Middle Adulthood
Social & Personality Development

Prepared by Ethel Cantu

Based on Development Across the Lifespan, 2nd Ed

by Robert Feldman, Prentice-Hall


Psychosocial Development in Middle Adulthood

•      Personality at midlife

–   Normative-crisis models

–   Nonnormative models

•      Marriage and divorce

•      Relationships with adult children

•      Relationships with aging parents

Normative-Crisis Models

•      Midlife crisis: stressful period triggered by review and reevaluation of one’s life brought on by awareness of mortality

•      Existence of universal, psychologically necessary midlife crisis is in doubt

–   Strong evidence for stability of personality

–   Personality influenced more by time when important events occur than by age

Normative-Crisis Models


•      Erikson: generativity vs stagnation

–   Establish and guide the next generation

–   Positive outcome is care for others; Pass on ideas and values

–   Negative outcome is self-indulgent, stagnant

Normative-Crisis Models

•      Levinson: changing life structures

–   Inevitable, overt midlife crisis, usually between 40-45

–   Come to terms with dreams, construct more realistic self-image, substitute more attainable goals

–   Carve out new life structures between 45-50

–   Research based on small sample of men, not followed into late adulthood

Women’s Development

•      Generativity varies according to role

–   High-status career: work productivity, mentor

–   Traditional female occupations: parenting

•      Midlife crisis for both homemakers and career women

–   Independence and assertiveness led to problems at home and work prompting reevaluation

–   Overload

Women’s Development

•      Helson: The Mills Studies

–   Healthy adjustment comes from sense of mastery over life and pleasure from living

–   Paid work best predictor of mastery

–   Good marriage (including sex) and family best predictor of pleasure

–   Highest were employed married women with children

–   Lowest were unemployed, childless, married

Evaluating Normative-Crisis

•      People in these studies not representative

–    Mostly white, educated, middle/upper class men

–    Cohort of depression and WWII

•      Crisis may be due to cohort effects

•      Male model may not be healthy

–    Masculine tendency toward agency (self) and feminine toward communion (others) may be unhealthy in extremes

•      Midlife is another transition, not crisis

Nonnormative Models

•      Trait research: stability or change

–    The big five (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness) change little after 30 (Costa & McCrae, 1994)

–    Other research shows change, but period of least change is 40-50 (Jones & Meredith, 1996)

–    Findings reflect differences in research design

–    Confounding variables include changing roles

•    Reversal of roles after child-raising

•    Changing expectations for women and men

Timing of Events
The Social Clock

•      Personality hinges on important life events

•      Lifestyles are more diverse

–    Off-time conditions still considered atypical

–    Stronger, more negative reactions when personal assessment was “that event is late”

•      Burden of support is changing

–    From 1960s to 1990s more teenagers than older parents were supported by middle-aged parents

–    By 2010 will reverse


•      Marriage and Divorce

•      Adult Children

•      Aging Parents

•      Grandparenting


•      Marital satisfaction follows a U shape

–    Declines during child-raising years

–    Rises from middle to late adulthood

•      Decline in satisfaction attributed to stresses of parenting

–    Financial resources and number of children

–    Division of home responsibilities

•      Marital satisfaction increases when grown children depart if marriage is good


•      Divorce rate highest in early adulthood, but midlife divorce now more common

•      Longstanding marriages less likely to break

–    Build up marital capital: financial and emotional benefits

•      Divorce in midlife can be traumatic

–    More trouble adjusting, less hope for future

–    Women affected more than men

•    Less well off economically

•    Fewer available partners for remarriage

Adult Children

•      Important task for parents is to accept their adult children as they are, not as hoped to be

•      Empty nest: when the last child leaves home

–    Relief from “chronic emergency of parenthood”

–    Hard on mothers who had not prepared for it with other roles

–    Hard on fathers who regret not spending more time with their children

Adult Children

•      Revolving door syndrome: boomerang children

–    Return to their parents’ home after completing education, or in times of difficulty: financial, marital…

–    Can lead to tension and serious conflicts

•    esp if child is unemployed and financially dependent

•    esp if divorced or separated child brings own children

–    Can be satisfying if roles and responsibilities are negotiated

•    Acknowledge child as adult; Respect privacy of each

Aging Parents

•      Ties to parents grow stronger during midlife

•      More objective look at parents

–   Neither idealizes nor blames them for mistakes

•      Realization that s/he is now the pillar of strength, not the parents

•      Financial assistance, emotional support is mutual

•      Get along best while parents are healthy

Aging Parents

•      Caregiver for aging parents becoming more common role

–   Longer life = more risk of chronic conditions

–   Primary role usually falls to daughter, more difficult if she is working

•      Caring for infirm, disabled, mentally deteri-orated strains relationship

Sandwich Generation

•      Caught between competing needs of children and parents with limited time, energy and resources

–   Conflicts with personal life

–   Rewards and stresses

•      Care for parents seen as nonnormative

–   Do not expect to care for parents; Unprepared

–   Torn between love and resentment


•      Most new grandparents are 45-50, in prime of life and still working

•      Grandparenting styles

–   Companionate: enjoy frequent, casual relationship

–   Remote: see grandchildren infrequently, more symbolic relationship

–   Involved: discipline and correct grandchildren, involved in decision-making with parents


•      Impact of divorce and remarriage

–    Grandparents have rights to visitation

–    Grandparents may have step grandchildren

•      Raising grandchildren

–    Parents by default: death, addiction, underage…

–    Strains because of reduced energy and stamina, financial burdens, feel cheated out of traditional roles, feel out of touch, guilt and anger toward adult child, lack of respite care


•      Rewards include love, sense of purpose in life

•      Obstacles

–    Some discrimination against grandparent caregivers in AFDC payments

–    No legal status if they don’t have custody

–    Grandchildren not eligible for health insurance under grandparents’ policy

–    Gaining custody is difficult, risky, expensive