Chapter 16 – Middle Adulthood: Social and Emotional Development
Did you know:
• The midlife crisis is more than creation of Hollywood than of real life.
o A midlife crisis may be more the exception than the rule.
• Modern mothers no longer experience an “empty-nest syndrome” when the last
child leaves home.
o Having the last child leave home is often a positive event for middle-aged
• The events of middle adulthood do not tend to cause major shifts in personality.
o According to two decades of longitudinal research, the ‘big five’
personality traits tend to show a good deal of stability over time.
• Women who have a college or university education do not typically experience
increased personal distress as they advance from adulthood to late adulthood.
o Aside from increased concern with aging, this is generally true.
• Job satisfaction increases throughout middle adulthood.
o A study of more than 2,000 university employees found that job
satisfaction increased steadily throughout middle adulthood (Hochwarter
et al., 2001).
• Middle-aged people tend to have fewer friends than young adults do.
o Middle-aged people tend to have fewer friends than young adults, but they
have more in common with the friends who remain.
L01 – Theories of Development in Middle Adulthood
Theories of development in middle adulthood largely deal with the issue of whether we
can consider middle adulthood to be a distinct age or phase of life. According to
Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, middle adulthood is characterized by a
particular life crisis. We shall describe that crisis and consider the evidence, pro and con.
Daniel Levinson spoke of a specific midlife transition and a midlife crisis (not to be
confused with Erikson’s life crises). Again we shall consider the evidence. Then we will
take a broader look at the ways in which personality appears to change – or not change –
during middle adulthood.
Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development
• Generativity vs. stagnation
o Generativity: ability to generate or produce (procreation – bearing and
raising children); contributes to future generations and enhances one’s
self-esteem and sense of meaning in life
o Stagnation: inability to procreate; substitutes (teaching, caring for other
• Erikson argued that people who do not engage in generative behaviour risk
stagnating and falling into routines that can strip their lives of meaning and
purpose (seems murky)
o Van Hiel study (2006): generativity folk scored significantly higher on
personality variable of conscientiousness; stagnation folks scored significantly higher on the personality variable of neuroticism (measured
as emotional instability, enduring tendency to experience negative
• Age 40-45 comprise a midlife transition: a psychological shift into middle
adulthood that is often accompanied by a crisis during which people fear they
have more to look back upon than forward
• Termed midlife crisis as a time of dramatic self-doubt and anxiety – passing of
youth and preoccupied about imminence of mortality.
• Marker events such as menopause, death of partner or friend, child’s leaving
• Once beset by crisis – denies realities of aging (affair to prove sexually attractive,
buy car, shift careers)
• Many view 45 as the second adulthood
• The 50s are more relaxed and productive than the 40s; those in their 50s need to
adjust to empty nest, effects of aging, competition with younger workers
Entering Midlife: Crisis, Turning Point, or Prime of Life?
• Theorists mention 35 or 40 as entering midlife; 35 crucial to journalist Gail
Sheehy in her book Passages published in the 1970s.
• Age of 35: advised to stop using birth control pill, start using amniocentesis,
biological clocks running out
• People living longer – into their late 70s or 80s; 40s has become a much more
realistic halfway point (turning point)
• Levinson – midlife crisis – taking stock of unrecognized dreams; psychotherapy
should not be minimized at this time of life
• Those outlooks are negative – focusing on tragedy, loos, or doom ~ others see it
as ‘entering the prime of life’ though physically declining
• Midlife – earning more money than young adults, settled geographically and
vocationally; have built systems of social support, may be involved in enduring
romantic and social relationships and have children
o Flip side: overwhelming responsibility (caring for children, spouse,
• Height of productivity and resiliene
The Life-Events Approach
• Focuses on particular challenges and changes people are likely to face at this age
• Most tragic events: death of spouse or child; death of parent or sibling; divorce or
separation; hospitalization or health; caring for parents; finances; appearance;
moving or employment change; change in social network
• Empty nest syndrome: a feeling or loneliness or loss of purpose that parents, and
especially the mother, are theorized to experience when the youngest child leaves
home • Sources of stress – negative life events – illness, depression – harmful to people’s
health in mid adulthood – resort to medicines; accumulation of stressful life
events is capable of accelerating age-related declines in memory functioning
o Situations and attitudes can have moderating effects on stressors
o Sense of control overrides effects of stress and foster feelings of well-
L02: Stability and Change in Middle Adulthood
Five basic factors of personality (McCrae and Costa) to study stability and change in
personality development of adults over several decades. Basic temperaments inborn;
personalities tend to mature rather than be shaped by environmental conditions;
expression of personality traits affected by culture
THE BIG FIVE: THE FIVE-FATOR MODEL OF PERSONALITY
Factor I / Extraversion
Traits: Contrasts talkativeness, assertiveness, and activity with silence, passivity,
Factor II / Agreeableness
Traits: Contrasts kindness, trust, and warmth and hostility, selfishness, and
Factor III / Conscientiousness
Traits: Contrasts organization, thoroughness, and reliability with carelessness,
negligence, and unreliability
Factor IV / Neuroticism
Traits: Contrasts nervousness, moodiness, and sensitivity to negative stimuli with