Adulthood: Social and Personality Development

Most adults are influenced by a ticking social clock, a set of cultural norms concerning the optimal age range for work, marriage, parenthood, and other major life experiences to occur.

Stages and Critical Events

According to Erik Erikson’s model, there are three major developmental challenges of adulthood:

  • Intimacy versus isolation (young adulthood – ages 20 to 40)

    Intimacy is the ability to open oneself to another person and to form close relationships.

  • Generativity versus stagnation (middle adulthood – ages 40 to 60)

    People achieve generativity by doing things for others, exercising leadership, and making the world a better place.

  • Integrity versus despair (late adulthood – over 60)

    Older adults review their life and evaluate its meaning. If the major crises of earlier stages have been successfully resolved, the person experiences integrity: a sense of completeness and fulfillment. Older adults who have not achieved positive outcomes at earlier stages may experience despair, regretting that they cannot relive their lives in a more fulfilling way.

Premarital cohabitation is associated with a higher risk of marital divorce, though this does not appear to be a causal relationship. For many couples, marital satisfaction tends to decline in the years after the birth of children, but increases later in adulthood.

Work serves important psychological and social functions in adulthood. Overall, women experience more career gaps, and their career paths are more variable than men’s. Most adults do not experience a full-blown “midlife crisis.” Most retired people do not become more anxious, depressed, or lonely due to retirement either.

Death and Dying

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her groundbreaking work on dying, found that terminally ill patients often experienced five stages as they coped with impending death.

  • Denial: the patient refuses to accept that the illness is terminal
  • Anger
  • Bargaining: e.g. “Lord, please let me live long enough to see my grandchild.”
  • Depression: patient begins to grieve
  • Acceptance: patient experiences a resigned sense of peacefulness

However, beliefs and feelings about death vary with culture and age, and there is no “normal” way to approach death.

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