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Differences between periods of adulthood

March 1, 2012

“…being able to establish an intimate relationship with another adult in young adulthood is a task bounded by social norms and expectations and personal considerations different from those found in mid-life. Likewise, the need for intimacy, for the presence of a ‘significant other,’ in old age has its special and unique aspects.” px

“The recent emergence of adulthood as a period of life to be explored and charted is reflected in both academic and popular literature. …In addition, various aspects of adult life have received attention in popular books, magazines, television documentaries, and talk shows. Particular focus has been accorded such topics as alternative life-styles, mid-career change, mid-life crisis, and adjustment to retirement.” p1 [Have these come to be expected phases???]

“…studying adulthood in all of its dimensions has been beyond the scope of the most comprehensive investigations. Rather, the approach has been to concentrate on one area such as cognitive ability, physical growth, personality, or interpersonal behavior and chart the changes with age.” p2.

“From the accumulation of knowledge to date, several generalizations can be made about adulthood in contemporary America:

There are predictable patterns of development in adulthood. …As one writer points out, ‘An adult’s age no longer tells you anything about that person’s economic or marital status, style of life, or health. Somewhere after the first twenty years, age falls away as a predictor’ (Neugarten, in Hall, 1980, p.66). Other areas of debate center on the differences in developmental patterns of men and women and whether or not stages of adulthood are linear or hierarchical (Troll, 1975; Knox, 1977); that is, do adults go from one phase to another different phase, each phase having its own specific tasks and concerns, or do adults move to higher levels of the same basic structure?

Adulthood consists of periods of stability and periods of transition. …There are also periods of stability when adults consolidate and enhance what Levinson has called the ‘life structure’ or framework that underlies each individual’s relationship to the self and the surrounding world (1978).

Adult behavior is determined more by social than by biological events. Adult behavior is very much a product of societal norms in the culture in which one lives. Each culture determines appropriate behavior and social roles for its members. What is regarded as ‘appropriate’ behavior is often a function of age and stage of life. Most adults marry and start families in young adulthood, for example, and a man is expected to be well into a career by mid-life Such events are part of an adult’s ‘normal’ developmental pattern.” p3 Merriam continues: “Unexpected events that break the normal pattern can be [-p4] disconcerting to the adult who experiences them. Being widowed at seventy is expected and so is being employed until around sixty-five. But being widowed at thirty or jobless at forty is unexpected; the event did not occur at the anticipated time. Such off-timing of events can lead to a crisis or dramatic behavioral change (Neugarten, in Schlossberg and Entine, eds., 1977, p.45).” pp3-4

The final generalization Merriam mentions is: “There are recurrent themes in adulthood. Freud has been quoted as saying that maturity is measured by the capacity to work and to love. Work and interpersonal relationships are two central themes of adulthood. As an individual moves from youth to middle age to old age, the nature, intensity, and manner of one’s working and loving change. …Identity is another recurrent theme in adulthood. A young adult is concerned with forging an identity; a middle-aged person evaluates who he or she has become; and an older person must accept who he or she has been. Thus the developmental tasks of different stages or phases of adulthood can be seen as the unfolding of recurrent themes such as work, love, or intimacy, and identity.” p4

Taking account of the passage of time…

To observe and measure change as an individual ages involves taking account of the passage of time. But this is both a complex and complicating variable. Neugarten and Datan identify three types of time that have an effect upon human development: life time, or chronological age, is the most frequently used index of change, although it fails to be a meaningful predictor of much social and psychological behavior; social time refers to the age-grade system of a particular society, that is, culture determines the appropriate time for certain behaviors, and different societies have different sets of age expectations not necessarily related to chronological age; historical time ‘shapes the social system, and the social system, in turn, creates a changing set of age norms and a changing age-grade system which shapes the individual life cycle’ (1973, p.57). Historical time includes both long-term cultural processes such as industrialization, and specific historical events such as the moon landing that persons experience. Keeping the various dimensions of time in mind, Neugarten and Datan (p. 69) assert that the essence of developmental psychology is ‘to study sequences of change for the purpose of determining which ones are primarily developmental (in the sense of being tied to maturational change) and which ones are primarily situational – if indeed, this distinction can be made at all.'” p2

Ref: (emphases added): Sharan B. Merriam, Ed. (1983) Themes of Adulthood through literature. Teachers College Press, New York


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