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In lifespan and life course research, a transition corresponds to the movement from one stable state to a new state. Caspi and Mofitt (1993) define a transition as going from a predictable (familiar) to an unpredictable (unfamiliar) context. This necessitates cognitive, social, behavioral, motivational, or emotional adaptions to the new context. However, life course transitions occur in specific social and historical contexts, which can shape the orientations of transitions as well as their timing.

In lifespan psychology, a transition refers to internal or external changes unfolding over time that may or may not be linked to certain life events. For instance, the birth of a child is a life event that takes place at a specific point in time, but the psychological transition to parenthood might start even before pregnancy with the wish for a child and the preparation for it, as well as the psychological changes in, for instance, identity, motivation, social relations, the behavioral repertoire associated with parenthood before and after the birth of the child. However, transitions may also increase the stability of individual characteristics such as personality traits, as the unpredictability of an unfamiliar context or situation can lead persons to assimilate it into existing cognitive and action structures (Caspi, Roberts, & Shiner, 2005). Thus, transitions are seen as both phases of psychological changes as well as the accentuation and stability of interindividual differences.

In sociology and social demography, a transition is often associated with a change from one social status to another social status (Levy et al., 2005). This is the case of the transition to parenthood during which men and women acquire the social status of father or mother, with important repercussions at different levels (couple relationships, social network, etc.). Such a transition could lead to a divergence in trajectories between different groups, according to their social status. For example, in the Swiss context, women move to part-time work, taking on caregiving and many domestic tasks, while men remain full-time (Le Goff and Levy, 2016).

A transition can also be related to a change from a life period to another life period. In the context of Western societies, the passage to adulthood is a transition during which a young person, economically dependent on his or her family, gradually acquires his/her economic independence and forms a new family. Events of this transition include leaving the education system, accessing the first job, leaving the parental home, cohabitation with a partner, marriage, and the birth of the first child. This type of transition to adulthood took place starting from the middle of the 19th century in Western societies, on the one hand when the school became compulsory, and on the other hand when the bourgeois or romantic family became predominant (Modell et al., 1976). The modalities of the passage to adulthood and their timing depend in part on the ascriptive characteristics of young people and their families of origin, such as social class, migration status, gender (Galland and Cavalli, 1993; Spini et al, 2019; Rossignon, 2016).

Acknowledging the existence of age-normative transitions (e.g., entering school in childhood; finishing education in late adolescence or “emerging adulthood,” Arnett, 2000; entering the labor market, marriage, and founding a family in young adulthood; retirement in late adulthood; cf., the concept of developmental tasks by Havighurst, 1972), lifespan psychology has, however, criticized the assumption of fixed developmental stages as ignoring important variations between socio-cultural groups, large interindividual differences within socio-cultural groups, and the lack of evidence for a unidirectional progression from one stage to another with relatively clear age demarcations. Particularly given historic changes in the normatively expected age for finishing one´s education, entering the labor market, or founding a family (cf., the concept of “emerging adulthood”; Arnett, 2000), and the consequences of the increase in longevity on the structuring of goals in middle adulthood and old age (cf., the concept of the “bucket list effect”, Freund, 2020), the age-normativity of transitions is seen as weakening both historically and across the lifespan (Kohli, 2000; but see Settersten & Hagestadt, 1996a,b).

Other transitions may correspond to unexpected changes. These include separation processes leading to divorce. A transition can sometimes correspond to a turning point or a bifurcation in the life course (Elder, 1985; Abbott, 2001). A bifurcation corresponds to a moment from which the life course trajectory of an individual diverges from its expected trajectory according to his/her social characteristics. This change in the orientation of the life course is often related to a contingency, for example, an accident, an unexpected event, or even a major societal crisis, such as an economic crisis.

Authors: Jean-Marie Le Goff, Alexandra M. Freund


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