What you’ll learn to do: analyze emotional and social development in middle adulthood
Traditionally, middle adulthood has been regarded as a period of reflection and change. In the popular imagination (and academic press) there has been reference to a “mid-life crisis.” There is an emerging view that this may have been an overstatement—certainly, the evidence on which it is based has been seriously questioned. However, there is some support for the view that people do undertake a sort of emotional audit, reevaluate their priorities, and emerge with a slightly different orientation to emotional regulation and personal interaction in this time period. Why, and the mechanisms through which this change is affected, are a matter of some debate. We will examine the ideas of Erikson, Baltes, and Carstensen, and how they might inform a more nuanced understanding of this vital part of the lifespan.
- Describe Erikson’s stage of generativity vs. stagnation
- Evaluate Levinson’s notion of the midlife crisis
- Examine key theories on aging, including socio-emotional selectivity theory (SSC) and selection, optimization, and compensation (SOC)
- Describe personality and work related issues in midlife
Psychosocial Development in Midlife
What do you think is the happiest stage of life? What about the saddest stages? Perhaps surprisingly, Blanchflower & Oswald (2008) found that reported levels of unhappiness and depressive symptoms peak in the early 50s for men in the U.S., and interestingly, the late 30s for women. In Western Europe, minimum happiness is reported around the mid 40s for both men and women, albeit with some significant national differences. Stone, Schneider and Bradoch (2017), reported a precipitous drop in perceived stress in men in the U.S. from their early 50s. There is now a view that “older people” (50+) may be “happier” than younger people, despite some cognitive and functional losses. This is often referred to as “the paradox of aging.” Positive attitudes to the continuance of cognitive and behavioral activities, interpersonal engagement, and their vitalizing effect on human neural plasticity, may lead not only to more life, but to an extended period of both self-satisfaction and continued communal engagement. 
As you know by now, Erikson’s theory is based on an idea called epigenesis, meaning that development is progressive and that each individual must pass through the eight different stages of life—all while being influenced by context and environment. Each stage forms the basis for the following stage, and each transition to the next is marked by a crisis which must be resolved. The sense of self, each “season”, was wrested, from and by, that conflict. The ages 40-65 are no different. The individual is still driven to engage productively, but the nurturing of children and income generation assume lesser functional importance. From where will the individual derive their sense of self and self-worth?
Generativity versus Stagnation is Erikson’s characterization of the fundamental conflict of adulthood. It is the seventh conflict of his famous “8 seasons of man” (1950) and negotiating this conflict results in the virtue of care. Generativity is “primarily the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation” (Erikson, 1950 p.267). Generativity is a concern for a generalized other (as well as those close to an individual) and occurs when a person can shift their energy to care for and mentor the next generation. One obvious motive for this generative thinking might be parenthood, but others have suggested intimations of mortality by the self. John Kotre (1984) theorized that generativity is a selfish act, stating that its fundamental task was to outlive the self. He viewed generativity as a form of investment. However, a commitment to a “belief in the species” can be taken in numerous directions, and it is probably correct to say that most modern treatments of generativity treat it as collection of facets or aspects—encompassing creativity, productivity, commitment, interpersonal care, and so on.
On the other side of generativity is stagnation. It is the feeling of lethargy and a lack of enthusiasm and involvement in both individual and communal affairs. It may also denote an underdeveloped sense of self, or some form of overblown narcissism. Erikson sometimes used the word “rejectivity” when referring to severe stagnation
The Stage-Crisis View and the Midlife Crisis
In 1977, Daniel Levinson published an extremely influential article that would be seminal in establishing the idea of a profound crisis which lies at the heart of middle adulthood. The concept of a midlife crisis is so pervasive that over 90% of Americans are familiar with the term, although those who actually report experiencing such a crisis is significantly lower (Wethington, 2000).
Levinson based his findings about a midlife crisis on biographical interviews with a limited sample of 40 men (no women!), and an entirely American sample at that. Despite these severe methodological limitations, his findings proved immensely influential. Levinson (1986) identified five main stages or “seasons” of a man’s life as follows:
- Preadulthood: Ages 0-22 (with 17 – 22 being the Early Adult Transition years)
- Early Adulthood: Ages 17-45 (with 40 – 45 being the Midlife Transition years)
- Middle Adulthood: Ages 40-65 (with 60-65 being the Late Adult Transition years)
- Late Adulthood: Ages 60-85
- Late Late Adulthood: Ages 85+
Levinson’s theory is known as the stage-crisis view. He argued that each stage overlaps, consisting of two distinct phases—a stable phase, and a transitional phase into the following period. The latter phase can involve questioning and change, and Levinson believed that 40-45 was a period of profound change, which could only culminate in a reappraisal, or perhaps reaffirmation, of goals, commitments and previous choices—a time for taking stock and recalibrating what was important in life. Crucially, Levinson would argue that a much wider range of factors, involving, primarily, work and family, would affect this taking stock – what he had achieved, what he had not; what he thought important, but had brought only a limited satisfaction.
In 1996, two years after his death, the study he was conducting with his co-author and wife Judy Levinson, was published on “the seasons of life” as experienced by women. Again, it was a small scale study, with 45 women who were professionals / businesswomen, academics, and homemakers, in equal proportion. The changing place of women in society was reckoned by Levinson to be a profound moment in the social evolution of the human species, however, it had led to a fundamental polarity in the way that women formed and understood their social identity. Levinson referred to this as the “dream.” For men, the “dream” was formed in the age period of 22-28, and largely centered on the occupational role and professional ambitions. Levinson understood the female “dream” as fundamentally split between this work-centered orientation, and the desire/imperative of marriage/family; a polarity which heralded both new opportunities, and fundamental angst.
Levinson found that the men and women he interviewed sometimes had difficulty reconciling the “dream” they held about the future with the reality they currently experienced. “What do I really get from and give to my wife, children, friends, work, community-and self?” a man might ask (Levinson, 1978, p. 192). Tasks of the midlife transition include:
- ending early adulthood;
- reassessing life in the present and making modifications if needed; and
- reconciling “polarities” or contradictions in ones sense of self.
Perhaps early adulthood ends when a person no longer seeks adult status but feels like a full adult in the eyes of others. This “permission” may lead to different choices in life—choices that are made for self-fulfillment instead of social acceptance. While people in their 20s may emphasize how old they are (to gain respect, to be viewed as experienced), by the time people reach their 40s, they tend to emphasize how young they are (few 40 year olds cut each other down for being so young: “You’re only 43? I’m 48!!”).
This new perspective on time brings about a new sense of urgency to life. The person becomes focused more on the present than the future or the past. The person grows impatient at being in the “waiting room of life,” postponing doing the things they have always wanted to do. “If it’s ever going to happen, it better happen now.” A previous focus on the future gives way to an emphasis on the present. Neugarten (1968) notes that in midlife, people no longer think of their lives in terms of how long they have lived. Rather, life is thought of in terms of how many years are left. If an adult is not satisfied at midlife, there is a new sense of urgency to start to make changes now.
Changes may involve ending a relationship or modifying one’s expectations of a partner. These modifications are easier than changing the self (Levinson, 1978). Midlife is a period of transition in which one holds earlier images of the self while forming new ideas about the self of the future. A greater awareness of aging accompanies feelings of youth, and harm that may have been done previously in relationships haunts new dreams of contributing to the well-being of others. These polarities are the quieter struggles that continue after outward signs of “crisis” have gone away.
Levinson characterized midlife as a time of developmental crisis. However, like any body of work, it has been subject to criticism. Firstly, the sample size of the populations on which he based his primary findings is too small. By what right do we generalize findings from interviews with 40 men, and 45 women, however thoughtful and well conducted? Secondly, Chiriboga (1989) could not find any substantial evidence of a midlife crisis, and it might be argued that this, and further failed attempts at replication, indicate a cohort effect. The findings from Levinson’s population indicated a shared historical and cultural situatedness, rather than a cross-cultural universal experienced by all or even most individuals. Midlife is a time of revaluation and change, that may escape precise determination in both time and geographical space, but people do emerge from it, and seem to enjoy a period of contentment, reconciliation and acceptance of self.
This video explains research and controversy surrounding the concept of a midlife crisis.
Socio-Emotional Selectivity Theory (SST)
It is the inescapable fate of human beings to know that their lives are limited. As people move through life, goals and values tend to shift. What we consider priorities, goals, and aspirations are subject to renegotiation. Attachments to others, current and future, are no different. Time is not the unlimited good as perceived by a child under normal social circumstances; it is very much a valuable commodity, requiring careful consideration in terms of the investment of resources. This has become known in the academic literature as mortality salience.
Mortality salience posits that reminders about death or finitude (at either a conscious or subconscious level), fills us with dread. We seek to deny its reality, but awareness of the increasing nearness of death can have a potent effect on human judgement and behavior. This has become a very important concept in contemporary social science. It is with this understanding that Laura Carstensen developed the theory of socioemotional selectivity theory, or SST. The theory maintains that as time horizons shrink, as they typically do with age, people become increasingly selective, investing greater resources in emotionally meaningful goals and activities. According to the theory, motivational shifts also influence cognitive processing. Aging is associated with a relative preference for positive over negative information. This selective narrowing of social interaction maximizes positive emotional experiences and minimizes emotional risks as individuals become older. They systematically hone their social networks so that available social partners satisfy their emotional needs. The French philosopher Sartre observed that “hell is other people”.An adaptive way of maintaining a positive affect might be to reduce contact with those we know may negatively affect us, and avoid those who might.
SST is a theory which emphasizes a time perspective rather than chronological age. When people perceive their future as open ended, they tend to focus on future-oriented development or knowledge-related goals. When they feel that time is running out, and the opportunity to reap rewards from future-oriented goals’ realization is dwindling, their focus tends to shift towards present-oriented and emotion or pleasure-related goals. Research on this theory often compares age groups (e.g., young adulthood vs. old adulthood), but the shift in goal priorities is a gradual process that begins in early adulthood. Importantly, the theory contends that the cause of these goal shifts is not age itself, i.e., not the passage of time itself, but rather an age-associated shift in time perspective. The theory also focuses on the types of goals that individuals are motivated to achieve. Knowledge-related goals aim at knowledge acquisition, career planning, the development of new social relationships and other endeavors that will pay off in the future. Emotion-related goals are aimed at emotion regulation, the pursuit of emotionally gratifying interactions with social partners, and other pursuits whose benefits which can be realized in the present.
This shift in emphasis, from long term goals to short term emotional satisfaction, may help explain the previously noted “paradox of aging.” That is, that despite noticeable physiological declines, and some notable self-reports of reduced life-satisfaction around this time, post- 50 there seems to be a significant increase in reported subjective well-being. SST does not champion social isolation, which is harmful to human health, but shows that increased selectivity in human relationships, rather than abstinence, leads to more positive affect. Perhaps “midlife crisis and recovery” may be a more apt description of the 40-65 period of the lifespan.
Watch Laura Carstensen in this TED talk explain how happiness actually increases with age.
Selection, Optimization, Compensation (SOC)
Another perspective on aging was identified by German developmental psychologists Paul and Margret Baltes. Their text Successful Aging (1990) marked a seismic shift in moving social science research on aging from largely a deficits-based perspective to a newer understanding based on a holistic view of the life-course itself. The former had tended to focus exclusively on what was lost during the aging process, rather than seeing it as a balance between those losses and gains in areas like the regulation of emotion, experience and wisdom.
The Baltes’ model for successful aging argues that across the lifespan, people face various opportunities or challenges such as, jobs, educational opportunities, and illnesses. According to the SOC model, a person may select particular goals or experiences, or circumstances might impose themselves on them. Either way, the selection process includes shifting or modifying goals based on choice or circumstance in response to those circumstances. The change in direction may occur at the subconscious level. This model emphasizes that setting goals and directing efforts towards a specific purpose is beneficial to healthy aging. Optimization is about making the best use of the resources we have in pursuing goals. Compensation, as its name suggests, is about using alternative strategies in attaining those goals.
The processes of selection, optimization, and compensation can be found throughout the lifespan. As we progress in years, we select areas in which we place resources, hoping that this selection will optimize the resources that we have, and compensate for any defects accruing from physiological or cognitive changes. Previous accounts of aging had understated the degree to which possibilities from which we choose had been eliminated, rather than reduced, or even just changed. As we select areas in which to invest, there is always an opportunity cost. We are masters of our own destiny, and our own individual orientation to the SOC processes will dictate “successful aging.” Rather than seeing aging as a process of progressive disengagement from social and communal roles undertaken by a group, Baltes argued that “successful aging” was a matter of sustained individual engagement, accompanied by a belief in individual self-efficacy and mastery.
The SOC model covers a number of functional domains—motivation, emotion, and cognition. We might become more adept at playing the SOC game as time moves on, as we work to compensate and adjust for changing abilities across the lifespan. For example, a soccer a player at 35 may no longer have the vascular and muscular fitness that they had at 20 but her “reading” of the game might compensate for this decline. She may well be a better player than she was at 20, even with fewer physical resources in a game which ostensibly prioritizes them. The work of Paul and Margaret Baltes was very influential in the formation of a very broad developmental perspective which would coalesce around the central idea of resiliency.
Personality and Work Satisfaction
Personality in Midlife
Research on adult personality examines normative age-related increases and decreases in the expression of the so-called “Big Five” traits—extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience. These are assumed to be based largely on biological heredity. These five traits are sometimes summarized via the OCEAN acronym. Individuals are assessed by the measurement of these traits along a continuum (e.g. high extroversion to low extroversion). They now dominate the field of empirical personality research. Does personality change throughout adulthood? Previously the answer was thought to be no. It was William James who stated in his foundational text, The Principles of Psychology (1890), that “[i]n most of us, by the age of thirty, the character is set like plaster, and will never soften again”. Not surprisingly, this became known as the plaster hypothesis.
Contemporary research shows that, although some people’s personalities are relatively stable over time, others’ are not (Lucas & Donnellan, 2011; Roberts & Mroczek, 2008). Longitudinal studies reveal average changes during adulthood, and individual differences in these patterns over the lifespan may be due to idiosyncratic life events (e.g., divorce, illness). Roberts, Wood & Caspi (2008) report evidence of increases in agreeableness and conscientiousness as persons age, mixed results in regard to openness, reduction in neuroticism but only in women, and no change with regard to extroversion. Whether this “maturation” is the cause or effect of some of the changes noted in the section devoted to psycho social development is still unresolved. Longitudinal research also suggests that adult personality traits, such as conscientiousness, predict important life outcomes including job success, health, and longevity (Friedman, Tucker, Tomlinson-Keasey, Schwartz, Wingard, & Criqui, 1993; Roberts, Kuncel, Shiner, Caspi, & Goldberg, 2007). How important these changes are remains somewhat unresolved. Thus, we have the hard plaster hypothesis, emphasizing fixity in personality over the age of thirty with some very minor variation, and the soft plaster version which views these changes as possible and important.
Carl Jung believed that our personality actually matures as we get older. A healthy personality is one that is balanced. People suffer tension and anxiety when they fail to express all of their inherent qualities. Jung believed that each of us possess a “shadow side.” For example, those who are typically introverted also have an extroverted side that rarely finds expression unless we are relaxed and uninhibited. Each of us has both a masculine and feminine side, but in younger years, we feel societal pressure to give expression only to one. As we get older, we may become freer to express all of our traits as the situation arises. We find gender convergence in older adults. Men become more interested in intimacy and family ties. Women may become more assertive. This gender convergence is also affected by changes in society’s expectations for males and females. With each new generation we find that the roles of men and women are less stereotypical, and this allows for change as well.
One aspect of the self that particularly interests life span and life course psychologists is the individual’s perception and evaluation of their own aging and identification with an age group. Subjective age is a multidimensional construct that indicates how old (or young) a person feels, and into which age group a person categorizes themself. After early adulthood, most people say that they feel younger than their chronological age, and the gap between subjective age and actual age generally increases. On average, after age 40 people report feeling 20% younger than their actual age (e.g., Rubin & Berntsen, 2006). Asking people how satisfied they are with their own aging assesses an evaluative component of age identity. Whereas some aspects of age identity are positively valued (e.g., acquiring seniority in a profession or becoming a grandparent), others may be less valued, depending on societal context. Perceived physical age (i.e., the age one looks in a mirror) is one aspect that requires considerable self-related adaptation in social and cultural contexts that value young bodies. Feeling younger and being satisfied with one’s own aging are expressions of positive self-perceptions of aging. They reflect the operation of self-related processes that enhance well-being. Levy (2009) found that older individuals who are able to adapt to and accept changes in their appearance and physical capacity in a positive way report higher well-being, have better health, and live longer.
There is now an increasing acceptance of the view within developmental psychology that an uncritical reliance on chronological age may be inappropriate. People have certain expectations about getting older, their own idiosyncratic views, and internalized societal beliefs. Taken together they constitute a tacit knowledge of the aging process. A negative perception of how we are aging can have real results in terms of life expectancy and poor health. Levy et al (2002) estimated that those with positive feelings about aging lived 7.5 years longer than those who did not. Subjective aging encompasses a wide range of psychological perspectives and empirical research. However, there is now a growing body of work centered around a construct referred to as Awareness of Age Related Change (AARC) (Diehl et al, 2015), which examines the effects of our subjective perceptions of age and their consequential, and very real, effects. Neuport & Bellingtier (2017) report that this subjective awareness can change on a daily basis, and that negative events or comments can disproportionately affect those with the most positive outlook on aging.
Middle adulthood is characterized by a time of transition, change, and renewal. Accordingly, attitudes about work and satisfaction from work tend to undergo a transformation or reorientation during this time. Age is positively related to job satisfaction—the older we get the more we derive satisfaction from work(Ng & Feldman, 2010). However, that is far from the entire story and repeats, once more, the paradoxical nature of the research findings from this period of the life course. Dobrow, Gazach & Liu (2018) found that job satisfaction in those aged 43-51 was correlated with advancing age, but that there was increased dissatisfaction the longer one stayed in the same job. Again, as socio-emotional selectivity theory would predict, there is a marked reluctance to tolerate a work situation deemed unsuitable or unsatisfying. Years left, as opposed to years spent, necessitates a sense of purpose in all daily activities and interactions, including work.
The workplace today is one in which many people from various walks of life come together. Work schedules are more flexible and varied, and more work independently from home or anywhere there is an internet connection. The midlife worker must be flexible, stay current with technology, and be capable of working within a global community.
Seeking job enjoyment may account for the fact that many people over 50 sometimes seek changes in employment known as “encore careers” (https://encore.org/). Some midlife adults anticipate retirement, while others may be postponing it for financial reasons, or others may simple feel a desire to continue working.
Relationships at Work
Working adults spend a large part of their waking hours in relationships with coworkers and supervisors. Because these relationships are forced upon us by work, researchers focus less on their presence or absence and instead focus on their quality. High quality work relationships can make jobs enjoyable and less stressful. This is because workers experience mutual trust and support in the workplace to overcome work challenges. Liking the people we work with can also translate to more humor and fun on the job. Research has shown that supervisors who are more supportive have employees who are more likely to thrive at work (Paterson, Luthans, & Jeung, 2014; Monnot & Beehr, 2014; Winkler, Busch, Clasen, & Vowinkel, 2015). On the other hand, poor quality work relationships can make a job feel like drudgery. Everyone knows that horrible bosses can make the workday unpleasant. Supervisors that are sources of stress have a negative impact on the subjective well-being of their employees (Monnot & Beehr, 2014). Specifically, research has shown that employees who rate their supervisors high on the so-called “dark triad”—psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism—reported greater psychological distress at work, as well as less job satisfaction (Mathieu, Neumann, Hare, & Babiak, 2014).
In addition to the direct benefits or costs of work relationships on our well-being, we should also consider how these relationships can impact our job performance. Research has shown that feeling engaged in our work and having a high job performance predicts better health and greater life satisfaction (Shimazu, Schaufeli, Kamiyama, & Kawakami, 2015). Given that so many of our waking hours are spent on the job—about 90,000 hours across a lifetime—it makes sense that we should seek out and invest in positive relationships at work.
One of the most influential researchers in this field, Dorien Kooij (2013) identified four key motivations in older adults continuing to work. First, growth or development motivation- looking for new challenges in the work environment. The second are feelings of recognition and power. Third, feelings of power and security afforded by income and possible health benefits. Interestingly enough, the fourth area of motivation was Erikson’s generativity. The latter has been criticized for a lack of support in terms of empirical research findings, but two studies (Zacher et al, 2012; Ghislieri & Gatti, 2012) found that a primary motivation in continuing to work was the desire to pass on skills and experience, a process they describe as leader generativity. Perhaps a more straightforward term might be mentoring. In any case, the concept of generative leadership is now firmly established in the business and organizational management literature.
Organizations, public and private, are going to have to deal with an older workforce. The proportion of people in Europe over 60 will increase from 24% to 34% by 2050 (United Nations 2015), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that 1 in 4 of the US workforce will be 55 or over. Workers may have good reason to avoid retirement, although it is often viewed as a time of relaxation and well-earned rest, statistics may indicate that a continued focus on the future may be preferable to stasis, or inactivity. In fact, Fitzpatrick & Moore (2018) report that death rates for American males jump 2% immediately after they turn 62, most likely a result of changes induced by retirement. Interestingly, this small spike in death rates is not seen in women, which may be the result of women having stronger social determinants of health (SDOH), which keep them active and interacting with others out of retirement.
generativity: the ability to look beyond self-interest and motivate oneself to care for, and contribute to, the welfare of the next generation
leader generativity: mentoring and passing on of skills and experience that older adults can provide at work to feel motivated
plaster hypothesis: the belief that personality is set like plaster by around the age of thirty
selection, optimization, compensation (SOC) theory: theory which argues that the declines experienced at this time are not simple or absolute losses. Or, rather, they need not be. Baltes argues that life is a series of adaptations and that the selection of fewer goals, optimizing our personal and social resources to attain them, and then compensating for any loss with the experience of a lifetime, should ameliorate those losses. They do not completely negate them but a positive attitude of engagement can, and does, lead to successful ageing
socioemotional selectivity theory: theory associated with the developmentalist Laura Carestensen which posits a shift at this time in the life course, caused by a shift in time horizons. Time left in our lives is now shorter than time previously spent. Consciously, or sub-consciously, this influences a greater unwillingness to “suffer fools gladly” or endure unsatisfactory situations at work or elsewhere. Emotional regulation, and the satisfactions that affords, becomes more important, and demands fulfillment in the present
stage-crisis view: theory associated with Levinson (and Erikson before) that each life stage is characterized by a fundamental conflict(s) which must be resolved before moving on to the next. Each stage has its challenges which are resolved, instigating a period of transition which sets the stage for the next
stagnation: a feeling of a disconnect from wider society experience by those 40-65 who fail to develop the attitude of care associated with generativity
- Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2008, April).Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18316146 ↵
- Stephanie, R., Margie, L., & Elizabeth, R. (2015). Self-Regulatory Strategies in Daily Life: Selection, Optimization, and Compensation and Everyday Memory Problems. International journal of behavioral development, 40(2), 126-136. ↵
- Weiss, L. A., Westerhof, G. J., & Bohlmeijer, E. T. (2016). Can We Increase Psychological Well-Being? The Effects of Interventions on Psychological Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. PloS one, 11(6), e0158092. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0158092 ↵
- Roberts, B. W., Wood, D., & Caspi, A. (2008). The development of personality traits in adulthood. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L.A. Pervin (Eds.),Handbook of personality: Theory and research(Vol.3, pp. 375–398). New York: Guilford. ↵
- (Ng & Feldman (2010) The relationship of age with job attitudes: a meta analysis Personnel Psychology 63 677-715 ↵
- Riza, S., Ganzach, Y & Liu Y (2018) Time and job satisfaction: a longitudinal study of the differential roles of age and tenure Journal of Management 44,7 2258-2579 ↵