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Chapter 16
Social & Personality Development in Middle Adulthood

Two Perspectives on Adult Personality Development

1. Normative-crisis models

Traditional view, argues that people move through fixed stages, each tied to age

Critics suggest outdated (based on traditional models of family & roles)

2. Life events models

Newer model

Suggest that things that occur in life determine personality development (not age)

Not clear which model better represents personality development.

Both models agree that adulthood is not a time of passivity and stagnation but of continued psychological growth.

Whichever model is chosen, it is clear that middle adulthood is a time of continuing psychological growth.

Erik Erikson’s Stage of
Generativity v. Stagnation

Erik Erikson suggests that middle adulthood encompasses the period of GENERATIVITY VERSUS STAGNATION, where people consider their contributions to family, community, work, and society.

Erikson, continued

Generativity is guiding and encouraging future generations.

Generativity may be leaving a lasting contribution to the world through creative or artistic output.

Generativity means looking beyond oneself to the continuation of one's life through others.

Stagnation means people focus on the triviality of their lives, and feel they have made only a limited contribution to the world, that their presence has counted for little.

Levinson’s Seasons of Life

Daniel Levinson suggests that the early 40’s are marked by transition and crisis

Central to his theory is the concept of a midlife crisis—a period of intense psychological turmoil.

He studied 40 men (applicability to women has NOT been established), and suggested that adult men pass through a series of stages beginning with early adulthood at age 20 and continuing into middle adulthood.

According to Levinson…

Early adulthood is leaving the family and having "the dream" where men have goals and aspirations and make long-term decisions about career and family.

"Settling down" - people make and sometime discard career choices as they come to grips with their capabilities and come to terms with long-term decisions

Midlife transition occurs at 40/45, a time of questioning which leads to midlife crisis.

Despite the fact that Levinson overstated the consistency & generalizability of developmental patterns, some information in his theory has been supported by subsequent research, at least in some populations.

Midlife Crisis: Reality or Myth

Despite widespread acceptance (and centrality in Levinson’s model), the evidence for a midlife crisis does not exist.

For most, the transition is smooth and rewarding.

Many find their careers have blossomed.

The significance of middle age significantly depends on the culture in which one lives.

Those experiencing regrets about their lives do better psychologically if change is implemented.

By the time adults enter middle adulthood, most feel younger than they are.

Relationships: Marriage and Divorce in Middle Age

Marriage and divorce significantly impact social and personality development in middle adulthood.

The institution of marriage is not stable, and societal norms change over time.

50 years ago, couples that married during early adulthood were still married at middle adulthood—to each other.

100 years ago, people in their 40’s often had experienced the death of a spouse.

Now, marriages are mixed; some divorced by middle adulthood, blended families common, and many people experience the peak of marital satisfaction during this period.

The ups & downs of marriage

Even for happily married couples, marriage has its ups and downs, and satisfaction rises and falls over the course of the marriage.

The most frequent pattern of marital satisfaction is U-shaped.

Satisfaction begins to decline just after a marriage begins, and falls till it reaches its low point at the birth of the child; then it slowly returns to high levels, reaching the highest level after the children have left home.

Sources of Marital Satisfaction

Spouse as "best friend"

Like the spouse as a person

Shared goals in life

Satisfying sexual relationship


Rarer after age 40, but still 1 in 8 first marriages dissolve in midlife.


Cultural emphasis on personal happiness & fulfillment

Cultural emphasis on romantic love

Fewer sanctions, financially or socially

Greater stress in modern life


Although the overall remarriage rate is high, it is far higher in some groups than others.

75% of white women remarry, whereas less than half of African-American women marry again.

90 % of women under 25 remarry, but less than one-third over the age of 40 do so.

The marriage gradient pushes men to marry younger women.

Older women are victims of the harsh societal standards regarding physical attractiveness.

Second Marriages

Roles are more flexible, duties & decisions shared more often.

Older couples tend to be more mature and realistic, less romantic in their view of marriage.

The divorce rate is slightly higher for second marriages.

More stress, especially with blended families.

Personality problems that caused the first divorce are still present.

Many remarried people report satisfaction rates as high as those is successful first marriages.


Family Evolutions

For many couples, a major transition that typically occurs during middle adulthood is the departure of children.

This is labeled the EMPTY NEST SYNDROME when parents experience feelings of unhappiness, worry, loneliness, and depression resulting from their children's departure from home.

Although this challenge is harder for many stay-at-home mothers to face than for working mothers, the empty nest syndrome is more myth than reality.

Boomerang Children: Refilling the Empty Nest

There has been a significant increase in the U.S. in the number of young adults who come back to live in the homes of their middle-aged parents, a phenomenon called BOOMERANG CHILDREN.

Unable to find a job.

Difficulty making ends meet.

People are marrying at later ages.

Parents' reactions are both positive and negative.

The Sandwich Generation: Between Parents & Children

Another new trend is that middle-aged couples become the SANDWICH GENERATION, because they must fulfill the needs of both their children and their aging parents.

Couples are marrying and having children later.

Parents are living longer.

This is difficult because of role reversal.

Sandwich Generation, continued

The care of parents ranges from financial aid to having parents live in their home.

Most of the burden falls on the woman.

Even though being sandwiched in the middle of two generations can stretch a couple’s resources, this can be a rewarding situation for both children and parents.

Becoming a Grandparent

Middle adulthood often brings one of the unmistakable symbols of aging: becoming a grandparent.

Grandparents tend to fall into style categories

Involved grandparents are actively engaged in grandparenting and have influence over their grandchildren's lives.

Companionate grandparents are more relaxed, and act as supporters and buddies to their grandchildren.

Grandparenting, continued

Remote grandparents are detached and distant, and show little interest in their grandchildren.

Grandmothers tend to be more involved than grandfathers.

African-American grandparents are more involved with their grandchildren than White grandparents.

Family Violence: The Hidden Epidemic

Domestic violence is one of the ugly truths about marriage and is occurring at epidemic levels.

Some form of violence happens in ¼ to 1/3 of all marriages & intimate relationships.

More than half of all women murdered are murdered by a partner.

25% of domestic violence victims are pregnant when they are assaulted by their partner.

Spousal Abuse

Close to 15 % of marriages in the U. S. are characterized by continuing, severe violence.

Violence occurs across social strata, ethnic groups, and religions.

Mostly it is men abusing women, but some cases involve the wife physically abusing the husband.

Spousal abuse, continued

Certain factors increase the likelihood of abuse.

Families with 4 or more children.


$15, 000 or less annual income = 7x higher rate.

Growing up in a violent home.

According to the CYCLE-OF-VIOLENCE HYPOTHESIS, abuse and neglect of children leads them to be predisposed to abusiveness as adults. About 30% of abused kids will become abusers as adults (4 times the rate in the general population).


According to Lenore Walker, marital abuse by a husband occurs in three stages.

1) The tension-building stage is where a batterer becomes upset and shows dissatisfaction initially through verbal abuse.

2) The acute battering incident is when the physical abuse actually occurs.

3) The loving contrition stage occurs in some, but not all cases, and involves the husband feeling remorse and apologizing.


Some women women stay in abusive relationships because they mistakenly feel that they are somewhat at fault.

Some stay out of fear (that husband may come after them, or that there are no alternatives).

Many women stay because they have grown up in a violent home and think that violence is a way of life.

The Cultural Roots of Violence

Although the tendency is often to see marital violence as a particularly North American event, other cultures have traditions that establish violence as acceptable

Wife battering is particularly prevalent in cultures in which women are viewed as inferior to men.

Western society also historically considered wife abuse as acceptable

Original English law allowed husbands to beat their wives.

This law was amended to permit beating only with a stick that was no thicker than his thumb (where the phrase "rule of thumb" comes from).

Wife beating was not removed from U.S. law until the late 1900s.

Some experts on abuse suggest that the traditional power structure in society is a root cause of abuse.

When women have low status they become easy targets; when they have high status they are threatening to their husbands.


Work and Leisure

For many, middle age is the time of greatest productivity, success, and earning power.

The factors that make work satisfying undergo a transformation during middle age.

Middle-aged workers care more about the here-and-now qualities of work.

The older workers are, the more overall job satisfaction they experience.

Job Satisfaction in Middle Adulthood?

Job satisfaction is not universal in middle adulthood.

Some people experience BURNOUT, which occurs when highly trained professionals experience dissatisfaction, disillusionment, frustration, and weariness from their jobs.

Unemployment: The Dashing of the Dream

For many workers, unemployment is a hard reality of life and the implications are more psychological than economic.

Middle-aged adults tend to stay unemployed longer than do young workers.

Employers may discriminate because of age.

Research shows that older workers have less absenteeism, hold their jobs longer, are more reliable, and more willing to learn new skills.

Switching & Starting Careers at Midlife

Some people change their jobs voluntarily in middle adulthood.

Their old job gave little satisfaction.

They achieved mastery of the old job's challenges.

For those who switch or start new careers, the outcome can be positive or negative

Some middle aged job switchers are disappointed due to overly high expectations, but others have extremely positive experiences.

Some suggest that career changing may become the rule in our society rather than the exception, given technological advances.

Leisure Time: Life Beyond Work

Most middle-aged adults have 70 hours a week for leisure time.

The average middle-aged person watches 15 hours of TV per week & spend 6 hours socializing.

Some turn to charity, or community organizations.

Although leisure time is increasing in the U.S., our pace of life is still faster than many countries.