Emotional and Social Development in Middle Adulthood

chapter 16 Emotional and Social Development in Middle Adulthood


Midlife is a time of increased generativity—giving to and guiding younger generations. Charles Callis, director of New Zealand’s Olympic Museum, shows visiting schoolchildren how to throw a discus. His enthusiastic demonstration conveys the deep sense of satisfaction he derives from generative activities.

chapter outline

· Erikson’s Theory: Generativity versus Stagnation

· ■ SOCIAL ISSUES: HEALTH Generative Adults Tell Their Life Stories

Other Theories of Psychosocial Development in Midlife

· Levinson’s Seasons of Life

· Vaillant’s Adaptation to Life

· Is There a Midlife Crisis?

· Stage or Life Events Approach

Stability and Change in Self-Concept and Personality

· Possible Selves

· Self-Acceptance, Autonomy, and Environmental Mastery

· Coping with Daily Stressors

· Gender Identity

· Individual Differences in Personality Traits

· ■ BIOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENT What Factors Promote Psychological Well-Being in Midlife?

Relationships at Midlife

· Marriage and Divorce

· Changing Parent–Child Relationships

· Grandparenthood

· Middle-Aged Children and Their Aging Parents

· Siblings

· Friendships

· ■ SOCIAL ISSUES: HEALTH Grandparents Rearing Grandchildren: The Skipped-Generation Family

· Vocational Life

· Job Satisfaction

· Career Development

· Career Change at Midlife

· Unemployment

· Planning for Retirement


One weekend when Devin, Trisha, and their 24-year-old son, Mark, were vacationing together, the two middle-aged parents knocked on Mark’s hotel room door. “Your dad and I are going off to see a crafts exhibit,” Trisha explained. “Feel free to stay behind,” she offered, recalling Mark’s antipathy toward attending such events as an adolescent. “We’ll be back around noon for lunch.”

“That exhibit sounds great!” Mark replied. “I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

“Sometimes I forget he’s an adult!” exclaimed Trisha as she and Devin returned to their room to grab their coats. “It’s been great to have Mark with us—like spending time with a good friend.”

In their forties and fifties, Trisha and Devin built on earlier strengths and intensified their commitment to leaving a legacy for those who would come after them. When Mark faced a difficult job market after graduating from college, he returned home to live with Trisha and Devin and remained there for several years. With their support, he took graduate courses while working part-time, found steady employment in his late twenties, fell in love, and married in his mid-thirties. With each milestone, Trisha and Devin felt a sense of pride at having escorted a member of the next generation into responsible adult roles. Family activities, which had declined during Mark’s adolescent and college years, increased as Trisha and Devin related to their son as an enjoyable adult companion. Challenging careers and more time for community involvement, leisure pursuits, and each other contributed to a richly diverse and gratifying time of life.


The midlife years were not as smooth for two of Trisha and Devin’s friends. Fearing that she might grow old alone, Jewel frantically pursued her quest for an intimate partner. She attended singles events, registered with dating services, and traveled in hopes of meeting a like-minded companion. “I can’t stand the thought of turning 50,” she lamented in a letter to Trisha. Jewel also had compensating satisfactions—friendships that had grown more meaningful, a warm relationship with a nephew and niece, and a successful consulting business.

Tim, Devin’s best friend from graduate school, had been divorced for over five years. Recently, he had met Elena and had come to love her deeply. But Elena was in the midst of major life changes. In addition to her own divorce, she was dealing with a troubled daughter, a career change, and a move away from the city that served as a constant reminder of her unhappy past. Whereas Tim had reached the peak of his career and was ready to enjoy life, Elena wanted to recapture much of what she had missed in earlier decades, including opportunities to realize her talents. “I don’t know where I fit into Elena’s plans,” Tim wondered aloud on the phone with Trisha.

With the arrival of middle adulthood, half or more of the lifespan is over. Increasing awareness of limited time ahead prompts adults to reevaluate the meaning of their lives, refine and strengthen their identities, and reach out to future generations. Most middle-aged people make modest adjustments in their outlook, goals, and daily lives. But a few experience profound inner turbulence and initiate major changes, often in an effort to make up for lost time. Together with advancing years, family and work transitions contribute greatly to emotional and social development.

More midlifers are addressing these tasks than ever before, now that the baby boomers have reached their forties, fifties, and sixties (see page 12 in Chapter 1 to review how baby boomers have reshaped the life course). Indeed, 45- to 54-year-olds are currently the largest age sector of the U.S. population, and they are healthier, better educated, and—despite the late-2000s recession—more financially secure than any previous midlife cohort (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012b ; Whitbourne & Willis, 2006 ). As our discussion will reveal, they have brought increased self-confidence, social consciousness, and vitality—along with great developmental diversity—to this period of the lifespan.

A monumental survey called Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS), conducted in the mid-1990s, has contributed enormously to our understanding of midlife emotional and social development. Conceived by a team of researchers spanning diverse fields, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and medicine, the aim of MIDUS was to generate new knowledge on the challenges faced by middle-aged adults. Its nationally representative sample included over 7,000 U.S. 25- to 75-year-olds, enabling those in the middle years to be compared with younger and older individuals. Through telephone interviews and self-administered questionnaires, participants responded to over 1,100 items addressing wide-ranging psychological, health, and background factors, yielding unprecedented breadth of information in a single study (Brim, Ryff, & Kessler, 2005 ). The research endeavor also included “satellite” studies, in which subsamples of respondents were questioned in greater depth on key topics. And it has been extended longitudinally, with 75 percent of the sample recontacted at first follow-up, in the mid-2000s (Radler & Ryff, 2010 ).

MIDUS has greatly expanded our knowledge of the multidimensional and multidirectional nature of midlife change, and it promises to be a rich source of information about middle adulthood and beyond for many years to come. Hence, our discussion repeatedly draws on MIDUS, at times delving into its findings, at other times citing them alongside those of other investigations. Let’s turn now to Erikson’s theory and related research, to which MIDUS has contributed.

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All the Best, 

Cathy, CS