With the arrival of middle adulthood

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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.

image4 Erikson’s Theory: Generativity versus Stagnation


Through his work with severely malnourished children in Niger, this nurse, affiliated with the Nobel Prize–winning organization Doctors Without Borders, integrates personal goals with a broader concern for society.

Erikson’s psychological conflict of midlife is called  generativity versus stagnation.  Generativity involves reaching out to others in ways that give to and guide the next generation. Recall from  Chapter 14  that generativity is under way in early adulthood through work, community service, and childbearing and child rearing. Generativity expands greatly in midlife, when adults focus more intently on extending commitments beyond oneself (identity) and one’s life partner (intimacy) to a larger group—family, community, or society. The generative adult combines the need for self-expression with the need for communion, integrating personal goals with the welfare of the larger social world (McAdams & Logan,  2004 ). The resulting strength is the capacity to care for others in a broader way than previously.

Erikson ( 1950 ) selected the term generativity to encompass everything generated that can outlive the self and ensure society’s continuity and improvement: children, ideas, products, works of art. Although parenting is a major means of realizing generativity, it is not the only means: Adults can be generative in other family relationships (as Jewel was with her nephew and niece), as mentors in the workplace, in volunteer endeavors, and through many forms of productivity and creativity.

Notice, from what we have said so far, that generativity brings together personal desires and cultural demands. On the personal side, middle-aged adults feel a need to be needed—to attain symbolic immortality by making a contribution that will survive their death (Kotre,  1999 ; McAdams, Hart, & Maruna,  1998 ). This desire may stem from a deep-seated evolutionary urge to protect and advance the next generation. On the cultural side, society imposes a social clock for generativity in midlife, requiring adults to take responsibility for the next generation through their roles as parents, teachers, mentors, leaders, and coordinators (McAdams & Logan,  2004 ). And according to Erikson, a culture’s “belief in the species”—the conviction that life is good and worthwhile, even in the face of human destructiveness and deprivation—is a major motivator of generative action. Without this optimistic worldview, people would have no hope of improving humanity.

The negative outcome of this stage is stagnation: Once people attain certain life goals, such as marriage, children, and career success, they may become self-centered and self-indulgent. Adults with a sense of stagnation express their self-absorption in many ways—through lack of interest in young people (including their own children), through a focus on what they can get from others rather than what they can give, and through taking little interest in being productive at work, developing their talents, or bettering the world in other ways.

Some researchers study generativity by asking people to rate themselves on generative characteristics, such as feelings of duty to help others in need or obligation to be an involved citizen. Others ask open-ended questions about life goals, major high points, and most satisfying activities, rating people’s responses for generative references. And still others look for generative themes in people’s narrative descriptions of themselves (Keyes & Ryff,  1998a  1998b ; McAdams,  2006  2011 ; Newton & Stewart,  2010 ; Rossi,  2001  2004 ). Whichever method is used, generativity tends to increase in midlife. For example, in longitudinal and cross-sectional studies of college-educated women, and in an investigation of middle-aged adults diverse in SES, self-rated generativity rose throughout middle adulthood (see  Figure 16.1 ). At the same time, participants expressed greater concern about aging, increased security with their identities, and a stronger sense of competence (Miner-Rubino, Winter, & Stewart,  2004 ; Stewart, Ostrove, & Helson,  2001 ; Zucker, Ostrove, & Stewart,  2002 ). As the Social Issues: Health box on  page 534  illustrates, generativity is also a major unifying theme in middle-aged adults’ life stories.


FIGURE 16.1 Age-related changes in self-rated generativity, concern about aging, identity security, and sense of competence.

In a longitudinal study of over 300 college-educated women, self-rated generativity increased from the thirties to the fifties, as did concern about aging. The rise in generativity was accompanied by other indicators of psychological health—greater security with one’s identity and sense of competence.

(Adapted from Stewart, Ostrove, & Helson, 2001.)

Just as Erikson’s theory suggests, highly generative people appear especially well-adjusted—low in anxiety and depression; high in autonomy, self-acceptance, and life satisfaction; and more likely to have successful marriages and close friends (Ackerman, Zuroff, & Moskowitz,  2000 ; An & Cooney,  2006 ; Grossbaum & Bates,  2002 ; Westermeyer,  2004 ). They are also more open to differing viewpoints, possess leadership qualities, desire more from work than financial rewards, and care greatly about the welfare of their children, their partner, their aging parents, and the wider society (Peterson,  2002 ; Peterson, Smirles, & Wentworth,  1997 ). Furthermore, generativity is associated with more effective child rearing—higher valuing of trust, open communication, transmission of generative values to children, and an authoritative style (Peterson,  2006 ; Peterson & Duncan,  2007 ; Pratt et al.,  2008 ). Generative midlifers are also more involved in political activities, including voting, campaigning, and contacting public officials (Cole & Stewart,  1996 ).

Although these findings characterize adults of all backgrounds, individual differences in contexts for generativity exist. Having children seems to foster generative development in both men and women. In several studies, including the MIDUS survey, fathers scored higher in generativity than childless men (Marks, Bumpass, & Jun,  2004 ; McAdams & de St. Aubin,  1992 ; Snarey et al.,  1987 ). Similarly, in an investigation of well-educated women from ages 43 to 63, those with family commitments (with or without a career) expressed greater generative concerns than childless women who were solely focused on their careers (Newton & Stewart,  2010 ). Parenting seems to spur especially tender, caring attitudes toward succeeding generations.

For low-SES men with troubled pasts as sons, students, workers, and intimate partners, fatherhood can provide a context for highly generative, positive life change (Roy & Lucas,  2006 ). At times, these fathers express this generativity as a refusal to pass on their own history of suffering. As one former gang member, who earned an associate’s degree and struggled to keep his teenage sons off the streets, explained, “I came through the depths of hell to try to be a father. I let my sons know, ‘You’re never without a daddy, don’t you let anybody tell you that.’ I tell them that if me and your mother separate, I make sure that wherever I go, I build something for you to come to” ( p. 153 ).

Social Issues: Health Generative Adults Tell Their Life Stories

In research aimed at understanding how highly generative adults make sense of their lives, Dan McAdams and his colleagues interviewed two groups of midlifers: those who often behave generatively and those who seldom do. Participants were asked to relate their life stories, including a high point, a low point, a turning point, and important scenes from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (McAdams,  2006  2011 ; McAdams et al.,  2001 ). Analyses of story lines and themes revealed that adults high and low in generativity reconstruct their past and anticipate their future in strikingly different ways.

Narratives of highly generative people usually contained an orderly sequence of events that the researchers called a commitment story, in which adults give to others as a means of giving back to family, community, and society (McAdams,  2006 ). The generative storyteller typically describes an early special advantage (such as a good family or a talent), along with early awareness of the suffering of others. This clash between blessing and suffering motivates the person to view the self as “called,” or committed, to being good to others. In commitment stories, the theme of redemption is prominent. Highly generative adults frequently describe scenes in which extremely negative life events, involving frustration, failure, loss, or death, are redeemed, or made better, by good outcomes—personal renewal, improvement, and enlightenment.

Consider a story related by Diana, a 49-year-old fourth-grade teacher. Born in a small town to a minister and his wife, Diana was a favorite among the parishioners, who showered her with attention and love. When she was 8, however, her life hit its lowest point: As she looked on in horror, her younger brother ran into the street and was hit by a car; he died later that day. Afterward, Diana, sensing her father’s anguish, tried—unsuccessfully—to be the “son” he had lost. But the scene ends on an upbeat note, with Diana marrying a man who forged a warm bond with her father and who became accepted “as his own son.” One of Diana’s life goals was to improve her teaching, because “I’d like to give something back … to grow and help others grow” (McAdams et al.,  1997 , p. 689). Her interview overflowed with expressions of generative commitment.

Whereas highly generative adults tell stories in which bad scenes turn good, less generative adults relate stories with themes of contamination, in which good scenes turn bad. For example, a good first year of college turns sour when a professor grades unfairly. A young woman loses weight and looks good but can’t overcome her low self-esteem.

Why is generativity connected to life-story redemption events? First, some adults may view their generative activities as a way to redeem negative aspects of their lives. In a study of the life stories of ex-convicts who turned away from crime, many spoke of a strong desire to do good works as penance for their transgressions (Maruna,  2001 ; Maruna, LeBel, & Lanier,  2004 ). Second, generativity seems to entail the conviction that the imperfections of today can be transformed into a better tomorrow. Through guiding and giving to the next generation, mature adults increase the chances that the mistakes of the past will not happen again. Finally, interpreting one’s own life in terms of redemption offers hope that hard work will lead to future benefits—an expectation that may sustain generative efforts of all kinds, from rearing children to advancing communities and societies.

Life stories offer insight into how people imbue their lives with meaning and purpose. Adults high and low in generativity do not differ in the number of positive and negative events included in their narratives. Rather, they interpret those events differently. Commitment stories, filled with redemption, involve a way of thinking about the self that fosters a caring, compassionate approach to others (McAdams & Logan,  2004 ). Such stories help people realize that although their own personal story will someday end, other stories will follow, due in part to their own generative efforts.

The more redemptive events adults include in their life stories, the higher their self-esteem, life satisfaction, and certainty that the challenges of life are meaningful, manageable, and rewarding (Lilgendahl & McAdams,  2011 ; McAdams,  2001 ). Researchers still have much to learn about factors that lead people to view good as emerging from adversity.


Carlos Arredondo, who lost his older son in the Iraq War and his younger son to suicide, now travels the country, telling the story of how he overcame despair and committed himself to campaigning for peace in his sons’ memory. After the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, Arredondo, a spectator, leapt into action and rescued this gravely injured bystander.

Finally, compared with Caucasians, African Americans more often engage in certain types of generativity. They are more involved in religious groups and activities, offer more social support to members of their community, and are more likely to view themselves as role models and sources of wisdom for their children (Hart et al.,  2001 ). A life history of strong support from church and extended family may strengthen these generative values and actions. Among Caucasian Americans, religiosity and spirituality are also linked to greater generative activity (Dillon & Wink,  2004 ; Son & Wilson,  2011 ; Wink & Dillon,  2008 ). Highly generative middle-aged adults often indicate that as children and adolescents, they internalized moral values rooted in a religious tradition and sustained their commitment to those values, which provided lifelong encouragement for generative action (McAdams,  2006 ). Especially in individualistic societies, belonging to a religious community or believing in a higher being may help preserve generative commitments.

image8 Other Theories of Psychosocial Development in Midlife

Erikson’s broad sketch of psychosocial change in midlife has been extended by Levinson and Vaillant. Let’s revisit their theories, which were introduced in  Chapter 14 .

Levinson’s Seasons of Life

Return to  page 470  to review Levinson’s eras (seasons of life). His interviews with adults revealed that middle adulthood begins with a transition, during which people evaluate their success in meeting early adulthood goals. Realizing that from now on, more time will lie behind than ahead, they regard the remaining years as increasingly precious. Consequently, some make drastic revisions in their life structure: divorcing, remarrying, changing careers, or displaying enhanced creativity. Others make smaller changes in the context of marital and occupational stability.

· Whether these years bring a gust of wind or a storm, most people turn inward for a time, focusing on personally meaningful living (Neugarten,  1968b ). According to Levinson, to reassess and rebuild their life structure, middle-aged adults must confront four developmental tasks. Each requires the individual to reconcile two opposing tendencies within the self, attaining greater internal harmony.

· ● Young–old: The middle-age person must seek new ways of being both young and old. This means giving up certain youthful qualities, transforming others, and finding positive meaning in being older. Perhaps because of the double standard of aging (see  pages 516  517  in  Chapter 15 ), most middle-aged women express concern about appearing less attractive as they grow older (Rossi,  2005 ). But middle-aged men—particularly non-college-educated men, who often hold blue-collar jobs requiring physical strength and stamina—are also highly sensitive to physical aging. In one study, they were more concerned about physical changes than both college- and non-college-educated women, who exceeded college-educated men (Miner-Rubino, Winter, & Stewart,  2004 ).

Compared with previous midlife cohorts, U.S. baby boomers are especially interested in controlling physical changes—a desire that has helped energize a huge industry of anti-aging cosmetic products and medical procedures (Jones, Whitbourne, & Skultety,  2006 ; Lachman,  2004 ). And sustaining a youthful subjective age (feeling younger than one’s actual age) is more strongly related to self-esteem and psychological well-being among American than Western-European middle-aged and older adults (Westerhof & Barrett,  2005 ; Westerhof, Whitbourne, & Freeman,  2012 ). In the more individualistic U.S. context, a youthful self-image seems more important for viewing oneself as self-reliant and capable of planning for an active, fulfilling late adulthood.

· ● Destruction–creation: With greater awareness of mortality, the middle-aged person focuses on ways he or she has acted destructively. Past hurtful acts toward parents, intimate partners, children, friends, and co-workers are countered by a strong desire to participate in activities that advance human welfare and leave a legacy for future generations. The image of a legacy can be satisfied in many ways—through charitable gifts, creative products, volunteer service, or mentoring young people.

· ● Masculinity–femininity: The middle-aged person must create a better balance between masculine and feminine parts of the self. For men, this means greater acceptance of “feminine” traits of nurturance and caring, which enhance close relationships and compassionate exercise of authority in the workplace. For women, it generally means being more open to “masculine” characteristics of autonomy and assertiveness. Recall from  Chapter 8  that people who combine masculine and feminine traits have an androgynous gender identity. Later we will see that androgyny is associated with favorable personality traits and adjustment.

· ● Engagement–separateness: The middle-aged person must forge a better balance between engagement with the external world and separateness. For many men, and for women who have had successful careers, this may mean reducing concern with ambition and achievement and attending more fully to oneself. But women who have been devoted to child rearing or an unfulfilling job often feel compelled to move in the other direction (Levinson,  1996 ). At age 48, Elena left her position as a reporter for a small-town newspaper, pursued an advanced degree in creative writing, accepted a college teaching position, and began writing a novel. Tim, in contrast, recognized his overwhelming desire for a gratifying romantic partnership. By scaling back his own career, he realized he could grant Elena the time and space she needed to build a rewarding work life—and that doing so might deepen their attachment to each other.

People who flexibly modify their identities in response to age-related changes yet maintain a sense of self-continuity are more aware of their own thoughts and feelings and are higher in self-esteem and life satisfaction (Jones, Whitbourne, & Skultety,  2006 ; Sneed et al.,  2012 ). But adjusting one’s life structure to incorporate the effects of aging requires supportive social contexts. When poverty, unemployment, and lack of a respected place in society dominate the life course, energies are directed toward survival rather than realistically approaching age-related changes. And even adults whose jobs are secure and who live in pleasant neighborhoods may find that employment conditions restrict possibilities for growth by placing too much emphasis on productivity and profit and too little on the meaning of work. In her early forties, Trisha left a large law firm, where she felt constant pressure to bring in high-fee clients and received little acknowledgment of her efforts, for a small practice.

Opportunities for advancement ease the transition to middle adulthood. Yet these are far less available to women than to men. Individuals of both sexes in blue-collar jobs also have few possibilities for promotion. Consequently, they make whatever vocational adjustments they can—becoming active union members, shop stewards, or mentors of younger workers (Christensen & Larsen,  2008 ; Levinson,  1978 ). Many men find compensating rewards in moving to the senior generation of their families.

Vaillant’s Adaptation to Life

Whereas Levinson interviewed 35- to 4

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