Theories of Adult Psychosocial Development

What you’ll learn to do: explain theories and perspectives on psychosocial development

From a lifespan developmental perspective, growth and development do not stop in childhood or adolescence; they continue throughout adulthood. In this section we will build on Erikson’s psychosocial stages, then be introduced to theories about transitions that occur during adulthood. According to Levinson, we alternate between periods of change and periods of stability. More recently, Arnett notes that transitions to adulthood happen at later ages than in the past and he proposes that there is a new stage between adolescence and early adulthood called, “emerging adulthood.” Let’s see what you think.

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe Erikson’s stage of intimacy vs. isolation
  • Summarize Levinson’s theory of early adulthood transitions
  • Explain Arnett’s concept of emerging adulthood

Theories of Early Adult Psychosocial Development

Erikson’s Theory

Intimacy vs. Isolation

A man and woman smile while leaning closer to look at a photograph together.
Figure 1. Young adulthood is a time to connect with others in both friendships and romantic relationships.

Erikson (1950) believed that the main task of early adulthood is to establish intimate relationships and not feel isolated from others. Intimacy does not necessarily involve romance; it involves caring about another and sharing one’s self without losing one’s self. This developmental crisis of “intimacy versus isolation” is affected by how the adolescent crisis of “identity versus role confusion” was resolved (in addition to how the earlier developmental crises in infancy and childhood were resolved). The young adult might be afraid to get too close to someone else and lose her or his sense of self, or the young adult might define her or himself in terms of another person. Intimate relationships are more difficult if one is still struggling with identity. Achieving a sense of identity is a life-long process, but there are periods of identity crisis and stability. And, according to Erikson, having some sense of identity is essential for intimate relationships.[1] Although, consider what that would mean for previous generations of women who may have defined themselves through their husbands and marriages, or for Eastern cultures today that value interdependence rather than independence.

Friendships as a source of intimacy

Five friends from the same sorority posing in graduation gowns.
Figure 2. Many young adulthoods find intimacy through friendships rather than through committed romantic relationships. The increase of young adults attending college has contributed to this trend.

In our twenties, intimacy needs may be met in friendships rather than with partners. This is especially true in the United States today as many young adults postpone making long-term commitments to partners either in marriage or in cohabitation. The kinds of friendships shared by women tend to differ from those shared by men (Tannen,1990). Friendships between men are more likely to involve sharing information, providing solutions, or focusing on activities rather than discussing problems or emotions. Men tend to discuss opinions or factual information or spend time together in an activity of mutual interest. Friendships between women are more likely to focus on sharing weaknesses, emotions, or problems. Women talk about difficulties they are having in other relationships and express their sadness, frustrations, and joys. These differences in approaches could lead to problems when men and women come together. She may want to vent about a problem she is having; he may want to provide a solution and move on to some activity. But when he offers a solution, she thinks he does not care! Effective communication is the key to good relationships.

Many argue that other-sex friendships become more difficult for heterosexual men and women because of the unspoken question about whether the friendships will lead to a romantic involvement. Although common during adolescence and early adulthood, these friendships may be considered threatening once a person is in a long-term relationship or marriage. Consequently, friendships may diminish once a person has a partner or single friends may be replaced with couple friends.[2]

Gaining Adult Status

Many of the developmental tasks of early adulthood involve becoming part of the adult world and gaining independence. Young adults sometimes complain that they are not treated with respect, especially if they are put in positions of authority over older workers. Consequently, young adults may emphasize their age to gain credibility from those who are even slightly younger. “You’re only 23? I’m 27!” a young adult might exclaim. [Note: This kind of statement is much less likely to come from someone in their 40s!]

The focus of early adulthood is often on the future. Many aspects of life are on hold while people go to school, go to work, and prepare for a brighter future. There may be a belief that the hurried life now lived will improve ‘as soon as I finish school’ or ‘as soon as I get promoted’ or ‘as soon as the children get a little older.’ As a result, time may seem to pass rather quickly. The day consists of meeting many demands that these tasks bring. The incentive for working so hard is that it will all result in a better future.

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Levinson’s Theory

In 1978, Daniel Levinson published a book entitled, The Seasons of a Man’s Life in which he presented a theory of development in adulthood. Levinson’s work was based on in-depth interviews with 40 men between the ages of 35-45. According to Levinson, young adults have an image of the future that motivates them. This image is called “the dream” and for the men interviewed, it was a dream of how their career paths would progress and where they would be at midlife. Dreams are very motivating. Dreams of a home bring excitement to couples as they look, save, and fantasize about how life will be. Dreams of careers motivate students to continue in school as they fantasize about how much their hard work will pay off. Dreams of playgrounds on a summer day inspire would-be parents. A dream is perfect and retains that perfection as long as it remains in the future. But as the realization of it moves closer, it may or may not measure up to its image. If it does, all is well. But if it does not, the image must be replaced or modified. And so, in adulthood, plans are made, efforts follow, and plans are reevaluated. This creating and recreating characterizes Levinson’s theory.[3] (The shift from idealistic dreams to more realistic experiences might remind us of the cognitive development progression from formal to postformal thought in adulthood.)

Levinson’s stages (at least up to midlife) are presented below (Levinson, 1978).[4] He suggested that periods of transition last about five years and periods of stability last about seven years. The ages presented below are based on life in the middle-class several decades ago. Think about how these ages and transitions might be different today, or in other cultures, or for women compared to men.

  • Early adult transition (17-22): Leaving home, leaving family; making first choices about career and education
  • Entering the adult world (22-28): Committing to an occupation, defining goals, finding intimate relationships
  • Age 30 transition (28-33): Reevaluating those choices and perhaps making modifications or changing one’s attitude toward love and work
  • Settling down (33 to 40): Reinvesting in work and family commitments; becoming involved in the community
  • Midlife transition (40-45): Reevaluating previous commitments; making dramatic changes if necessary; giving expression to previously ignored talents or aspirations; feeling more of a sense of urgency about life and its meaning
  • Entering middle adulthood (45-50): Committing to new choices made and placing one’s energies into these commitments

Nearly twenty years after his original research, Levinson interviewed 45 women ages 35-45 and published the book, The seasons of a woman’s life.[5] He reported similar patterns with women, although women held a “split dream”—an image of the future in both work and family life and a concern with the timing and coordination of the two. Traditionally, by working outside the home, men were seen as taking care of their families. However, for women, working outside the home and taking care of their families were perceived as separate and competing for their time and attention. Hence, one aspect of the women’s dreams was focused on one goal for several years and then their time and attention shifted towards the other, often resulting in delays in women’s career dreams.

Three women around 40 years old, celebrating at a party by blowing confetti.
Figure 3. Women are often torn between caring for their families and advancing their careers outside of the home.

Adulthood, then, is a period of building and rebuilding one’s life. Many of the decisions that are made in early adulthood are made before a person has had enough experience to really understand the consequences of such decisions. And, perhaps, many of these initial decisions are made with one goal in mind – to be seen as an adult. As a result, early decisions may be driven more by the expectations of others. For example, imagine someone who chose a career path based on other’s advice but now finds that the job is not what was expected. 

The age 30 transition may involve recommitting to the same job, not because it’s stimulating, but because it pays well; or the person may decide to go back to school and change careers. Settling down may involve settling down with a new set of expectations. As the adult gains status, he or she may be freer to make more independent choices. And sometimes these are very different from those previously made. The midlife transition differs from the age 30 transition in that the person is more aware of how much time has gone by and how much time is left. This brings a sense of urgency and impatience about making changes. The future focus of early adulthood gives way to an emphasis on the present in midlife–we will explore this in our next module. Overall, Levinson calls our attention to the dynamic nature of adulthood.

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Think It Over

How well do you think Levinson’s theory translates culturally? Do you think that personal desire and a concern with reconciling dreams with the realities of work and family is equally important in all cultures? Do you think these considerations are equally important in all social classes, races and ethnic groups? Why or why not? How might this model be modified in today’s economy?

Emerging Adulthood

Arnett’s Theory of Emerging Adulthood

Have you noticed that many young adults in our society today are taking longer to accomplish the early adulthood developmental tasks of becoming independent? If so, you’re not alone. Jeffrey Arnett (2000) pointed out this prolonged transitional period and described it as “emerging adulthood.”[6]

Two men in brightly dressed sportswear
Figure 4. The years of emerging adulthood are often times of identity exploration through work, fashion, music, education, and other venues. [Image: CC0 Public Domain, https://goo.gl/m25gce]

The theory of emerging adulthood proposes that a new life stage has arisen between adolescence and young adulthood over the past half-century in industrialized countries. Fifty years ago, most young people in these countries had entered stable adult roles in love and work by their late teens or early twenties. Relatively few people pursued education or training beyond secondary school, and, consequently, most young men were full-time workers by the end of their teens. Relatively few women worked in occupations outside the home, and the median marriage age for women in the United States and in most other industrialized countries in 1960 was around 20 (Arnett & Taber, 1994; Douglass, 2005). The median marriage age for men was around 22, and married couples usually had their first child about one year after their wedding day. All told, for most young people half a century ago, their teenage adolescence led quickly and directly to stable adult roles in love and work by their late teens or early twenties. These roles would form the structure of their adult lives for decades to come.

Now all that has changed. A higher proportion of young people than ever before—about 70% in the United States—pursue education and training beyond secondary school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012). The early twenties are not a time of entering stable adult work but a time of immense job instability: In the United States, the average number of job changes from ages 20 to 29 is seven. The median age of entering marriage in the United States is now 27 for women and 29 for men (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011). Consequently, a new stage of the life span, emerging adulthood, has been created, lasting from the late teens through the mid-twenties, roughly ages 18 to 25.

Five features make emerging adulthood distinctive:

  • identity exploration,
  • instability,
  • self-focus,
  • feeling in-between adolescence and adulthood,
  • a sense of broad possibilities for the future.

If the years 18-25 are classified as “young adulthood,” Arnett believes it is then difficult to find an appropriate term for the thirties. Emerging adults are still in the process of obtaining an education, are unmarried, and are childless. By age thirty, most of these individuals do see themselves as adults, based on the belief that they have more fully formed “individualistic qualities of character” such as self-responsibility, financial independence, and independence in decision-making. Arnett suggests that many of the individualistic characteristics associated with adult status correlate to, but are not dependent upon the role responsibilities with a career, marriage, and/or parenthood.

Whether or not “emerging adulthood” is considered to be a distinct developmental stage, it can be a useful concept in discussing developmental patterns in early adulthood in our culture today.

Watch It

To hear about emerging adulthood and why it takes longer to reach adulthood today, please view this video clip of Dr. Jeffrey Arnett. In the first 6 1/2 minutes he describes four societal revolutions that may have caused emerging adulthood. In the second half of the clip, Arnett discusses how “30 is the new 20,” as twenty-somethings today enjoy unparalleled freedoms when compared with other generations.

 

Is Emerging Adulthood a Global Phenomenon?

The five features proposed in the theory of emerging adulthood originally were based on research involving about 300 Americans between ages 18 and 29 from various ethnic groups, social classes, and geographical regions (Arnett, 2004). To what extent does the theory of emerging adulthood apply internationally?

The answer to this question depends greatly on what part of the world is considered. Demographers make a useful distinction between the developing countries that comprise the majority of the world’s population and the economically developed countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including the United States, Canada, western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. The current population of OECD countries (also called developed countries) is 1.2 billion, about 18% of the total world population (UNDP, 2011). The rest of the human population resides in developing countries, which have much lower median incomes; much lower median educational attainment; and much higher incidence of illness, disease, and early death. Let us consider emerging adulthood in OECD countries first, then in developing countries.

A map of OECD countries described in the preceding paragraph. Map of OECD countries. Darker shaded countries are original members.
Figure 5. Map of OECD countries. Darker shaded countries are original members. [Image: Parastscilveks, https://goo.gl/Mlvm0Y, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/eH69he]

The same demographic changes as described above for the United States have taken place in other OECD countries as well. This is true of participation in postsecondary education as well as median ages for entering marriage and parenthood (UNdata, 2010). However, there is also substantial variability in how emerging adulthood is experienced across OECD countries. Europe is the region where emerging adulthood is longest and most leisurely. The median ages for entering marriage and parenthood are near 30 in most European countries (Douglass, 2007). Europe today is the location of the most affluent, generous, and egalitarian societies in the world—in fact, in human history (Arnett, 2007). Governments pay for tertiary education, assist young people in finding jobs, and provide generous unemployment benefits for those who cannot find work. In northern Europe, many governments also provide housing support. Emerging adults in European societies make the most of these advantages, gradually making their way to adulthood during their twenties while enjoying travel and leisure with friends.

The lives of Asian emerging adults in developed countries such as Japan and South Korea are in some ways similar to the lives of emerging adults in Europe and in some ways strikingly different. Like European emerging adults, Asian emerging adults tend to enter marriage and parenthood around age 30 (Arnett, 2011). Like European emerging adults, Asian emerging adults in Japan and South Korea enjoy the benefits of living in affluent societies with generous social welfare systems that provide support for them in making the transition to adulthood—for example, free university education and substantial unemployment benefits.

However, in other ways, the experience of emerging adulthood in Asian OECD countries is markedly different than in Europe. Europe has a long history of individualism, and today’s emerging adults carry that legacy with them in their focus on self-development and leisure during emerging adulthood. In contrast, Asian cultures have a shared cultural history emphasizing collectivism and family obligations. Although Asian cultures have become more individualistic in recent decades as a consequence of globalization, the legacy of collectivism persists in the lives of emerging adults. They pursue identity explorations and self-development during emerging adulthood, like their American and European counterparts, but within narrower boundaries set by their sense of obligations to others, especially their parents (Phinney & Baldelomar, 2011). For example, in their views of the most important criteria for becoming an adult, emerging adults in the United States and Europe consistently rank financial independence among the most important markers of adulthood. In contrast, emerging adults with an Asian cultural background especially emphasize becoming capable of supporting parents financially as among the most important criteria (Arnett, 2003; Nelson, Badger, & Wu, 2004). This sense of family obligation may curtail their identity explorations in emerging adulthood to some extent, as they pay more heed to their parents’ wishes about what they should study, what job they should take, and where they should live than emerging adults do in the West (Rosenberger, 2007).

Another notable contrast between Western and Asian emerging adults is in their sexuality. In the West, premarital sex is normative by the late teens, more than a decade before most people enter marriage. In the United States and Canada, and in northern and eastern Europe, cohabitation is also normative; most people have at least one cohabiting partnership before marriage. In southern Europe, cohabiting is still taboo, but premarital sex is tolerated in emerging adulthood. In contrast, both premarital sex and cohabitation remain rare and forbidden throughout Asia. Even dating is discouraged until the late twenties, when it would be a prelude to a serious relationship leading to marriage. In cross-cultural comparisons, about three fourths of emerging adults in the United States and Europe report having had premarital sexual relations by age 20, versus less than one fifth in Japan and South Korea (Hatfield and Rapson, 2006).

Gross enrollment ratio showing that college enrollment is highest in South Korea, Finland, the U.S., Spain, Canada, and then below 20 for China, India, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. This figure shows the gross enrollment of students in higher education by sex for 10 nations. Males are better represented in South Korea, India, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Females are better represented in Finland, the USA, Spain, and Canada. The ratio is equal in China. In general, the more affluent, industrialized countries have higher rates of overall enrollment.
Figure 6. Gross tertiary enrollment, selected countries, 2007. Source: UNdata (2010). Note. Gross enrollment ratio is the total enrollment in a specific level of education, regardless of age, expressed as a percentage of the eligible official school-age population corresponding to the same level of education in a given school year. For the tertiary level, the population used is that of the five-year age group following the end of secondary schooling.

For young people in developing countries, emerging adulthood exists only for the wealthier segment of society, mainly the urban middle class, whereas the rural and urban poor—the majority of the population—have no emerging adulthood and may even have no adolescence because they enter adult-like work at an early age and also begin marriage and parenthood relatively early. What Saraswathi and Larson (2002) observed about adolescence applies to emerging adulthood as well: “In many ways, the lives of middle-class youth in India, South East Asia, and Europe have more in common with each other than they do with those of poor youth in their own countries.” However, as globalization proceeds, and economic development along with it, the proportion of young people who experience emerging adulthood will increase as the middle class expands. By the end of the 21st century, emerging adulthood is likely to be normative worldwide.

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A Counter Argument: No Emerging Adulthood?

While Arnett describes “emerging adulthood” as a time of delayed entry into early adulthood, not everyone agrees. View this clip from Dr. Meg Jay, as she cautions young adults not to procrastinate since what happens during their twenties is important for the rest of adulthood: “Why 30 is not the new 20!” (https://youtu.be/vhhgI4tSMwc)

 

GLOSSARY

emerging adulthood: life stage extending from approximately ages 18 to 25, during which the foundation of an adult life is gradually constructed in love and work. Primary features include identity explorations, instability, focus on self-development, feeling incompletely adult, and a broad sense of possibilities

 


  1. Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. New York, NY: Norton.
  2. Ward, Adrian (2012). Men and Women Can't Be Just Friends. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/men-and-women-cant-be-just-friends/.
  3. Levinson, D. (1978). The seasons of a man's life. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
  4. Levinson, D. (1978) The seasons of a man's life. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
  5. Levinson, D. (1996). The seasons of a woman's life. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
  6. Arnett, J.J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469-480.

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Lifespan Development by Lumen Learning 2019 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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