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University of Wyoming

This session will introduce you to the theories and ideas of adult development. While many think development ends with adolescence, researchers have shown that development continues throughout life. We will explore the major theories and theorists in adult development.

To stimulate your thinking about your own development, you might want to complete the exercise, and then come back to this overview.

A good introduction piece on adult development was written a number of years ago by Robinson. Let's begin with it as an overview.


the life span and change

"We can't always control what happens to us. We can control what we think about what happens... And what we are thinking is our 'life' at any particular moment"

Norman G. Shidle

A. Adult Life Cycle

1.The works of Gould, Levinson, Vaillant, Erikson, Neugarten, Lowenthal and others, and the enormous popularity of Sheehy's Passages point to a growing body of theory on adult development which is already having an impact similar to the impact on public thought of the earlier work on "stages" of childhood and adolescence.

2. Adult Life Cycle Assumptions (Vivian Rogers McCoy)

Life unfolds in sequence and in stages.

Each state is marked by a crisis, a turning point, a crucial period of both vulnerability and potential.

At crisis points, progress or falling back occurs, but whichever happens, the future is substantially different.

Each period has specific tasks to be engaged in; when these are successfully engaged, we move on.

External (to us) marker events are constantly happening - graduations, marriage, childbirth, divorce, jobs. Changes within those marker events are what make up a developmental state.

An adult's life involves both (a) membership in the culture -- jobs, class, family, society -- and (b) how his/her values, aspirations, goals are being met or frustrated by participation in the world.

It is in the inner realm where crucial shifts of growth occur. How we feel about the marker events, whether we come to grips with them or avoid them, determines if we move on or stagnate.

Crises are predictable and growth-producing. Engaging change is scary, unsettling. Regression, accommodation, and integration of change usually characterize passage.

For growth to occur, challenges need to be slightly greater than the individual's present coping skills so that he/she can stretch, yet not be overwhelmed and forced to retreat to safer ground.

3. As with the conceptions of child development, the conception of ages and states of adults is only "true" for one-third of all adults at a particular age; another one-third are ahead and one-third behind. But the sequence tends to occur on schedule.

B. Transitions

1.The more difficult transitions for most people appear to be (give or take two or three years):

age 30 -- when youthful dreams have had to come to grips with reality (sometimes more difficult for women);

age 40 -- when each comes face to face with the fact that half of one's life is over (sometimes more difficult for men);

age 50 -- concerns about life purpose (sometimes more difficult for women);

age 60 -- facing retirement (sometimes more difficult for men).

2. Particular problems between spouses may be engendered at transition points when one is exacerbated or "out of sync" with the other's stage or crisis and misinterpreting the other's "strange" behavior.

3. A passage, transition, crisis of "life course correction" is triggered by ordinary life events but even more by "off- timing" of unanticipated life events.

4. Transitions are invitations for growth.

C. Early Adulthood

1.In early adulthood, according to Erickson, the issue is intimacy (relating to other people) vs. Isolation.

2. Ages 18-22 -- Pulling up Roots (Sheehy, Gould, Levinson and others)

The transition from adolescence to adulthood; leaving the family, establishing life on one's own.

Continuing educational preparation, beginning work, handling peer relationships, establishing a separate "home", managing time and money.

3. Ages 22-28- Becoming Adult (Sheehy, Levison, Gould and others) Reaching out; trying out the "dream;" establishing autonomy.

Setting in motion life patterns; selecting a mate; beginning career ladder; establishing a family, becoming a parent

Finding a mentor, someone about 15 years older.

Often characterized by doing what we feel we should.

Characterized by feeling that we are different, special, that we can do anything.

4. Ages 28-33- Catch 30 (Sheehy, Levison, Gould and others)

The age 30 transition characterized by second thoughts, a feeling of being too narrow and restricted with earlier choices for career, marriage, relationships. Identity concerns, especially for women.

Characterized by a new vitality, and is often a time of change, turmoil and dissatisfaction.

Urges to broaden oneself, make new choices, alter or deepen commitments, change jobs, buy a house, have a baby, get a divorce, etc. Family-career conflicts for women.

Urge to do what one wants to do rather than follow the earlier "shoulds."

Time of reappraisal, putting down roots, searching for personal values.

D. Middle Adulthood

1. In middle adulthood, according to Erikson, the issue is generativity (a commitment to and caring for next generation) vs. stagnation.

2. Middle Ages (35-60) is generally the most powerful stage in life in terms of earning capacity, influence on other people and impact on society in general. Middle age is the age of society's norm-bearers and decision-makers, bill-payers and power-brokers, managers and leaders- society's movers and shakers.

3. Ages 33-38 - Becoming One's Own Person (Levison, Gould, Sheehy and others)

Rooting and extending, a period of reaching out.

Establishing one's niche in society, developing competence

Working at "making it," striving to advance and progress; career consolidation. Sheey calls ages 35-45 "the deadline decade".

Relating to one's family; spouse, children, parents

Conflicting time demands " In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight-way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell of that wood, savage and harsh and dense, the thought of which renews my fear. So bitter is it that death is hardly more." Dante Alighieri at age 37 ( opening of Divine Comedy)

4. Ages 38-46 - Midlife Transition (Levison, Sheehy, Gould and others)

Often an unstable, explosive time, resembling adolescence, brought on by the emotional awareness that time is running out.

The mentor now cast aside, the mid-lifer emerges ready to mentor a younger person.

Reassessment of marriage.

Reexamine work and career goals.

Relating to teen-age children and aging parents.

Search for meaning.

A reversal between men and women- women becoming more agggresive and masculine and men becoming more feminine.

  1. Women who have been homemakers are re-defining themselves (as opposed to being defined by their husbands or children), beginning careers, reaching out from their home.
  2. Men are often readjusting their career aspirations downward with the feeling of being trapped with dreams unrealized, turning back to the home.

Dramatic changes may take place in an effort to bring the dream back (for men) or build a new dream (for women) and these efforts may bring to the fore formerly suppressed aspects of self.

The mid-life crisis may increase vunlnerability to extra- marital affairs, alcoholism, divorce, over-eating or even suicide. " The hormone production levels are dropping, the head is balding, the sexual vigor is diminishing, the stress is unending, the children are leaving, the parents are dying, the job horizons are narrowing...the past floats by in a fog of hopes not realized, opportunities not grasped...potentials not fulfilled, and the future is a confrontation with one's mortality." M.W. Lear, "Is There a Male Menopause?" in NY Times, 1/28/73

5. Ages 46-53- Settling Down (Levison, Sheehy, Gould and others)

Following the mid-life crisis, formation of a new life structure

Committed to new choices, the die is cast, decisions must be lived with, life settles down

6. Ages 53-60- Renewal or Resignation (Sheehy, Levison, Gould and other)

If one has successfully passed the midlife transition, this will be a time of renewal of purpose and revitalization, of self-acceptance, realism and warmth.

A time of increased personal happiness and satisfaction, including one's career and marriage.

If one has not dealt successfully with the midlife passage, this will be a period of resignation.

Development of secondary interests in preparation for one's later years.

E. Later Adulthood

1. In later adulthood, according to Erikson, the issue is Integrity (a belief that one's life has had a purpose) vs. Despair

2. Ages 60-65 - Late Adult Transition (Levison, Gould and others)

This transition brings retirement or anticipation (or dread) of retirement.

It may be especially difficult for those who have largely defined themselves by their careers. Women who have not worked, often make this transition more easily than either men or women who have previously had their time structured and energies absorbed by careers.

Adjustments to less income.

Confronted by loss (loss of job, loss of home, loss of spouse), the older adult may react with alienation, a sense of powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, self-estrangement, futility or despair. Or the older adult may choose to meet the crisis as a challenge to be mastered, and continue to grow. Expand avocational interests, do those things "I've always wanted to do."

3. Ages 65 and up- Late Adulthood (Neugarten, Levison and other)

Phase of retirement (R.T. Atchley)

  1. Preretirement (anticipation)
  2. Honeymoon (euphoria at newfound freedom)
  3. Disenchantment (missing the former life)
  4. Reorientation (finding new interests)
  5. Stability (routinization)

With advancing age, engagement, rather than disengagement, is more closely associated with psychological well-being.

Older persons who are educationally active tend to have greater zest for living, a better self-concept, and are more generally satisfied with their lives.

Although religious practices (like attending church) tend to decrease in later years, religious feelings and beliefs increase.

At some point late adulthood may be characterized by any one or more of the following:

  1. Retirement from full-time employment
  2. Relinquishment of household;
  3. Withdrawal from active community and organizational leadership;
  4. Breaking up of marriage through death of one's mate;
  5. Loss of independent household
  6. Loss of interest in distant goals and plans;
  7. Acceptance of dependence on others for support or advice and management funds;
  8. Acceptance of subordinate position to adult offspring or to social worker;
  9. Taking up membership in groups made up largely of old people;
  10. Acceptance of planning in terms of immediate goals.

Search for meaning of one's life; feelings of fulfillment or failure. Looking backward in time; reviewing one's life.

The dying process (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross)

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance