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Chapter 12:
Midlife: Setting the Parameters
The longest stage of life, lasting from roughly the 40s thru the 60s.
Varies by culture, with midlife being younger in societies where life expectancy is low.
Varies from person to person: A 40 year-old with a chronic age-related disease might call himself old; an 80 year-old who is still at the peak of his career might call himself middle-aged.
Interesting fact: most U.S. people in their 60s and early 70s call themselves middle-aged.

Basic characteristic:
Erikson’s Stage: Generativity vs. Stagnation
For Erikson, middle adulthood was characterized by the stage of generativity vs. stagnation.
Generativity: People find meaning from nurturing the next generation, caring for others, or enriching the life of others through their work.
Stagnation: People who have not achieved generativity feel stagnant, without a sense of purpose in life.

Research does support Erikson’s ideas when it comes to priorities in life and a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
More About Generativity
People differ dramatically in generativity at midlife.
In telling their life stories highly generative people:
Describe redemption sequences– “bad” events that turned out for the good (vs. contamination sequences of nongenerative adults).
Describe a commitment script- childhood memories of feeling special and an enduring generative mission.
The impulse to be generative is expressed in different ways depending on culture and gender.
African-Americans are more likely to be unusually generative.
Three Contradictory Ideas About How Personality Changes with Age

1) People’s personalities really don’t change.
2) Entering new life stages or having life-transforming experiences radically changes people.
3) As people get older, they grow more confident and competent.


#1: Personalities Don’t Change: The Big Five Results

The test: Explores five broad dimensions of personality—extraversion, openness to experience, neuroticism, agreeableness and conscientiousness.
The findings: After age thirty people don’t change much (An outgoing 30-year-old is apt to be friendly at 80; a neurotic 35-year-old, will tend to be neurotic at 95).
Explained by the principle that nature evokes nurture. We create environments that go along with our temperamental tendencies (So people who are caring at 30 stay caring at 60 because they tend to have more rewarding, loving life experiences).
Caution: these are averages. If outer lives change a good deal people can change.
#2: Changes Caused by Experiences
1) Interviewing people about pivotal life events
After experiencing major traumas (such as getting cancer), people report changing a good deal in values and specific life paths.
2) Giving tests of different aspects of Erikson’s generativity:
priorities become more generative in midlife.
Ask emerging adults, “list your top agendas” and you are likely to hear comments related to getting their own life in order. Ask midlife and older adults and they are likely to focus on generativity-related goals– e.g. “to be a good role model.”
CONCLUSION: While basic temperamental tendencies may endure, people can change dramatically in personal values & specific goals.
#3: Aging Brings Maturity
The evidence:

1) In another classic study looking at defense mechanisms (ways of coping with stress) people over age 35 used more mature defense mechanisms.

2) In a longitudinal study, women reported getting more self confident in midlife and that the 50s was their “prime of life.”

Interesting finding: Women who were relatively mature in their 20s tended to grow most with age.

Summing Up Midlife Personality Changes
Core temperamental tendencies (e.g. to be extroverted or agreeable) will not change much after age 30– unless the person undergoes a major life change.
As people reach midlife their priorities are likely to become more generative.
People are likely to cope better with stress as they get older, but this is especially true if they are relatively mature at a younger age.
People differ greatly in generativity and maturity at every age, so generalizations don’t capture individual differences.
Intelligence: Early Research Findings
1960’s findings: Verbal scores stayed more stable; performance scores dramatically declined beginning in the 20s (see chart).
CONCLUSION: People get less intelligent beginning in early adulthood.
PROBLEM—Study was cross-sectional and so did not account for dramatic cohort differences in education.

The Seattle Study: The Definitive Study of Age and IQ
Evaluated people longitudinally and also cross-sectionally (controlling for the biases of each research technique).

Overall intelligence peaks in the late 40s and early 50s.

Age patterns differ for different tests. On a test measuring knowledge base, scores rose until the late 50s. On tests involving fast performance, abilities decline at a younger age

Bottom line:
Midlife is the intellectual prime, but specific abilities change in different ways with age (see next slide).

Two Basic Types of Intelligence
Fluid intelligence: mastering something completely new within a time limit
Biologically based, begins to decline early in adult life

Crystallized intelligence: Accumulated knowledge
Can grow until later life (the 60s) depending on whether people keep active mentally
When people are close to death, this “stable” aspect of intelligence dramatically declines. (This phenomenon, called terminal drop, can predict impending death, even when someone has not been diagnosed with a fatal illness.)

Applications to Creative Work and All Jobs
During midlife in many fields, people are at their career performance peak.
Look to the mix of crystallized and fluid skills to see how abilities in a particular field are likely to change with age.
The most important predictor of job performance is enduring competence. Studies of creative geniuses show that highly creative people are more competent and productive at every age.
General Strategies For IQ Maintenance

Develop a hobby or passion that is mentally challenging.
Throughout life, find intellectually challenging situations and keep learning.
Guard against developing heart disease.
When performance difficulties arise, use selective optimization with compensation:
Selection: prioritize, focusing on what is most important
Optimize: work harder in those tasks
Compensate: rely on external aids to aid functioning

Post- Formal Thought
A uniquely adult form of intelligence that involves being sensitive to different perspectives, making decisions based on one’s inner feelings, and being interested in exploring new questions.
Relativistic: Knows real world decisions often don’t have clear-cut right or wrong answers. Accepts the validity of different options; looks for the best answer
Feeling-oriented: Is open to inner experiences (and interpersonally sensitive as well)
Question driven: Delights in coming up with new questions and thinking about the world in different ways
Midlife Roles: Grandparenthood

In poor families, may aid in survival; in affluent families may be family watchdogs who step in during a crisis to help
Cement that keeps the family close
An unstructured role that people negotiate in different ways, depending on proximity, personality, and the generation in between
Incredibly fulfilling...... but can have problems
Grandparent Problems

The issue: Grandparents don’t have control over their involvement.

Maternal grandmothers– at risk of being too involved
Plus: Often the grandma of first rank because daughters are closer to their mothers
Problem: tend to be pressured to take total care of the children or be on-call babysitters

Paternal grandparents- at risk of too little involvement
Worst case scenario: After the wife gets custody in a bitter divorce, can be kept from seeing the grandchildren

Caregiving Grandparents
Must become the full parent due to child’s serious problems
More than 6% of U.S. children today
Midlife Roles: Parent Care
Highly stressful role because it violates the principle of parents caring for their children, not the reverse
Usually performed by daughters, unless there are none and the father needs care
Typically occurs in the 50s, when there can also be pressure to take care of the grandchildren, and, of course, the pressure of a full-time job
Can easily last into the 70s, when one may be caring for a disabled spouse also
Forces that make it easier:
An enduring loving attachment from past
Being sensitive to one another’s autonomy needs
Not needing to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s
Defining marker: not having menstruated for a year
Cause: ovulation becomes erratic and then ceases
Variable symptoms: Some women sail through menopause with no problems; others feel terrible
Perimenopause most difficult physically and emotionally because of hormonal fluctuations
After menopause: vaginal walls thinner and lubrication decreases
Major sexual consequence: intercourse becomes painful, artificial lubrication may be necessary
Midlife Sexuality
Body image: Contrary to popular belief, middle-aged women feel better about their bodies than young women.

Male changes: physiologically, men decline from a young age
Trouble getting and keeping an erection
Erections not as intense
Not able to have sex more than once or twice in a 24-hour period

Female changes: social forces loom large in declining sexuality
The 30s are typically the desire peak
Less interest in sex than men by late middle age
Physiologically there are far fewer changes, but many women give up having sex due to not having a partner, or not being seen as attractive.

Continuing a vital sexual relationship through midlife is very possible, but depends on spouses being able to communicate openly and make necessary adjustments.