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Psychosocial Development in Middle Adulthood


Guidepost 1: How do developmental scientists approach the study of psychosocial development in middle adulthood?

  • Developmental scientists view midlife psychosocial development both objectively, in terms of trajectories or pathways, and subjectively, in terms of people's sense of self and the way they actively construct their lives.
  • Change and continuity must be seen in context and in terms of the whole life span.

Guidepost 2: What did classic theorists have to say about psychosocial change in middle age?

  • Although some theorists hold that personality is essentially formed by midlife, there is a growing consensus that midlife development shows change as well as stability. Change can be maturational (normative) or nonnormative.
  • Humanistic theorists such as Maslow and Rogers see middle age as an opportunity for positive change.
  • Carl Jung held that men and women at midlife express previously suppressed aspects of personality. Two necessary tasks are giving up the image of youth and acknowledging mortality.
  • Erikson's seventh psychosocial stage is generativity versus stagnation. Generativity can be expressed through parenting and grandparenting, teaching or mentorship, productivity or creativity, self-development, and "maintenance of the world." The "virtue" of this period is care.
  • Vaillant and Levinson found major midlife shifts in men's lives. Their findings echo Jung's and Erikson's theories.
  • Despite the greater fluidity of the life cycle today, people still tend to expect and assess important events in their lives by a "social clock."

Guidepost 3: What issues concerning the self come to the fore during middle adulthood?

  • Key psychosocial issues and themes during middle adulthood concern the existence of a midlife crisis, identity development (including gender identity), and psychological well-being.
  • Research does not support a normative midlife crisis. It is more accurate to refer to a transition that often involves a midlife review, which may be a psychological turning point.
  • According to Whitbourne's model, identity development is a process in which people continually confirm or revise their self-perceptions based on experience and feedback from others. Identity style can predict adaptation to the onset of aging.
  • Generativity is an aspect of identity development. Current research on generativity finds it most prevalent at middle age but not universally so. Generativity may be affected by social roles and expectations and by individual characteristics.
  • Narrative psychology describes identity development as a continuous process of constructing a life story.
  • Research has found increasing "masculinization" of women and "feminization" of men at midlife, but this may be largely a cohort effect and may reflect the types of measures used. Research generally does not support Gutmann's proposed gender crossover.
  • Research based on Ryff's six-dimensional scale has found that midlife is generally a period of positive mental health and well-being, though socioeconomic status is a factor.
  • Generativity is related to psychological well-being in middle age. It may derive from involvement in multiple roles, but not necessarily in all roles equally.
  • Much research suggests that for women the fifties are a "prime time" of life.

Guidepost 4: What role do social relationships play in the lives of middle-aged people?

  • Two theories of the changing importance of relationships are Kahn and Antonucci's social convoy theory and Laura Carstensen's socioemotional selectivity theory. According to both theories, social-emotional support is an important element in social interaction at midlife and beyond.
  • Relationships at midlife are important to physical and mental health but also can present stressful demands.

Guidepost 5: Do marriages become happier or unhappier during the middle years?

  • Research on the quality of marriage suggests a dip in marital satisfaction during the years of child rearing, followed by an improved relationship after the children leave home.

Guidepost 6: How common is divorce at this time of life?

  • Divorce at midlife is relatively uncommon but is increasing. Marital capital, socioeconomic status, and the timing and effects of the empty nest may play a part.
  • Divorce today may be less threatening to well-being in middle age than in young adulthood.

Guidepost 7: How do gay and lesbian relationships compare with heterosexual ones?

  • Because many homosexuals delay coming out, at midlife they are often just establishing intimate relationships.
  • Gay and lesbian couples tend to be more egalitarian than heterosexual couples but experience similar problems in balancing family and career commitments.

Guidepost 8: How do friendships fare during middle age?

  • Middle-aged people tend to invest less time and energy in friendships than younger adults do, but depend on friends for emotional support and practical guidance.
  • Friendships may have special importance for homosexuals.

Guidepost 9: How do parent-child relationships change as children approach and reach adulthood?

  • Parents of adolescents have to come to terms with a loss of control over their children's lives, and some parents do this more easily than others.
  • The "emptying of the nest" is liberating for most women but may be stressful for couples whose identity is dependent on the parental role or those who now must face previously submerged marital problems.
  • Today, more young adults are delaying departure from their childhood home or are returning to it, sometimes with their own families. This situation can be disturbing to both sides; adjustment tends to be smoother if the parents see the adult child as moving toward autonomy and if parents and child negotiate roles and responsibilities.
  • Middle-aged parents tend to remain involved with their adult children, and most are generally happy with the way their children turned out. Conflict may arise over grown children's need to be treated as adults and parents' continuing concern about them.

Guidepost 10: How do middle-aged people get along with parents and siblings?

  • Relationships between middle-aged adults and their parents are usually characterized by a strong bond of affection. The two generations generally maintain frequent contact and offer and receive assistance. Aid usually flows from parents to children.
  • As life lengthens, more and more aging parents become dependent for care on their middle-aged children. Acceptance of these dependency needs is the mark of filial maturity and may be the outcome of a filial crisis.
  • The chances of becoming a caregiver to an aging parent increase through middle age, especially for women.
  • Caregiving can be a source of considerable stress but also of satisfaction. Community support programs can help prevent caregiver burnout.
  • Although siblings tend to have less contact at midlife than before and after, most middle-aged siblings remain in touch, and their relationships are important to well-being.

Guidepost 11: How has grandparenthood changed, and what roles do grandparents play?

  • Most U.S. adults become grandparents in middle age and have an average of six grandchildren.
  • Although most American grandparents today are less intimately involved in grandchildren's lives than in the past (often because of geographic separation), they can play an important role.
  • Grandmothers tend to be more involved in "kinkeeping" than grandfathers.
  • Divorce and remarriage of an adult child can affect grandparent-grandchild relationships and create new stepgrandparenting roles.
  • An increasing number of grandparents are raising grandchildren whose parents are unable to care for them. Raising grandchildren can create physical, emotional, and financial strains.

Papalia: Human Development 9Online Learning Center

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