Seeds of Light Foundation
Adulthood has sometimes been described as the period of life that begins when we stop growing and start growing old. It has also been characterized as a time during which the stable personality developed in childhood and adolescence continues to function without very much change. Most theorists claim that the personality remains quite stable in normal persons during the period of adulthood.
Freud believed that many of the characteristics of the person are established during childhood and that identity is fixed early in adulthood. But society has changed greatly, even since Freud's day, in that for the first time a significant portion of the population is middle-aged or older.
In earlier times life expectancy was shorter, and few people survived past the age of forty. Today, there are more than 50 million men and women in the United States, one-fourth of the total population, who are in the mid-life period from age forty to sixty. Furthermore, the post World War II "baby boom" will become a "senior citizen boom" by the year 2010, when many of those postwar babies will pass the age of sixty. The movement of a large segment of the population into the mid-life period has perhaps made more salient the examination of developments and changes in personality and social behavior during adulthood.
Many such studies have been conducted in recent years. One notable example is the work of Daniel J. Levinson (1978), who made an intensive study of forty men and identified three major periods of change in adult life: an early adult transition, a mid-life transition, and a late adult transition. Many of these changes in adulthood are adjustments to changes in one's social status, changes in the circumstances of one's life, and the changes that accompany aging.
These shifts in attitude and orientation have been explored by Roger Gould (1972). In one study Gould interviewed all the patients, male and female, in group therapy at a psychiatric outpatient clinic. In a second study he gave questionnaires to 524 white middle-class men and women who were not psychiatric patients. In both studies there were clear differences in the major concerns and key attitudes of various age groups. Young adults (ages twenty-two to twenty-eight) felt autonomous and focused their energy on attaining the goals they had set. But members of the next age group (twenty-nine to thirty-four) had begun to question their goals, wondering, "What is life all about now that I have done what I am supposed to do?" Those between thirty-five and forty-three continued to question the values they had lived by, but they had also developed a new awareness of the passage of time, asking, "Is it too late for me to change?" With the onset of middle age (forty-three to fifty), adults entered a period of greater stability, of acceptance of the structure of life and of greater satisfaction with their spouses.
Gould found a continuation of this last trend after age fifty. Also, with a greater awareness of mortality, personal relationships became more valued, and a desire to contribute something meaningful to society developed.
Bernice Neugarten (1976) has compiled data that substantiate and complement Gould's work. She has found that there are many psychological changes generally characteristic of men and women as they move through adulthood. We will note three of the major changes here.
(1) As people grow older, they show increased "interiority," a greater concern with the inner life, with introspection and conscious reappraisal.
(2) With age, a change in time perspective takes place. According to Neugarten, "Life is restructured in terms of time left to live rather than time since birth" (1976, p. 17). Now aware that time is finite, adults try to estimate the time remaining during which they may accomplish the tasks or achieve the goals that they have set.
(3) Intimately related to this shift in time perspective is the awareness of death as "a real possibility for the self, no longer the magical or extraordinary occurrence that it appears in youth" (p. 18).
Making the transition from one phase of adulthood to the next is not always easy. But many people cope with major transitions such as the departure of children from the home, retirement from a career, the death of a spouse, and the approach of one's own death, without undue stress (Neugarten, 1976). Apparently, these events in an adult's life are not necessarily traumatic. They become so only when they are not anticipated or when they occur at an unexpected time in the life cycle. Thus, the death of a child is much more stressful than the death of a parent, and divorce when a woman is forty is more difficult to accept than widowhood when she is sixty-five.
A study of men who had retired from their life's work (Barfield and Morgan, 1970) found that nearly 70 percent of those who retired as planned were content with their new status, as compared with less than 20 percent of those who retired unexpectcdly due to layoffs or poor health. Similarly. a study of elderly people showed that those who were living in familiar and stable surroundings were less afraid of dying than those who were about to be admitted to a home for the aged (Lieberman and Coplan, 1970). The prospect of dying in unknown circumstances creates stress.
As long as the expected rhythm of the life cycle is not disrupted, however, most adults cope successfully with life, even in its final stages.
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