal recreation. Transitions are depicted as opportunities for self-improvement and self- transformation, as points of departure and instances where we should capitalize on the change before us to create something new. Even negative transitions are cast in this light. This is an optimistic, energizing, almost aggressive interpretation of transitions. The second approach emphasizes the cycle of life, our connection to others, and predictability. The emphasis here is on the natural order of things, tranquility, even inevitability. It is a more accepting interpretation. Both approaches have deep roots in American history and culture. They stand, as well, in sharp contrast to each other, but are also complementary. The logic and flavor of one helps us appreciate the logic and flavor of the other. Both deserve careful unpacking and understanding.

A major impetus for writing this book was how prominently transitions figure in the lives of many Americans. Americans think about them a lot and conceptualize many moments in life as transitions. Transitions are at the forefront of our collective preoccupations: they are a constant subject of conversation among friends, family members, and colleagues. We worry about them, take them very seriously, and subject them to consideration and analysis. We can see clear signs of this preoccupation by browsing through the sections and books of American traditional and virtual bookstores. If we look at the Self-Help or Self-Improvement sections – themselves typically very large relative to the rest of the holdings – we quickly notice that a great number of books are related to managing specific life transitions: the teenage years, young adulthood, getting married, becoming fit, becoming parents, addiction and recovery, surviving break-ups of personal relationships, aging, retiring, and so on. Entire sub-sections of are devoted to these transitions. Under “Aging” alone we find over 4,500 books. “Divorce” has over 1,500 titles, and “Addictions & Recovery” has around 2,900 books. On, we find an entire sub-section labeled “Personal Transformation,” with a total of 35,521 books.3

These are impressive numbers, and they become all the more so when we consider the categorizations and books found in bookstores in other countries. has over the years built major sites dedicated to the Italian, French, and Spanish markets. What do we find there? On the Italian site, there is no dedicated section for Self-Help or Self-Improvement. Under the many sections that do exist, none is devoted to any major transition. The same applies to the French site. Only under the Spanish site do we find, under the section Salud, familia y desarrollo personal (Health, family, and personal development) a sub-section called Desarrollo personal y autoayuda (Personal development and self-help). No further categorization is given, however, and the viewer has to search by typing keywords for specific transitions. Even then, the number of results is quite small, with Divorcio (Divorce), for instance, generating only 343 titles (as compared to 17,950 on the American site), and Jubilación (Retirement) yielding only 100 titles (against 15,712 available on the American site).4

Tellingly, some of these differences in categorization can also be seen on the site dedicated to the United Kingdom market, even though here one presumably can find most of the books that are available on the American site. Specifically, there is no section for Self-Help or Self-Improvement. “Self-Help” appears only as a sub-section of Health, Family & Lifestyle, but under its space we find no sub-sub-sections for life transitions (we do find, by contrast, books under “Memory Improvement,” “Stress Management,” and other such topics).5 Sub-sub-sections on topics such as divorce or fatherhood do exist, but, interestingly, are found in a different sub-section of Health, Family & Lifestyle that is less directly related to change and transformation in one’s life (“Families & Parents”). All this strongly suggests that Americans are interested in, and devour a huge number of, books on how to manage their lives and change.6

Evidence of our preoccupation with transitions is found, as well, in the thriving industry of personal coaching. According to a 2007 PricewaterhouseCoopers study, the United States accounts for 50 percent of the US$1.5 billion global coaching industry. Of those US$750 million, a third is directly generated by “life coaches,” many of whom can be assumed to focus on transitions.7 In the United States, a huge number of organizations and companies offer workshops, seminars, and speakers specifically on managing transitions in life – from overcoming grief from personal losses to coming back to civilian life after military service. One can hire specialized personal coaches to deal with particular transitions: “certified career coaches,”8 “divorce coaches,”9 “family transition coaches,” “empty nest transition coaches,”10 “retirement coaches,” and more. And, to match the need for coaches, a whole other set of companies produces those coaches with certificate-awarding programs, training kits, seminars, and so on.11 There is nothing to parallel this sort of activity in European or Asian countries. As two scholars of the life course put it,

contemporary U.S. society is replete with organizations and bureaucracies devoted to telling people how to do biography … Mass-market books and magazines provide instructions on the pace and timing of falling in love, finding a mate, ending a relationship, kicking a habit, downsizing an addiction, preparing to retire, and getting ready to die.12

Survey data from the General Social Survey13 makes clear, as well, how much Americans value certain transitions as important for the proper unfolding of one’s life. The majority of Americans believe strongly, for instance, that young people should move out of their parents’ homes if they are to function as adults,14 and nearly all Americans believe that those same people should obtain a full-time job.15 A strong majority believes, in turn, in the continuing importance of having children for a life well lived,16 while, according to the World Values Survey,17 Americans are almost unique in the developed world for their widespread belief that getting married remains a valuable thing to do.18 At the same time, many Americans also find themselves worried about experiencing unpleasant transitions, with almost half of all Americans, for instance, fearing to one extent or another losing their job,19 while many find themselves experiencing major transitions in their lives, such as moving home.20 All this suggests that transitions are squarely on the minds of many Americans. We worry about them and spend considerable resources going through them and thinking about how to manage them best.

In light of this, this book examines the dominant discourse in America on life transitions. In the next section, I situate the book in the existing scholarly literature, specify its methodology, and offer a synopsis of the findings. Before proceeding, however, two important clarifications are in order. First, the dominant discourse on any given transition at times exhibits major variations that reflect the existence of different age, gender, religious, class, and other factors in American society. There surely exists, for instance, a clear dominant discourse on having the first child; at the same time, that discourse takes on at least two variations, depending on whether the perceived audience is women or men. Whenever possible, I take time to highlight and examine those variations.

Second, nowhere in this book do I assume that the presence of a dominant discourse defines how every individual feels about transitions in life. Race, class, educational level, religion, gender, and occupation, among other variables, affect how each person interacts with transitions and the dominant discourse itself. Individuals know (consciously and subconsciously) and actively relate to the broader culture surrounding them, as Giddens and other theorists such as Karen Cerulo and Ann Swidler have argued, and such “agency” is indeed a key characteristic of modernity.21 I acknowledge this important fact at various points in the book, and discuss existing alternative perspectives when particularly interesting (for instance, when they are embraced by significant numbers of individuals or have received considerable attention by the public media; the recent countermovement rejecting altogether the widely promoted idea that young persons should go to college offers an example). At the same time, it is worth remembering that the dominant discourse on transitions – like the dominant discourse on any subject matter – reaches millions of Americans every day and, in one way or another, is something that either shapes and informs their thinking or, at the very least, must be contended with. The dominant discourse is powerful, and thus needs to be analyzed and understood.

The Scholarly Context, Methodology, and Findings of this Book

How much do we know about transitions? What has recent research revealed about the nature of transitions? Sociologists and psychologists have devoted considerable attention to what they call “life transitions.” The sociology of life transitions is an established field of study, falling within the larger subject area known as “life course” sociology. Its main approach may be defined as structural. Recognizing that individuals face multiple major transitions in life, sociologists shed light on two related dynamics. First, transitions do not happen in a vacuum but are “embedded in,” or belong to, larger systems or processes: they are products of social structures.22 We retire, for instance, because social security regulations entitle us to funds once we reach a certain age and because we are now labeled as “senior citizens” by local and state laws, associations, retailers, and others. Second, individuals in society belong to different groups or sections of society – ethnic, economic, educational, gender, generational, and so on. These differences, which are also structural, shape in profound ways the sorts of transitions individuals face.23 Children of wealthy or well-educated parents, for instance, are more likely to go to college than children of poorer or less educated parents; this also means that the empty nest syndrome, which is typically brought about by children heading off to college, is more likely to be experienced by wealthier parents.

Psychologists, in turn, have tended to focus on the mind at the individual level as the unit of analysis: how does the mind work when faced with transitions? What steps does a person take, for example, when thinking about the future? What sorts of emotions do individuals feel when thinking about the past and contemplating what lies ahead?24 Here, the underlying assumption is that our minds are essentially biological or physical entities, physiologically wired to operate in certain ways. The objective of the psychologist is to discover how the “mind” – that of mothers after they give birth, for instance, or of soldiers coming back from war – operates when facing particular challenges or situations associated with transitions. Psychologists look for patterns, to be sure, but only as reflective of the workings of the human mind as a thing in itself, as operating according to its own internal logic and rules.25

These are all praiseworthy investigations. Yet, in most cases they fail to consider one of the most salient aspects of transitions: how do we, as cultural beings, make sense of transitions? I am not referring here to any one transition (giving birth, for instance, or retiring), since there certainly exist sociological (and some psychological) studies on culture and our approach to particular transitions and, indeed, I will leverage those studies throughout this book.26 I am instead referring to most, if not all, transitions. What basic, shared perspectives and values do we use to approach transitions, whatever those happen to be? How do we, as members of our society, tend to conceive of the possibilities and challenges that transitions present to us? How are we inclined to describe that which has ended, closure and completion, and our relationship to what “has been”? How do we relate to the future, potentialities, responsibilities, fulfillment, and direction, as they present themselves in transitions? What is our fundamental approach to transitions? We still need to unveil the cultural material that is available to us as individuals to conceptualize and make sense of “what is next?” – whatever the transition might be.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously defined culture as something that can “communicate, perpetuate, and develop … knowledge about and attitudes towards life.”27 A more specific definition may make reference to widely shared cognitive paradigms, assumptions and belief systems, structures of thoughts, values, and ways in which we almost automatically make connections between observations and experiences.28 For the purposes of this book, we can think of culture as commonly available, partial or complete, answers to life’s various questions, challenges, and puzzles. Culture offers members of society tools for making sense of the world around them, for interpreting and ordering it. In this book, I want to understand the cultural material that is available in American society to make sense of transitions in life. As already noted, I am not aiming for an exhaustive and comprehensive understanding of all relevant cultural material. This would be an impossible task: there exist too many threads, variations, and perspectives. I therefore have a more targeted objective: to identify the most common and mainstream viewpoints about transitions that we, as members of our society, are routinely exposed to and which inform to varying degrees and in various ways our outlooks.

There is no single guidebook for readily identifying dominant discourses in any given society, and indeed the issue is subject to considerable academic debate.29 My approach in this book is to identify and then examine (in light of the eight transitions and five guiding questions which I specify below) a wide variety of sources and data points which at once reflect and contribute to the making of our most common and mainstream viewpoints – our dominant discourse about transitions. Those sources and data points include:

•  popular books (self-help, religious, etc.) on transitions
•  statements and written comments made by prominent individuals in society such as business leaders, politicians, professional athletes, coaches, etc.
•  materials (guides, brochures, etc.) that schools, hospitals, insurance and financial companies, and other organizations make available to their audiences and customers
•  religious materials (brochures, sermons, etc.)
•  popular movies and television and radio shows
•  government laws and policies (and the related debates) about a great variety of issues (such as parenting or marriage)
•  the policies, statements, and programs of organizations such as colleges, hospitals, and professional associations
•  advertisements and marketing materials (for college degrees, for instance, or retirement)
•  popular websites and blogs
•  majority opinions in national surveys such as the General Social Survey, the World Values Survey, and the United States Census
•  reports from representative focus groups, personal interviews, and surveys conducted by academic researchers and think tanks.

To the extent that existing academic works analyze any of these sources and data points, and explore how they relate to the dominant discourse on any given transition, I incorporate those works into my account.30

Importantly, throughout, I also consider data on large- and small-scale trends in our society (such as marriage rates, unemployment figures, or college attendance rates) to provide more context for the findings that emerge from the analysis. That data will come from many research and policy organizations such as the Pew Research Center, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, various United States government agencies and organizations (for instance, the National Center for Health Statistics), and specialized research centers (such as the Higher Education Institute at UCLA). For reference purposes, I identify in the Appendix the major sources I consulted for each transition.

Our attention will go to eight major transitions in life. I selected these transitions for a number of related reasons. First, most of us are likely to experience most of these transitions and to be familiar with all of them. Indeed, all of the transitions are prominent in American society: many of them are considered milestones, most of them preoccupy us intensely at one point or another, virtually all of them are the subject of many self-help books and visits to counselors and psychologists, most are the primary concern of entire organizations and associations, and at least a few appear in one form or another in popular movies, folk tales, and religious stories and rituals. All this makes the selected transitions inherently important and therefore interesting.

Second, these transitions by and large happen at different points in our lifetime (the exceptions are surviving a life-threatening disease, which can happen at any time, and losing a job, though this can only happen in adulthood): they are “spread out” and thus “belong” in our minds to different phases of life. If we are looking for patterns in our discourse about life transitions, it seems wise to consider the entire life course.

Third, the eight transitions are quite different from each other – something that will make the analysis challenging but also more convincing in terms of overall conclusions. Some of the transitions are clearly positive (getting married, for example), while others are typically seen as negative or, at the very least, problematic in the first instance (losing a job, for example, or the death of our parents). The transitions also concern very different, and perhaps the most important, areas of our lives, with some of the transitions touching on more than one of these areas at once: family, work, and health.

These are the eight transitions, presented and examined in the book in approximate chronological order:

1  Starting college
2  Getting married
3  The first child
4  Losing a job
5  Surviving a life-threatening disease
6  Divorce
7  Parents’ death
8  Retirement

Of course, other major transitions could have certainly been considered: graduating from college, menopause, the empty-nest phase, and the death of a close relative other than parents come especially to mind. Limitations of space and of resources available for research made a full consideration of these transitions impossible. I will turn to them, however, in more succinct fashion in the last chapter of the book.

To structure the investigation, I propose that most, if not all, transitions in life (including the eight selected transitions) present us with five basic questions and that, for each transition, the dominant discourse in our society is likely to articulate one primary answer for each of those questions. When we look at those answers across all transitions – as we find them expressed repeatedly and consistently in the sources and data points mentioned above – we observe a certain pattern which is likely to be unique to our cultural context.

Here are the five questions:

1  Origins: Who initiates the transition?
2  The self: What opportunities does the transition give to us for our personal development?
3  The past: What are we leaving behind?
4  The future: What will the future bring to us?
5  The actors: Whom does the transition concern?

Let us reflect for a moment on each of these five questions.

The first question that all transitions present to us concerns the origins of what is about to happen. Does the transition reflect our internal volition and desires, or is it, by contrast, the product of greater forces that are beyond our control? In popular books, the claims of public leaders, popular movies and songs, and so on, we may be depicted as the initial cause of the transition: we may be seen as responsible for bringing about the changes before us. Something that we did or have omitted to do has brought the transition about. On the other hand, the transition may be described as something that is happening to us – as an occurrence in which we find ourselves – because of the nature of human life, society, the unfolding of things, and so on. We can distinguish here between the internal and external origins of any given transition. Each perspective comes with potential implications for our perceived responsibilities and duties toward the transition, our place in the world, and how life unfolds. It also has implications for how the other dimensions of the transition (the self or the future, for instance) are interpreted.

As to the self, transitions inevitably involve the introduction of change into our personal lives. The question is how those changes are portrayed in the dominant discourse. One critical dimension is whether transitions are presented as opportunities for the reinvention or the refining of our selves. Are transitions described as chances to bring about a new “self” or the solidification of the current “self”? Is the survival of a life-threatening disease, for instance, or the changing of careers seen as an opportunity to usher in a rather different self? Is getting married perceived to be the chance to solidify our personas as the committed lovers of our partners? Each option – “reinvention” or “refinement” – demands further specification. How, exactly, are cancer survivors, for instance, to reinvent themselves, if that is indeed the vision in our discourse? Throughout, as with all other aspects of the discourse, we must be sensitive to the fact that the discourse may be multifaceted – that it may vary in some regards as it applies to individuals of different ages, genders, classes, or races.

As to the past, transitions necessarily involve time and, in particular, a movement away from things that have already happened. Transitions relegate something to the past; something is indeed forever gone. When we transition from childhood to adolescence, we leave childhood behind. When our parents pass away, they and the time we had with them are no longer there. In life there is always a past, of course. But this relegation may take different forms. One critical difference is between the dismissal versus incorporation of the past into our lives. So, to return to our parents dying, for instance, are we to keep them with us in our memory and spirits as we transition to a life without them in a physical sense? If so, how exactly should this be accomplished? Or are we simply to turn away from them and forge ahead in our lives as if they had not existed or have become completely irrelevant? If so, how is that dismissal conceptualized, exactly? When we retire, should we think of the past (our workplace, our former colleagues, etc.) as something that we should not dwell on any longer or as something of importance for our future? We are interested in what our dominant discourse has to say about the past.

Transitions naturally involve the future. In some ways, they are foremost about the road ahead of us. But how is that future conceptualized? One critical question is whether in our dominant discourse the future is depicted as a tabula rasa, an empty canvas, or, by contrast, as something that is fundamentally bounded and limited. Is the new phase in our life presenting us with multiple potential outcomes, catapulting us into an amorphous space that will demand from us active shaping? Will we have choices before us? Conceiving of ourselves for a moment as sculptors, will the future come to us as a block of marble that contains nearly infinite possibilities? Career changes come to mind here. Or, by contrast, will transitions present to us a future that is already confined and defined, in such a way perhaps that its contours are precisely what is interesting and exciting? Here the question is about an open-ended versus a well-defined future.

The fifth question concerns the actors involved in the transition. Whom is the transition about? The key issue here is whether in our dominant discourse a single, individual person is portrayed as the central protagonist of the transition, or whether more persons – family members, the broader community, the world as a whole – are perceived to be integral parts. In some societies, for example, retirement is seen as affecting not only the concerned individual but also their children and extended families; in other societies, it is primarily seen as a personal matter involving one single individual. In almost all cases, the actor or actors are given roles. The transition takes on the flavor of a ritual or a rite of passage: the actor or actors have an audience – often an active one. The transition is a dynamic, social occurrence. It is also typically steeped in tradition and established understandings: it belongs clearly to a larger context of symbols and meanings. What does our discourse say on this front? Who is involved, and in what roles? The question here is about transitions being about us as individuals or us as parts of a larger whole.

What will our analysis reveal about our dominant discourse on transitions? Two caveats are in order before we review the findings. First, as already noted, the dominant discourse itself, though in most cases very cohesive, is often complex and comes with important sub-themes (the discourse on having the first child, for instance, varies when it comes to men and women; the same can be said for the discourse on losing a job for persons in different age groups). I acknowledge and indeed devote considerable energy to understanding such complexity.

Second, the identification, analysis, and synthesis of sources and data points about transitions are not easy tasks. There is also no established scientific procedure for conducting such an analysis. Indeed, this book constitutes the first attempt, to my knowledge, to offer a portrait of the American discourse on transitions. Given all this, readers will not always agree with the picture that I put forth. I wish to be explicit about the fact that I am presenting a well-informed but also initial portrayal – one that should be further refined and improved – of our discourse on transitions.

We can now preview the findings from our analysis in the coming chapters. Table 1.1 maps the eight transitions, the five questions, and the answers that we find in the dominant discourse in American society. The table highlights the fact that those answers, when taken together, reveal two fundamental approaches to transitions – and ultimately time, change, and life itself. Both approaches reflect values and tendencies that have deep roots in American culture and its history.

As we shall see, with New Beginnings, transitions are depicted as either being forced upon us by the outside world or as coming from within us. But in all cases they are viewed, to varying extents, as exciting opportunities for the reinvention of the self. Transitions offer us chances to foster a new “us.” The past is left behind: it does not concern us any longer, for it does not inform or shape in any meaningful manner our new phase in life. The old self is accordingly left behind and a new self has the opportunity to come forward. In all cases, in turn, the future is depicted as being open: that is, the transition in itself does not come with instructions for what we should be doing going forward. The slate is blank, and one of the most exciting aspects of the days, months, and years ahead is that they require definition. We are like painters facing an empty canvas: all is in principle possible, and the very act of shaping what is to come will imply the first imposition of limits and a defining expression of our selves. Thus, it is also the case that these are going to be transitions of the individual above all: they do not really involve others, either as protagonists or partners in the transition. The actor in the show is the single person going through the transition. Others may be present, but as spectators, helpers, witnesses, or playing some other secondary role. The analysis suggests that under New Beginnings we find transitions that deal with work, health, and certain aspects of family life (separation or severing of some sort). It is also important to underscore here that the discourse around each specific transition has its unique nuances and articulations. Hence, for instance, the openness of the future when it comes to retirement has much to do with enjoyment and the relaxed exploration of one’s self and the world after decades of hard work. This is different from the openness teenagers are described as facing when leaving home for college, which, with one’s identity at stake for the first time and much of one’s personal and professional life still ahead, comes with higher stakes.

Table 1.1: Transitions in American Discourse


The discourse of New Beginnings resonates well, or is reflected in, other aspects of our cultural system – such as an appreciation for individualism, originality, and novelty, coupled with a dissatisfaction with the status quo or, at the very least, a desire to always improve one’s situation. We will have many occasions to examine this connection through this book. For the moment we can note here that, when we consider the major advanced industrial countries of the world, according to the World Values Survey, Americans are more likely than the French, British, Germans, and Japanese to think of themselves as valuing creativity and thinking up new ideas.32 Our everyday language is accordingly rich with commonplace expressions such as “It’s a new me,” “Tomorrow is a new day,” “There is always tomorrow,” “Makeover,” “The first step is always the hardest,” “No pain, no gain,” “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” “Variety is the spice of life,” and “You are never too old to learn” – expressions that we do not find in the same quantity in everyday French, for instance, or Spanish.33 “We Americans,” Mitt Romney stated in his acceptance speech for nomination for President of the United States at the Republican National Convention in August 2012, “have always felt a special kinship with the future.”34 At the same time, Americans are neither particularly satisfied with their lives nor especially happy. On either front, if we consider the percentage of the overall population in a country that reports itself to be satisfied or happy, the United States does not show up on the list of the top ten countries.34 A longing for change and novelty seems to have a place in the American collective psyche.

Things are quite different under the second group of transitions that appear under Continuity with Others. Here, too, in our dominant discourse, the change is depicted as either internally or externally caused. But what really matters is that these transitions are seen as opportunities to refine our selves: rather than recreate those selves, we are called to build on, add on, or further delineate what we already are. This may happen in a variety of ways, such as expressing existing qualities and talents in new ways, or tapping into potentialities that have so far been neglected. The arrival of a first child, for instance, means that we are going to take on the mother or father roles and, in so doing, express our nurturing sides, as well as our skills as mentors, role models, more experienced beings, and so on. All these activities do not amount to a negation or forgetting of our existing selves but rather imply adjustments and growth. It is then also the case that the past is not seen as something that should be dismissed as irrelevant but, instead, as integral to the transitions as they are happening. The past will be taken into account. And while the future is likely to be constrained (but may not be, depending on the transition), it is also clear that “others” play a central role in these sorts of transitions. What is happening to us is not solely about us as single persons but, rather, as integral parts of something bigger. It seems important to note that the transitions which appear in this group in this book are concerned with family life: with the making (getting married, first child) of such life or its unwanted breakdown (death of parents). Transitions in other areas of life are also surely part of this discourse. But what we observe here suggests that the family may be a critical place where our discourse points us toward continuity and our con-nection to others. And here, too, we notice important variations of this discourse when it comes to specific transitions.

Though this view of transitions is probably less prevalent than the one found in New Beginnings, it has nonetheless a place in the broader American cultural system, as we shall see in the coming chapters. We value order and predictability: rules, procedures, steps, and sequences with expected outcomes in fact pretty much guide most of our daily lives. We derive comfort from the absence of risk and the presence of its counterpart, safety, in everything ranging from food to entertainment to where we live.35 We thus have an appreciation for phases and the fact that life can, in fact, be seen as a series of linked events and even cycles. We are born, grow up, play certain sports in the fall and others in winter and spring, get married and get “settled,” buy a house and have kids, work hard and get promoted, see our children leave our homes, downsize, retire, and so on. We share what one might call a “lockstep” mentality that can often provide us with a sense of security. Interestingly, when compared to other countries, including older European and Asian ones, we feel the importance of traditions to a much greater extent.36 And this appreciation of predictability seems to apply to us as individuals and as a country. Consider for a moment the popular notion that America is somehow destined to be an exceptional country or the world leader, or the earlier concept of Manifest Destiny – all ideas pregnant with determinism and which in so many ways inform our policies and attitudes as a country in the world.

Now, while these two approaches found in our dominant discourse may seem solely contradictory, they are actually quite complementary: precisely because a significant part of our collective psyche is so restless, other elements in us find special pleasure in the reassurance that life, in fact, is going to unfold in a certain way and that we, in the process, are not alone but in fact intimately linked to others. We may also appreciate that such predictability will generate a certain amount of efficiency: for if reinvention comes with risks and probably false starts and errors, time-tested continuity is built in part on having done away with things that do not work.

Thus, ultimately, we will see that the dominant discourse in our society about transitions in life reflects a multiplicity of concerns and tendencies that, together, can be viewed as an embrace of openness, reinvention, and potentiality coupled with a more subtle appreciation for boundaries, order, and predictability. In that space we are told to situate our selves, our becoming, and our unfolding. Most of us are surely not aware of this mindset or its internal tensions. But this does not in any way diminish the impact it has on us or the extent to which it guides us. Indeed, in many ways, it functions best when operating without our conscious awareness. We are presented with different pulls, and each approach is made all the more meaningful because it stands in contrast to the other.

These are important reflections, and they acquire even more salience when we think comparatively. Every culture is different. What would Table 1.1 look like for a European or Asian country? What would it show? We will discuss data from other countries at various turns, but the two most important differences can already be stated here. First, in European and Asian countries, there is a lesser tendency to view transitions as New Beginnings. The perspective of continuity with others is more prevalent, albeit certainly for different reasons and with different cultural underpinnings than in the United States. Second, in other cultures there appears to be less of an interest in objectifying transitions as something to be highly conscious of in the first instance. As a result of this, the boundaries between transitions are often less pronounced. There are fewer categorizations and therefore also fewer formal occasions to celebrate transitions: fewer graduation ceremonies, fewer “over the hill” parties, fewer retirement parties, fewer greeting cards for every transition, and so on. Taken together, these differences suggest that the making of the self is less closely wound into conscious participation in numerous, publicly demarcated and discussed transitions than in the United States. This also means, in turn, that transitions preoccupy Americans a great deal because of how they define themselves by them – that they are a cause of much reflection and worry.

The Pages Ahead

Each of the eight chapters ahead focuses on one transition. We will consider each transition in light of the five questions identified earlier in this chapter. How are the origins of the transition, the past, our selves, the future, and the relevant actors depicted in our dominant discourse? As already noted, each chapter draws from a rich variety of sources and data points. Each of the eight chapters on transitions ends with selected information on other countries to put the American mindset in comparative perspective. These brief comparative assessments also rely on a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data sources, academic studies, reports by independent research organizations, and other relevant data.

The major finding will be clear: in the dominant discourse in American society, transitions are portrayed as either moments of openness, reinvention, and potentiality or as occasions for the reaffirmation of boundaries, order, and predictability. The two approaches have deep cultural roots in our society and ultimately represent one way of dealing with the most difficult puzzles and challenges that life presents to us. The last chapter will revisit these ideas, consider briefly how they may apply to other major transitions not examined in this book, and conclude by reflecting on the possible drivers – including commodification – of the dominant discourse on transitions in the United States.

Part II

Eight Transitions

2  Starting College

Most students in the United States head for college in the fall after graduating from high school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2009 the figure was 70 percent – a significant increase from 51 percent in 1975. 1 Though there are important differences in rates across categories of Americans (whites or Asians, for instance, or children from wealthier families are more likely to go to college than students from different backgrounds), attending college is a transition that affects well over 50 percent of students in any given major category (race, class, sex, etc.), and one that most parents, regardless of socioeconomic status, want for their children, regardless of their academic performance.2 For the majority of these students, the transition involves attending a four-year college and moving out of their parents’ homes and living on their own – increasingly out of their own state – for the first time.3 This is by all means a major change in a young person’s life.

What is the dominant discourse in American society about going to college? How do teachers, high school and college counselors, and coaches describe it? How do popular books on going to college talk about the transition? What do colleges assert on their websites and in their publicity? How do the majority of students and parents describe the transition when asked in polls and surveys? The focus in this chapter is on students headed to four-year colleges, though many of the observations apply to those students who attend two-year colleges. The discourse is multifaceted, of course, and does not capture accurately the experience of all students. Indeed, as we shall see, some young students altogether reject the idea of going to college. Yet, if we consider our five key questions about origins, self, past, future, and actors, one clear primary narrative emerges.