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Exploring Concepts of Death and Subjective Life Expectancy: Understanding Young Adults' Perceptions of (In)-vulnerability

Year: 2008
Working paper number: 230
Author: De Lannoy, Ariane
Unit: SSU

This study contributes to the understanding of young adults' concepts of death and subjective life expectancy, especially in an era when HIV and AIDS significantly raise morbidity and mortality levels and lower life expectancy. It was meant to inform theory building about subjective life expectancy and its potential impact on individual decision-making. The sample for this specific paper consisted of ten African adolescents aged between fifteen and twenty-two, all of whom living in areas of Cape Town most heavily affected by the AIDS pandemic, as well as by other environmental factors, such as high poverty and crime rates, and high levels of violent deaths especially among young men. Findings show that young people are extremely aware of high death rates in their environments, especially deaths of a premature nature. Causes indicated were HIV and AIDS, but even more prominently crime and violence. Although confronted with the daily reality of death, participants did not consider these high death rates to be part of "a normal life", yet related them often to a general feeling of social and moral chaos in the townships. Different psychosocial mechanisms of dealing with the threat of death showed, with often very high levels of resilience and a focus on the future, but also fear and lack of clarity about that future in general. Subjective life expectancy (SLE) for oneself, however, was generally high and not influenced by the uncontrollable threat of violent deaths; Instead, the motivation behind SLE showed young adults' belief in personal choice and control exercised within their environments characterised by the complex interaction of poverty, crime, HIV and AIDS, peer pressure and modernisation.  HIV and AIDS was mostly taken into account as a factor of influence that one had control over and therefore did not influence SLE. Peers' SLE, however, was rated far lower than their own, taking into account those factors that participants considered controllable.

Publication file: WP230.pdf