Understanding Mortality in the Transition to Adulthood

During my time with the Adulthood Project, it has become clear that the ideas about adulthood have remained relatively stable over time. Five generic markers receive the historic and current spotlight: completion of higher education, a steady job, financial independence, marriage, and having kids. What has changed in the American population is when and how these markers are achieved. The current generation that is coming of age is taking longer to complete all of the markers, for various cultural and economic reasons.

As I read, coded, and thought about these markers, it made me wonder: why have they remained so consistent? What experiences consistently lead us, individually and societally, to accept and aspire to these markers? Amongst the interviews I have read, many people dealt with how and when they became adults, but very few have dealt with why they choose to do so. I find this topic extremely relevant, especially because I believe there is a negative perception of adulthood being boring, solemn, and difficult. With such a perception, it would seem that no one would claim the title of “adult” without having a personal reason for doing so. I feel that only one common experience could motivate such a universal transition: death. Many people experience death at different times and for different reasons, but any experience sows the idea of personal mortality. A recognition of death forces the individual to seek purpose and meaning, which are fulfilled by the five markers that have been identified. These markers fulfill a human need to feel a sense of personal continuation after death.

One article, Transcending Death during Early Adulthood: Symbolic Immortality, Death Anxiety, and Purpose in Life, supports the influence of death in the transition from child to adult. It suggests that realizing the most of life arises through an understanding of individual mortality. Although personal death remains an abstract concept, the fact of its ultimate existence forces the individual to consolidate their place in the world. This consolidation occurs through five separate modes of, as the article calls, “symbolic immortality.” These five modes are described as the biological, creative, natural, spiritual, and experiential modes. In short, the biological mode gives a sense of past and future family and community though the individual; the creative mode describes the contribution of work and ethic to family, friends, and society; the natural mode consolidates the individual with the eternity of the physical universe; the spiritual mode describes the personal quest for metaphysical existence; and the experiential mode is the intense experience of life through various physical exercises, but always in connection with the four previous modes. Researchers used these modes to evaluate symbolic immortality between a group of young adults and a group of established adults. They found that the attainment of these modes into adulthood lessens death anxiety and increases one’s symbolic immortality and purpose in life.

I find this result significant because it demonstrates a transitional phase in the understanding of death between adolescence and adulthood. While it does not state that death itself instigates these changes, it recognizes the stress incurred by the recognition of mortality and the influence that it has on personal purpose. In the coming week, I hope to find more articles that relate specifically to the role of death in transformation to adulthood.