America’s Changing Rites of Passage

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A report by the research and consulting firm Social Technologies of Washington, DC, details how and why American rites of passage are being transformed—and how they will change in the years to come.

As the class of 2006 prepares to graduate, American rites of passage—events that mark significant transitions in people’s lives—are changing. A report by the research and consulting firm Social Technologies of Washington, DC, details how and why rites of passage are being transformed—and how they will change in the years to come.

Increasing social freedom, which is making different lifestyles more acceptable, has made the order of rites of passage much more fluid. Marriage and parenthood are no longer universal rites marking adulthood: some people get married and remain childless, some have children without getting married, and some do neither. As a result of this rising freedom, rites of passage are becoming more individualistic and less likely to fulfill a traditional social function in a traditional way.

The timing of milestones is also more fluid today. Puberty and car ownership, for example, come earlier than they once did, while marriage and childbirth come later. Moreover, rites of passage are increasingly marked by a rush of consumerism. Indeed, as Americans increasingly use purchases to express identity, acts of consumerism—buying a first mobile phone, a first credit card, a first car—are becoming significant rites of passage themselves, marking the transition from one stage of life to the next.

The trend towards smaller families is also changing rites of passage. “Parents are having only one or two children,” says Kevin Osborn, author of the report, “so even the smallest achievements—preschool graduation, a karate belt test, a winning soccer season—are regarded as precious rites of passage.”

In addition to transforming traditional milestones, Americans are creating new rites. Divorce is now a rite of passage for many, sometimes marked with a party—a combination of bachelor-bachelorette party, exorcism, and coming-out—complete with a gift registry. Meanwhile, the diversity of American culture is inviting ethnic crossover, with growing Hispanic influence that can be seen in roadside memorials, piñatas, and the celebration of quinceañera. The blurring boundary between online and “real” life is encouraging virtual crossover, too: the celebration of real events in virtual worlds and vice versa.

As rites of passage change, many businesses will find new opportunities to fulfill customer needs. Consumers will look for new technology to organize, preserve, and share records of their rites of passage—such as a “living memorial” for those who have died. Virtual rites of passage present the opportunity to offer products and services to commemorate events like deaths, marriages, or births of online characters.

Social Technologies is a leading research and consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations understand and shape their futures. By melding forecasting and analysis tools with expertise in strategic exploration and innovation processes, Social Technologies equips its clients to look five, ten, or twenty-five years into the future.

For more information about the Rites of Passage study please contact Josh Calder at

202-223-2801 ext 118.

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Tom Conger