PSY 230 Main Page

Chapter 17:

  Socioemotional  Development in Middle Adulthood

Personality Theories and  Development

         Many personality and development theories of middle age have adult stages:

        Erikson’s “generativity versus stagnation”

         Generativity is highly related to intimacy

         Middle-aged adults develop generativity through parenting, work, and culture

        Levinson’s “seasons of a man’s life” emphasizes developmental tasks

         Levinson’s research: middle age lasts about 5 years

        Adult men face reality about aging and midlife crisis

        Personal worth of one’s life is questioned 

         Smooth midlife transition brings acceptance of past and adjustment may include memory distortion 

         Vaillant’s Grant Study: a minority of adults experience midlife crisis – Sheehy’s results rarely observed in men

         Other studies:

        Middle-age adults feel a growing sense of control in work and personal life 

        Individuals’ emotional instability did not significantly increase through middle-age years 

        Environmental mastery and self-determination increased in middle-age 

        Midlife crisis has been exaggerated – individuals vary in middle adulthood development

         The contemporary life events approach is an alternative to age-related stage development 

        Life events like death of spouse, marriage, and divorce cause varying degrees of stress 

        Mediating factors like physical health and family support can reduce stress effects and allow more effective coping strategies 

        Weaknesses of life events approach include too much emphasis on change and what are primary sources of stress

         Overall, stress is highest in young and middle-aged adults; declines in older adults 

         Middle-age development appears to be influenced by historical contexts, gender, and culture 

         Historical changes have affected values, attitudes, behaviors, and expectations of cohort groups 

         Cohorts can alter the “social clock” that guides our lives

         Each cohort decides what is the “right age” for major life events and achievements 

         Most stage theories are accused of male bias – focusing on career choices and work achievement with little attention to women’s family roles 

         Female experiences are qualitatively different from those of men, and men and women do not enter all of the developmental stages at the same time 

         Cultural and social attitudes affect women’s roles

Stability and Change

         The Kansas City Study was a longitudinal study on people ages 40 to 80, over a 10-year period

        Styles of coping characterized stability in aging

        Most change in aging comes from becoming more passive and being threatened by the environment 

         The Baltimore Study used 5 factors of personality to study college-educated persons aged 20 to 96 starting from the 1950s and continuing today

        Age trends were consistent across cultures surveyed

        Younger adults were more extraverted

        Older adults were more agreeable and conscientious

         Comparing Chinese and Americans adults ages 20 to 87 using the CPI

        Age changes less pronounced for Americans

        All younger adults were more flexible and open

        All older adults showed more self-control 

         Berkeley Longitudinal Studies: 1920s through today

        No support that personality is characterized by changes or stability from adolescence to midlife

        Intellectually oriented, self-confidence, and openness were the more stable traits

        Ability to nurture and self-control changed most

         Vaillant’s studies: 1920s through today

        Alcohol abuse and smoking at age 50 was best predictor of death between ages 75 and 80

        Factors at age 50 which are best predictors of “happy-well” between ages 75 and 80:

         Regular exercise and avoiding being overweight

         Well-educated and future oriented

         Having a stable marriage and good coping skills

         Being thankful, forgiving, and empathic

         Being active with other people

         Mills College Study: late 1950s to 1980s

        Midlife crisis was really midlife consciousness

        Similarities in concerns found between women in early 40s and Levinson’s findings

        Between ages 27 and early 40s, women shifted toward less traditional feminine attitudes

        Menopause, caring for aging parents, and empty nest were not linked to increased self-control
and responsibility

Close Relationships

         Middle-age well-being includes good relationships with family and friends 

         Affectionate love increases during middle adulthood 

         Those still married report being “satisfied,” while those in process of divorcing are alienated and avoidant, with a sense of “emptiness” 

         Many who divorce in their 40s or later, had stayed together for the children – one study showed more women than men initiating the divorce

         Some of the main reasons men and women seek divorce in middle adulthood:


         Verbal, physical, or emotional abuse

         Alcohol or drug abuse



         No obvious reason; just fell out of love


         Different values or lifestyles

         Divorce can have both positive and negative effects and reasons greatly vary among individuals

         Contrary to what would be expected from the empty nest syndrome, marital satisfaction may increase after the children have left

         In today’s world, stress often results when the empty nest refills with adult children returning home to live for various reasons

         The most common complaint from children returning to refill the nest is “loss of privacy” and parents’ restrictions on behaviors

         Relationships between adult children and mothers appear to be closer than those with fathers  

         Many middle-aged parents regret not spending more time with their children when those children were younger

         Research suggests that adults restructure perceptions of their parents during middle adulthood

         Sibling relationships continue over the entire life span – the majority appearing to be very close in adulthood

         Intimate friendships that have developed over a long time deepen in middle adulthood

         The majority of grandparents say grandparenting is easier than parenting – lack of frequent contact with grandchildren was the worst aspect of the role

         The grandparent role and its functions vary among families, ethnic groups, and cultures

         How grandparents interact with their grandchildren varies greatly:

         Fun-seeking style

         Distant-figure style

         Formal style

         Grandmothers have more contact with grandchildren than grandfathers 

         There is an increasing number of grandchildren living with their grandparents:

        5.6 million in 2000

        Half of all U.S. children living with grandparents were raised by a single grandmother

        The majority of homes where both grandparents raise the grandchildren are those of White families

         As divorce and remarriage become more common, visitation rights for grandparents have become an issue 

         Intergenerational relationships are affected, as each generation changes in attitudes, values, and personality 

         Overall, most family members maintain considerable contact across the generations 

         Similarity between parents and an adult child is often most noticeable in religion and politics 

         Differences between parents and an adult child are most noticeable in gender roles, lifestyle, and work orientation 

         Sometimes middle-aged adults are the “sandwich generation” – caring for their own children and their parents