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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 45-year-olds, Vaillant ( 1977 , 2002 )—in his longitudinal research on well-educated men and women—followed participants past the half-century mark. Recall from Chapter 14 how adults in their late fifties and sixties extend their generativity, becoming “keepers of meaning,” or guardians of their culture (see page 471 ). Vaillant reported that the most-successful and best-adjusted entered a calmer, quieter time of life. “Passing the torch”—concern that the positive aspects of their culture survive—became a major preoccupation.

In societies around the world, older people are guardians of traditions, laws, and cultural values. This stabilizing force holds in check too-rapid change sparked by the questioning and challenging of adolescents and young adults. As people approach the end of middle age, they focus on longer-term, less-personal goals, such as the state of human relations in their society. And they become more philosophical, accepting the fact that not all problems can be solved in their lifetime.

Is There a Midlife Crisis?

Levinson ( 1978 , 1996 ) reported that most men and women in his samples experienced substantial inner turmoil during the transition to middle adulthood. Yet Vaillant ( 1977 , 2002 ) saw few examples of crisis but, rather, slow and steady change. These contrasting findings raise the question of how much personal upheaval actually accompanies entry to midlife. Are self-doubt and stress especially great during the forties, and do they prompt major restructuring of the personality, as the term midlife crisis implies?

Consider the reactions of Trisha, Devin, Jewel, Tim, and Elena to middle adulthood. Trisha and Devin moved easily into this period, whereas Jewel, Tim, and Elena engaged in greater questioning of their situations and sought alternative life paths. Clearly, wide individual differences exist in response to mid-life. TAKE A MOMENT… Now ask several individuals in their twenties and thirties whether they expect to encounter a midlife crisis between ages 40 and 50. You are likely to find that Americans often anticipate it, perhaps because of culturally induced apprehension of aging (Wethington, Kessler, & Pixley, 2004 ). Yet little evidence supports this view of middle age as a turbulent time.


Like many midlifers, elementary school teacher Jaime Malwitz modified his career in ways that resemble a turning point, not a crisis. He designed a scientist-in-residence program for elementary schools. Here he serves as a resident physicist, discussing a density experiment with a fifth grader.

When MIDUS participants were asked to describe “turning points” (major changes in the way they felt about an important aspect of their lives) that had occurred during the past five years, most of the ones reported concerned work. Women’s work-related turning points peaked in early adulthood, when many adjusted their work lives to accommodate marriage and childrearing (see Chapter 14 ). The peak for men, in contrast, came at midlife, a time of increased career responsibility and advancement. Other common turning points in early and middle adulthood were positive: They involved fulfilling a dream and learning something good about oneself (Wethington, Kessler, & Pixley, 2004 ). Overall, turning points rarely resembled midlife crises. Even negative work-related turning points generally led to personal growth—for example, a layoff that sparked a positive career change or a shift in energy from career to personal life.

Asked directly if they had ever experienced something they would consider a midlife crisis, only one-fourth of the MIDUS respondents said yes. And they defined such events much more loosely than researchers do. Some reported a crisis well before age 40, others well after age 50. And most attributed it not to age but rather to challenging life events (Wethington, 2000 ). Consistent with this view, Elena had considered both a divorce and a new career long before she initiated these changes. In her thirties, she separated from her husband; later she reconciled with him and told him that she desired to return to school, which he firmly opposed. She put her own life on hold because of her daughter’s academic and emotional difficulties and her husband’s resistance.

Another way of exploring midlife questioning is to ask adults about life regrets—attractive opportunities for career or other life-changing activities they did not pursue or lifestyle changes they did not make. In two investigations of women in their early forties, those who acknowledged regret without making life changes, compared to those who modified their lives, reported less favorable psychological well-being and poorer physical health over time (Landman et al., 1995 ; Stewart & Vandewater, 1999 ). The two groups did not differ in social or financial resources available to effect change. Rather, they differed in personality: Those who made changes were higher in confidence and assertiveness.

By late midlife, with less time ahead to make life changes, people’s interpretation of regrets plays a major role in their well-being. Mature, contented adults acknowledge a past characterized by some losses, have thought deeply about them, and feel stronger because of them. At the same time, they are able to disengage from them, investing in current, personally rewarding goals (King & Hicks, 2007 ). Among a sample of several hundred 60- to 65-year-olds diverse in SES, about half expressed at least one regret. Compared to those who had not resolved their disappointments, those who had come to terms with them (accepted and identified some eventual benefits) or had “put the best face on things” (identified benefits but still had some lingering regret) reported better physical health and greater life satisfaction (Torges, Stewart, & Miner-Rubino, 2005 ).

In sum, life evaluation is common during middle age. Most people make changes that are best described as turning points rather than drastic alterations of their lives. Those who cannot modify their life paths often look for the “silver lining” in life’s difficulties (King & Hicks, 2007 ; Wethington, Kessler, & Pixley, 2004 ). The few midlifers who are in crisis typically have had early adulthoods in which gender roles, family pressures, or low income and poverty severely limited their ability to fulfill personal needs and goals, at home or in the wider world.

Stage or Life Events Approach

That crisis and major restructuring in midlife are rare raises, once again, a question we considered in Chapter 14 : Can adult psychosocial changes can be organized into stages, as Erikson’s, Levinson’s, and Vaillant’s theories indicate? A growing number of researchers believe the midadult transition is not stagelike (Freund & Ritter, 2009 ; McCrae & Costa, 2003 ; Srivastava et al., 2003 ). Some regard it as simply an adaptation to normative life events, such as children growing up, reaching the crest of a career, and impending retirement.

Yet recall from earlier chapters that life events are no longer as age-graded as they were in the past. Their timing is so variable that they cannot be the sole cause of midlife change. Furthermore, in several studies, people were asked to trace their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and hopes during early and middle adulthood. Psychosocial change, in terms of personal disruption followed by reassessment, coincided with both family life cycle events and chronological age. For this reason, most experts regard adaptation during midlife as the combined result of growing older and social experiences (Lachman, 2004 ; Sneed, Whitbourne, & Culang, 2006 ). TAKE A MOMENT… Return to our discussion of generativity and the midlife transition on page 533 , and notice how both factors are involved.

Finally, in describing their lives, the large majority of middle-aged people report troubling moments that prompt new understandings and goals. As we look closely at emotional and social development in middle adulthood, we will see that this period, like others, is characterized by both continuity and change. Debate persists over whether midlife psychosocial changes are stagelike. With this in mind, let’s turn to the diverse inner concerns and outer experiences that contribute to psychological well-being and decision making in midlife.


REVIEW What personal and cultural forces motivate generativity? Why does it increase and contribute vitally to favorable adjustment in midlife?

CONNECT How might the approach of many middle-aged adults to handling life regrets prevent the occurrence of midlife crises?

APPLY After years of experiencing little personal growth at work, 42-year-old Mel looked for a new job and received an attractive offer in another city. Although he felt torn between leaving close friends and pursuing a long-awaited career opportunity, after several weeks of soul searching, he took the new job. Was Mel’s dilemma a midlife crisis? Why or why not?

REFLECT Think of a middle-aged adult whom you admire. Describe the various ways that individual expresses generativity.

image10 Stability and Change in Self-Concept and Personality

Midlife changes in self-concept and personality reflect growing awareness of a finite lifespan, longer life experience, and generative concerns. Yet certain aspects of personality remain stable, revealing the persistence of individual differences established during earlier periods.

Possible Selves

On a business trip, Jewel found a spare afternoon to visit Trisha. Sitting in a coffee shop, the two women reminisced about the past and thought aloud about the future. “It’s been tough living on my own and building the business,” Jewel said. “What I hope for is to become better at my work, to be more community-oriented, and to stay healthy and available to my friends. Of course, I would rather not grow old alone, but if I don’t find that special person, I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that I’ll never have to face divorce or widowhood.”

Jewel is discussing possible selves, future-oriented representations of what one hopes to become and what one is afraid of becoming. Possible selves are the temporal dimension of self-concept—what the individual is striving for and attempting to avoid. To lifespan researchers, these hopes and fears are just as vital in explaining behavior as people’s views of their current characteristics. Indeed, possible selves may be an especially strong motivator of action in midlife, as adults attach increased meaning to time (Frazier & Hooker, 2006 ). As we age, we may rely less on social comparisons in judging our self-worth and more on temporal comparisons—how well we are doing in relation to what we had planned.

Throughout adulthood, the personality traits people assign to their current selves show considerable stability. A 30-year-old who says he is cooperative, competent, outgoing, or successful is likely to report a similar picture at a later age. But reports of possible selves change greatly. Adults in their early twenties mention many possible selves, and their visions are lofty and idealistic—being “perfectly happy,” “rich and famous,” “healthy throughout life,” and not being “down and out” or “a person who does nothing important.” With age, possible selves become fewer in number and more modest and concrete. Most middle-aged people no longer desire to be the best or the most successful. Instead, they are largely concerned with performance of roles and responsibilities already begun—“being competent at work,” “being a good husband and father,” “putting my children through the colleges of their choice,” “staying healthy,” and not being “a burden to my family” or “without enough money to meet my daily needs” (Bybee & Wells, 2003 ; Cross & Markus, 1991 ; Ryff, 1991 ).

What explains these shifts in possible selves? Because the future no longer holds limitless opportunities, adults preserve mental health by adjusting their hopes and fears. To stay motivated, they must maintain a sense of unachieved possibility, yet they must still manage to feel good about themselves and their lives despite disappointments (Lachman & Bertrand, 2002 ). For example, Jewel no longer desired to be an executive in a large company, as she had in her twenties. Instead, she wanted to grow in her current occupation. And although she feared loneliness in old age, she reminded herself that marriage can lead to equally negative outcomes, such as divorce and widowhood—possibilities that made not having attained an important interpersonal goal easier to bear.

Unlike current self-concept, which is constantly responsive to others’ feedback, possible selves (though influenced by others) can be defined and redefined by the individual, as needed. Consequently, they permit affirmation of the self, even when things are not going well (Bolkan & Hooker, 2012 ). Researchers believe that possible selves may be the key to continued well-being in adulthood, as people revise these future images to achieve a better match between desired and achieved goals. Many studies reveal that the self-esteem of middle-aged and older individuals equals or surpasses that of younger people, perhaps because of the protective role of possible selves (Robins & Trzesniewski, 2005 ).

Self-Acceptance, Autonomy, and Environmental Mastery

An evolving mix of competencies and experiences leads to changes in certain aspects of personality during middle adulthood. In Chapter 15 , we noted that midlife brings gains in expertise and practical problem solving. Middle-aged adults also offer more complex, integrated descriptions of themselves than do younger and older individuals (Labouvie-Vief, 2003 ). Furthermore, midlife is typically a period in which the number of social roles peaks—spouse, parent, worker, and engaged community member. And status at work and in the community typically rises, as adults take advantage of opportunities for leadership and other complex responsibilities (Helson, Soto, & Cate, 2006 ).

· These changes in cognition and breadth of roles undoubtedly contribute to other gains in personal functioning. In research on adults ranging in age from the late teens into the seventies, and in cultures as distinct as the United States and Japan, three qualities increased from early to middle adulthood:

· ● Self-acceptance: More than young adults, middle-aged people acknowledged and accepted both their good and bad qualities and felt positively about themselves and life.

· ● Autonomy: Middle-aged adults saw themselves as less concerned about others’ expectations and evaluations and more concerned with following self-chosen standards.

· ● Environmental mastery: Middle-aged people saw themselves as capable of managing a complex array of tasks easily and effectively (Karasawa et al., 2011 ; Ryff & Keyes, 1995 ).

As these findings indicate, midlife is generally a time of increased comfort with the self, independence, assertiveness, commitment to personal values, and life satisfaction (Helson, Jones, & Kwan, 2002 ; Keyes, Shmotkin, & Ryff, 2002 ; Stone et al., 2010 ). Perhaps because of this rise in overall psychological well-being, middle age is sometimes referred to as “the prime of life.”

At the same time, factors contributing to psychological well-being differ substantially among cohorts, as self-reports gathered from 25- to 65-year-old MIDUS survey respondents reveal (Carr, 2004 ). Among women who were born during the baby-boom years or later, and who thus benefited from the women’s movement, balancing career with family predicted greater self-acceptance and environmental mastery. But also consider that women born before or during World War II who sacrificed career to focus on child rearing—expected of young mothers in the 1950s and 1960s—were similarly advantaged in self-acceptance. Likewise, men who were in step with prevailing social expectations scored higher in well-being. Baby-boom and younger men who modified their work schedules to make room for family responsibilities—who fit their cohort’s image of the “good father”—were more self-accepting. But older men who made this accommodation scored much lower in self-acceptance than those who focused on work and thus conformed to the “good provider” ideal of their times. (See the Biology and Environment box on pages 540 – 541 for additional influences on midlife psychological well-being.)

Notions of happiness, however, vary among cultures. In comparisons of Japanese and Korean adults with same-age U.S. MIDUS participants, the Japanese and Koreans reported lower levels of psychological well-being, largely because they were less willing than the Americans to endorse individualistic traits, such as self-acceptance and autonomy, as characteristic of themselves (Karasawa et al., 2011 ; Keyes & Ryff, 1998b ). Consistent with their collectivist orientation, Japanese and Koreans’ highest well-being scores were on positive relations with others. The Korean participants clarified that they viewed personal fulfillment as achieved through family, especially the success of children. Americans also regarded family relations as relevant to well-being but placed greater emphasis on their own traits and accomplishments than on their children’s.

Coping with Daily Stressors

In Chapter 15 , we discussed the importance of stress management in preventing illness. It is also vital for psychological well-being. In a MIDUS satellite study in which more than 1,000 participants were interviewed on eight consecutive evenings, researchers found an early- to mid-adulthood plateau in frequency of daily stressors, followed by a decline as work and family responsibilities ease and leisure time increases (see Figure 16.2 ) (Almeida & Horn, 2004 ). Women reported more frequent role overload (conflict among roles of employee, spouse, parent, and caregiver of an aging parent) and family-network and child-related stressors, men more work-related stressors, but both genders experienced all varieties. Compared with older people, young and midlife adults also perceived their stressors as more disruptive and unpleasant, perhaps because they often experienced several at once, and many involved financial risks and children.

But recall, also, from Chapter 15 that midlife brings an increase in effective coping strategies. Middle-aged individuals are more likely to identify the positive side of difficult situations, postpone action to permit evaluation of alternatives, anticipate and plan ways to handle future discomforts, and use humor to express ideas and feelings without offending others (Diehl, Coyle, & Labouvie-Vief, 1996 ). Notice how these efforts flexibly draw on both problem-centered and emotion-centered strategies.


FIGURE 16.2 Age-related changes in daily stressors among men and women.

In a MIDUS satellite study, researchers interviewed more than 1,000 adults on eight consecutive evenings. Findings revealed an early- to mid-adulthood plateau, followed by a decline as work and family responsibilities ease and leisure time increases.

(From D. M. Almeida & M. C. Horn, 2004, “Is Daily Life More Stressful During Middle Adulthood?” in O. G. Brim, C. D. Ruff, and R. C. Kessler [Eds.], How Healthy Are We? A National Study of Well-Being at Midlife. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 438. Adapted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.)

Why might effective coping increase in middle adulthood? Other personality changes seem to support it. Complex, integrated, coherent self-descriptions—which increase in midlife, indicating an improved ability to blend strengths and weaknesses into an organized picture—predict a stronger sense of personal control over outcomes and good coping strategies (Hay & Diehl, 2010 ; Labouvie-Vief & Diehl, 2000 ). Midlife gains in emotional stability and confidence in handling life’s problems may also contribute (Roberts et al., 2007 ; Roberts & Mroczek, 2008 ). These attributes predict work and relationship effectiveness—outcomes that reflect the sophisticated, flexible coping of middle age.

Gender Identity

In her forties and early fifties, Trisha appeared more assertive at work. She spoke out more freely at meetings and took a leadership role when a team of lawyers worked on an especially complex case. She was also more dominant in family relationships, expressing her opinions to her husband and son more readily than she had 10 or 15 years earlier. In contrast, Devin’s sense of empathy and caring became more apparent, and he was less assertive and more accommodating to Trisha’s wishes than before.

Many studies report an increase in “masculine” traits in women and “feminine” traits in men across middle age (Huyck, 1990 ; James et al., 1995 ). Women become more confident, self-sufficient, and forceful, men more emotionally sensitive, caring, considerate, and dependent. These trends appear in cross-sectional and longitudinal research, in people varying in SES, and in diverse cultures—not just Western industrialized nations but also village societies such as the Maya of Guatemala, the Navajo of the United States, and the Druze of the Middle East (Fry, 1985 ; Gutmann, 1977 ; Turner, 1982 ). Consistent with Levinson’s theory, gender identity in midlife becomes more androgynous—a mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics.

Although the existence of these changes is well-accepted, explanations for them are controversial. A well-known evolutionary view, parental imperative theory , holds that identification with traditional gender roles is maintained during the active parenting years to help ensure the survival of children. Men become more goal-oriented, while women emphasize nurturance (Gutmann & Huyck, 1994 ). After children reach adulthood, parents are free to express the “other-gender” side of their personalities.

Biology and environment What Factors Promote Psychological Well-Being in Midlife?


These yoga students express a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Maintaining an exercise regimen contributes greatly to midlife psychological well-being.

For Trisha and Devin, midlife brought contentment and high life satisfaction. But the road to happiness was rockier for Jewel, Tim, and Elena. What factors contribute to individual differences in psychological well-being at midlife? Consistent with the lifespan perspective, biological, psychological, and social forces are involved, and their effects are interwoven.

Good Health and Exercise

Good health affects energy and zest for life at any age. But during middle and late adulthood, taking steps to improve health and prevent disability becomes a better predictor of psychological well-being. Many studies confirm that engaging in regular exercise—walking, dancing, jogging, or swimming—is more strongly associated with self-rated health and a positive outlook in older than in younger adults (Bherer, 2012 ). Middle-aged people who maintain an exercise regimen are likely to perceive themselves as particularly active for their age and, therefore, to feel a special sense of accomplishment (Netz et al., 2005 ). In addition, physical activity enhances self-efficacy and effective stress management (see page 515 in Chapter 15 ).

Sense of Control and Personal Life Investment

Middle-aged adults who report a high sense of control over events in various aspects of their lives—health, family, and work—also report more favorable psychological well-being. Sense of control contributes further to self-efficacy. It also predicts use of more effective coping strategies, including seeking of social support, and thereby helps sustain a positive outlook in the face of health, family, and work difficulties (Lachman, Neupert, & Agrigoroaei, 2011 ).

Personal life investment—firm commitment to goals and involvement in pursuit of those goals—also adds to mental health and life satisfaction (Staudinger & Bowen, 2010 ). According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a vital wellspring of happiness is flow—the psychological state of being so engrossed in a demanding, meaningful activity that one loses all sense of time and self-awareness. People describe flow as the height of enjoyment, even as an ecstatic state. The more people experience flow, the more they judge their lives to be gratifying (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009 ). Although flow is common in people engaged in creative endeavors, many others report it—students who love studying, employees who like their jobs, adults involved in challenging leisure pursuits, and parents and grandparents engaged in pleasurable learning activities with children. Flow depends on perseverance and skill at complex endeavors that offer potential for growth. These qualities are well-developed in middle adulthood.

Positive Social Relationships

Developing gratifying social ties is closely linked to midlife psychological well-being. In a survey of college alumni, those who preferred occupational prestige and high income to close friends were twice as likely as other respondents to describe themselves as “fairly” or “very” unhappy (Perkins, 1991 , as cited by Myers, 2000 ).

Supportive relationships, especially with friends and relatives, improve mental health by promoting positive emotions and protecting against stress (Fiori, Antonucci, & Cortina, 2006 ; Powdthavee, 2008 ). Enjoyable social ties can even strengthen the impact of an exercise regimen on well-being. Among an ethnically diverse sample of women using a private gym or an African Caribbean community center, exercising with likeminded companions contributed to their happiness and life satisfaction (Wray, 2007 ). The social side of going to the gym appeared especially important to minority women, who were less concerned with physical-appearance benefits than their Caucasian agemates.

A Good Marriage

Although friendships are important, a good marriage boosts psychological well-being even more. The role of marriage in mental health increases with age, becoming a powerful predictor by late midlife (Marks, Bumpass, & Jun, 2004 ; Marks & Greenfield, 2009 ).

Longitudinal studies tracking people as they move in and out of intimate relationships suggest that marriage actually brings about well-being. For example, when interviews with over 13,000 U.S. adults were repeated five years later, people who remained married reported greater happiness than those who remained single. Those who separated or divorced became less happy, reporting considerable depression (Marks & Lambert, 1998 ). Couples who married for the first time experienced a sharp increase in happiness, those who entered their second marriage a modest increase.

Although not everyone is better off married, the link between marriage and well-being is similar in many nations, suggesting that marriage changes people’s behavior in ways that make them better off (Diener et al., 2000 ; Lansford et al., 2005 ). Married partners monitor each other’s health and offer care in times of illness. They also earn and save more money than single people, and higher income is modestly linked to psychological well-being (Myers, 2000 ; Waite, 1999 ). Furthermore, sexual satisfaction predicts mental health, and married couples have more satisfying sex lives than singles (see Chapter 13 ).

Mastery of Multiple Roles

Finally, success in handling multiple roles—spouse, parent, worker, community volunteer—is linked to psychological well-being. In the MIDUS survey, as role involvement increased, both men and women reported greater environmental mastery, more rewarding social relationships, heightened sense of purpose in life, and more positive emotion. Furthermore, adults who occupied multiple roles and who also reported high control (suggesting effective role management) scored especially high in well-being—an outcome that was stronger for less-educated adults (Ahrens & Ryff, 2006 ). Control over roles may be vital for individuals with lower educational attainment, whose role combinations may be particularly stressful and who have fewer economic resources.

Finally, among nonfamily roles, community volunteering in the latter part of midlife contributes uniquely to psychological well-being (Choi & Kim, 2011 ; Ryff et al., 2012 ). It may do so by strengthening self-efficacy, generativity, and altruism.

But this biological account has been criticized. As we discussed in earlier chapters, parents need both warmth and assertiveness (in the form of firmness and consistency) to rear children effectively. And although children’s departure from the home is related to men’s openness to the “feminine” side of their personalities, the link to a rise in “masculine” traits among women is less apparent (Huyck, 1996 , 1998 ). In longitudinal research, college-educated women in the labor force became more independent by their early forties, regardless of whether they had children; those who were homemakers did not. Women attaining high status at work gained most in dominance, assertiveness, and outspokenness by their early fifties (Helson & Picano, 1990 ; Wink & Helson, 1993 ). Furthermore, cohort effects can contribute to this trend: In one study, middle-aged women of the baby-boom generation—who experienced new career opportunities as a result of the women’s movement—more often described themselves as having masculine and androgynous traits than did older women (Strough et al., 2007 ).

Additional demands of midlife may prompt a more androgynous orientation. For example, among men, a need to enrich a marital relationship after children have departed, along with reduced chances for career advancement, may be involved in the awakening of emotionally sensitive traits. Compared with men, women are far more likely to face economic and social disadvantages. A greater number remain divorced, are widowed, and encounter discrimination in the workplace. Self-reliance and assertiveness are vital for coping with these circumstances.

In sum, androgyny in midlife results from a complex combination of social roles and life conditions. In Chapter 8 , we noted that androgyny predicts high self-esteem. In adulthood, it is also associated with cognitive flexibility, creativity, advanced moral reasoning, and psychosocial maturity (Prager & Bailey, 1985 ; Runco, Cramond, & Pagnani, 2010 ; Waterman & Whitbourne, 1982 ). People who integrate the masculine and feminine sides of their personalities tend to be psychologically healthier, perhaps because they are able to adapt more easily to the challenges of aging.


In middle age, gender identity becomes more androgynous for both sexes. Men tend to show an increase in “feminine” traits, becoming more emotionally sensitive, caring, considerate, and dependent.

Individual Differences in Personality Traits

Although Trisha and Jewel both became more self-assured and assertive in midlife, in other respects they differed. Trisha had always been more organized and hard-working, Jewel more gregarious and fun-loving. Once, the two women traveled together. At the end of each day, Trisha was disappointed if she had not kept to a schedule and visited every tourist attraction. Jewel liked to “play it by ear”—wandering through streets and stopping to talk with shopkeepers and residents.

In previous sections, we considered personality changes common to many middle-aged adults, but stable individual differences also exist. Through factor analysis of self-report ratings, the hundreds of personality traits on which people differ have been reduced to five basic factors, often referred to as the “big five” personality traits: neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Table 16.1 provides a description of each. Notice that Trisha is high in conscientiousness, whereas Jewel is high in extroversion.

Longitudinal and cross-sectional studies of U.S. men and women reveal that agreeableness and conscientiousness increase from the teenage years through middle age, whereas neuroticism declines, and extroversion and openness to experience do not change or decrease slightly—changes that reflect “settling down” and greater maturity. Similar trends have been identified in more than fifty countries varying widely in cultural traditions, including Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and South Korea (McCrae & Costa, 2006 ; Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006 ; Schmitt et al., 2007 ; Soto et al., 2011 ; Srivastava et al., 2003 ). The consistency of these cross-cultural findings has led some researchers to conclude that adult personality change is genetically influenced. They note that individual differences in the “big five” traits are large and highly stable: A person who scores high or low at one age is likely to do the same at another, over intervals ranging from 3 to 30 years (McCrae & Costa, 2006 ).

TABlE 16.1 The “Big Five” Personality Traits




Individuals who are high on this trait are worrying, temperamental, self-pitying, self-conscious, emotional, and vulnerable.


Individuals who are high on this trait are affectionate, talkative, active, fun-loving, and passionate. Individuals who are low are reserved, quiet, passive, sober, and emotionally unreactive.

Openness to experience

Individuals who are high on this trait are imaginative, creative, original, curious, and liberal. Individuals who are low are down-to-earth, uncreative, conventional, uncurious, and conservative.


Individuals who are high on this trait are soft-hearted, trusting, generous, acquiescent, lenient, and good-natured. Individuals who are low are ruthless, suspicious, stingy, antagonistic, critical, and irritable.


Individuals who are high on this trait are conscientious, hard-working, well-organized, punctual, ambitious, and persevering. Individuals who are low are negligent, lazy, disorganized, late, aimless, and nonpersistent.

Source: McCrae, 2011; McCrae & Costa, 2006.

How can there be high stability in personality traits, yet significant changes in aspects of personality discussed earlier? Studies of the “big five” traits include very large samples and typically do not examine the impact of a host of contextual factors—including life events, the social clock, and cultural values—that shape aspirations, goals, and expectations for appropriate behavior (Caspi & Roberts, 2001 ). Look closely at the traits in Table 16.1 , and you will see that they differ from the attributes considered in previous sections: They do not take into account motivations, preferred tasks, and coping styles, nor do they consider how certain aspects of personality, such as masculinity and femininity, are integrated. Theorists concerned with change due to experience focus on how personal needs and life events induce new strategies and goals; their interest is in “the human being as a complex adaptive system” (Block, 1995 , 2011 , p. 19). In contrast, those who emphasize stability due to heredity measure personality traits on which individuals can easily be compared and that are present at any time of life.

To resolve this apparent contradiction, we can think of adults as changing in overall organization and integration of personality but doing so on a foundation of basic, enduring dispositions that support a coherent sense of self as people adapt to changing life circumstances. When more than 2,000 individuals in their forties were asked to reflect on their personalities during the previous six years, 52 percent said they had “stayed the same,” 39 percent said they had “changed a little,” and 9 percent said they had “changed a lot” (Herbst et al., 2000 ). Again, these findings contradict a view of middle adulthood as a period of great turmoil and change. But they also underscore that personality remains an “open system,” responsive to the pressures of life experiences. Indeed, certain midlife personality changes may strengthen trait consistency! Improved self-understanding, self-acceptance, and skill at handling challenging situations may result in less need to modify basic personality dispositions over time.


REVIEW Summarize personality changes at midlife. How can these changes be reconciled with increasing stability of the “big five” personality traits?

CONNECT List cognitive gains that typically occur during middle adulthood. (See Chapter 15 , pages 518 – 519 and 524 – 525 .) How might they support midlife personality changes?

APPLY Jeff, age 46, suggested to his wife, Julia, that they set aside time once a year to discuss their relationship—both positive aspects and ways to improve. Julia was surprised because Jeff had never before expressed interest in working on their marriage. What midlife developments probably fostered this new concern?

REFLECT List your hoped-for and feared possible selves. Then ask family members in early and middle adulthood to do the same. Are their reports consistent with age-related research findings? Explain.

image14 Relationships at Midlife

The emotional and social changes of midlife take place within a complex web of family relationships and friendships and an intensified personal focus on generative concerns. Although some middle-aged people live alone, the vast majority—87 percent in the United States—live in families, most with a spouse (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012b ). Partly because they have ties to older and younger generations in their families and partly because their friendships are well-established, people tend to have a larger number of close relationships during midlife than at any other period (Antonucci, Akiyama, & Takahashi, 2004 ).

The middle adulthood phase of the family life cycle is often referred to as “launching children and moving on.” In the past, it was called the “empty nest,” but this phrase implies a negative transition, especially for women who have devoted themselves entirely to their children and for whom the end of active parenting can trigger feelings of emptiness and regret. But for most people, middle adulthood is a liberating time, offering a sense of completion and opportunities to strengthen social ties and rekindle interests.

As our discussion in Chapter 14 revealed, increasing numbers of young adults are living at home because of tight job markets and financial challenges, yielding launch–return–relaunch patterns for many middle-aged parents. Still, a declining birthrate and longer life expectancy mean that many contemporary parents do launch children a decade or more before retirement and then turn to other rewarding activities. As adult children depart and marry, middle-aged parents must adapt to new roles of parent-in-law and grandparent. At the same time, they must establish a different type of relationship with their aging parents, who may become ill or infirm and die.

Middle adulthood is marked by the greatest number of exits and entries of family members. Let’s see how ties within and beyond the family change during this time of life.

Marriage and Divorce

Although not all couples are financially comfortable, middle-aged households are well-off economically compared with other age groups. Americans between 45 and 54 have the highest average annual income. And the baby boomers—more of whom have earned college and postgraduate degrees and live in dual-earner families—are financially better off than previous midlife generations (Eggebeen & Sturgeon, 2006 ; U.S. Census Bureau, 2012b ). Partly because of increased education and financial security, the contemporary social view of marriage in midlife is one of expansion and new horizons.

These forces strengthen the need to review and adjust the marital relationship. For Devin and Trisha, this shift was gradual. By middle age, their marriage had permitted satisfaction of family and individual needs, endured many changes, and culminated in deeper feelings of love. Elena’s marriage, in contrast, became more conflict-ridden as her teenage daughter’s problems introduced added strains and as departure of children made marital difficulties more obvious. Tim’s failed marriage revealed yet another pattern. With passing years, the number of problems declined, but so did the love expressed (Rokach, Cohen, & Dreman, 2004 ). As less happened in the relationship, good or bad, the couple had little to keep them together.

As the Biology and Environment box on pages 540 – 541 revealed, marital satisfaction is a strong predictor of midlife psychological well-being. Middle-aged men who have focused only on career often realize the limited nature of their pursuits. At the same time, women may insist on a more gratifying relationship. And children fully engaged in adult roles remind middle-aged parents that they are in the latter part of their lives, prompting many to decide that the time for improving their marriages is now (Berman & Napier, 2000 ).


For many middle-aged couples, having forged a relationship that permits satisfaction of both family and individual needs results in deep feelings of love.

As in early adulthood, divorce is one way of resolving an unsatisfactory marriage in midlife. The divorce rate of U.S. 50-to 65-year-olds has doubled over the past two decades (Brown & Lin, 2012 ). Divorce at any age takes a heavy psychological toll, but midlifers seem to adapt more easily than younger people. A survey of more than 13,000 Americans revealed that following divorce, middle-aged men and women reported less decline in psychological well-being than their younger counterparts (Marks & Lambert, 1998 ). Midlife gains in practical problem solving and effective coping strategies may reduce the stressful impact of divorce.

Because the divorce rate is more than twice as great among remarried couples as among those in first marriages, about half of midlife divorces involve people who have had one or more previous unsuccessful marriages. Highly educated middle-aged adults are more likely to divorce, probably because their more comfortable economic circumstances make it easier to leave an unhappy marriage (Skaff, 2006 ). Nevertheless, for many women, marital breakup—especially when it is repeated—severely reduces standard of living (see page 347 in Chapter 10 ). For this reason, in midlife and earlier, it is a strong contributor to the feminization of poverty —a trend in which women who support themselves or their families have become the majority of the adult population living in poverty, regardless of age and ethnic group. Because of weak public policies safeguarding families (see Chapter 2 ), the gender gap in poverty is higher in the United States than in other Western industrialized nations (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012b ).

What do recently divorced middle-aged people say about why their marriages ended? Women frequently mention communication problems, inequality in the relationship, adultery, gradual distancing, substance abuse, physical and verbal abuse, or their own desire for autonomy. Men also bring up poor communication and sometimes admit that their “workaholic” lifestyle or emotional inattentiveness played a major role in their marital failure. Women are more likely than men to initiate divorce, and those who do fare somewhat better in psychological well-being. Men who initiate a split often already have another romantic involvement to turn to (Rokach, Cohen, & Dreman, 2004 ; Sakraida, 2005 ; Schneller & Arditti, 2004 ).

Longitudinal evidence reveals that middle-aged women who weather divorce successfully tend to become more tolerant, comfortable with uncertainty, nonconforming, and self-reliant in personality—factors believed to be fostered by divorce-forced independence. And both men and women reevaluate what they consider important in a healthy relationship, placing greater weight on equal friendship and less on passionate love than they had the first time. As in earlier periods, divorce represents both a time of trauma and a time of growth (Baum, Rahav, & Sharon, 2005 ; Schneller & Arditti, 2004 ). Little is known about long-term adjustment following divorce among middle-aged men, perhaps because most enter new relationships and remarry within a short time.

Changing Parent–Child Relationships

Parents’ positive relationships with their grown children are the result of a gradual process of “letting go,” starting in childhood, gaining momentum in adolescence, and culminating in children’s independent living. As noted earlier, most parents “launch” adult children sometime in midlife. But because more people are delaying having children to their thirties and even forties (see page 438 in Chapter 13 ), the age at which midlifers experience their children’s departure varies widely. Most parents adjust well; only a minority have difficulty (Mitchell & Lovegreen, 2009 ). Investment in nonparental relationships and roles, children’s characteristics, parents’ marital and economic circumstances, and cultural forces affect the extent to which this transition is expansive and rewarding or sad and distressing.

After their son Mark secured a career-entry job and moved out of the family home permanently, Devin and Trisha felt a twinge of nostalgia combined with a sense of pride in their grown son’s maturity and success. Beyond this, they returned to rewarding careers and community participation and delighted in having more time for each other. Parents who have developed gratifying alternative activities typically welcome their children’s adult status (Mitchell & Lovegreen, 2009 ). A strong work orientation, especially, predicts gains in life satisfaction after children depart from the home (Silverberg, 1996 ).

Wide cultural variations exist in the social clock for children’s departure. Recall from Chapter 13 that many young people from low-SES homes and with cultural traditions of extended-family living do not leave home early. In the Southern European countries of Greece, Italy, and Spain, parents often actively delay their children’s leaving. In Italy, for example, parents believe that moving out without a “justified” reason signifies that something is wrong in the family. Hence, many more Italian young adults reside with their parents until marriage than in other Western nations. At the same time, Italian adults grant their grown children extensive freedom within the parental home (Rusconi, 2004 ). Parent–adult-child relationships are usually positive, making living with parents attractive.

With the end of parent–child coresidence comes a substantial decline in parental authority. Devin and Trisha no longer knew of Mark’s daily comings and goings or expected him to inform them. Nevertheless, Mark telephoned at regular intervals to report on events in his life and seek advice about major decisions. Although the parental role changes, its continuation is important to middle-aged adults. Departure of children is a relatively minor event as long as parent–child contact and affection are sustained (Mitchell & Lovegreen, 2009 ). When it results in little or no communication, parents’ psychological well-being declines.

Whether or not they reside with parents, adolescent and young-adult children who are “off-time” in development—who deviate from parental expectations about how the path to adult responsibilities should unfold—can prompt parental strain (Pillemer & Suitor, 2002 ; Settersten, 2003 ). Consider Elena, whose daughter was doing poorly in her college courses and in danger of not graduating. The need for extensive parental guidance, at a time when she expected her daughter to be more responsible and independent, caused anxiety and unhappiness for Elena, who was ready to reduce time devoted to active parenting.

In one study, researchers asked a large sample of 40-to 60-year-old parents to report on their grown children’s problems and successes along with their own psychological well-being. Consistent with the familiar saying, “parents are only as happy as their least happy child,” having even one problematic child dampened parents’ well-being, but having a successful child did not have a compensating positive effect. The more grown children with problems, the poorer parents’ well-being. In contrast, it took multiple successful grown children to sway parents’ well-being in a favorable direction (Fingerman et al., 2012a ). As with marriages, negative, conflict-ridden experiences with grown children are particularly salient, profoundly affecting midlife parents’ psychological states.

Throughout middle adulthood, parents continue to give more assistance to children than they receive, especially while children are unmarried or when they face difficulties, such as marital breakup or unemployment (Ploeg et al., 2004 ; Zarit & Eggebeen, 2002 ). Support in Western countries typically flows “downstream”: Although ethnic variations exist, most middle-aged parents provide more financial, practical, emotional, and social support to their offspring than to their aging parents, unless a parent has an urgent need (declining health or other crises) (Fingerman & Birditt, 2011 ; Fingerman et al., 2011a ). In explaining their generous support of adult children, parents usually mention the importance of the relationship. And providing adult children with assistance enhances midlife psychological well-being (Marks & Greenfield, 2009 ). Clearly, middle-aged adults remain invested in their adult children’s development and continue to reap deep personal rewards from the parental role.

When children marry, parents must adjust to an enlarged family network that includes in-laws. Difficulties occur when parents do not approve of their child’s partner or when the young couple adopts a way of life inconsistent with parents’ values. Parents who take steps to forge a positive tie with a future daughter- or son-in-law generally experience a closer relationship after the couple marries (Fingerman et al., 2012b ). And when warm, supportive relationships endure, intimacy between parents and children increases over the adult years, with great benefits for parents’ life satisfaction (Ryff, Singer, & Seltzer, 2002 ). Members of the middle generation, especially mothers, usually take on the role of kinkeeper, gathering the family for celebrations and making sure everyone stays in touch.

Parents of adult children expect a mature relationship, marked by tranquility and contentment. Yet many factors—on both the child’s and the parent’s side—affect whether that goal is achieved. Applying What We Know on page 546 suggests ways middle-aged parents can increase the chances that bonds with adult children will be loving and rewarding and serve as contexts for personal growth.


Two years after Mark married, Devin and Trisha were thrilled to learn that a granddaughter was on the way. Although the stereotypical image of grandparents as elderly persists, today the average age of becoming a grandparent is 50 years for American women, 52 for American men (Legacy Project, 2012 ). A longer life expectancy means that many adults will spend one-third or more of their lifespan in the grandparent role.

Meanings of Grandparenthood.

Middle-aged adults typically rate grandparenthood as highly important, following closely behind the roles of parent and spouse but ahead of worker, son or daughter, and sibling (Reitzes & Mutran, 2002 ). Why did Trisha and Devin, like many others their age, greet the announcement of a grandchild with such enthusiasm? Most people experience grandparenthood as a significant milestone, mentioning one or more of the following gratifications:

· ● Valued elder—being perceived as a wise, helpful person

· ● Immortality through descendants—leaving behind not just one but two generations after death

· ● Reinvolvement with personal past—being able to pass family history and values to a new generation

· ● Indulgence—having fun with children without major child-rearing responsibilities (AARP, 2002 ; Hebblethwaite & Norris, 2011 )

Applying What We Know Ways Middle-Aged Parents Can Promote Positive Ties with Their Adult Children



Emphasize positive communication.

Let adult children and their intimate partners know of your respect, support, and interest. This not only communicates affection but also permits conflict to be handled in a constructive context.

Avoid unnecessary comments that are a holdover from childhood.

Adult children, like younger children, appreciate an age-appropriate relationship. Comments that have to do with safety, eating, and self-care (“Be careful on the freeway,” “Don’t eat those foods,” “Make sure you wear a sweater—it’s cold out today”) annoy adult children and can stifle communication.

Accept the possibility that some cultural values and practices and aspects of lifestyle will be modified in the next generation.

In constructing a personal identity, most adult children have gone through a process of evaluating the meaning of cultural values and practices for their own lives. Traditions and lifestyles cannot be imposed on adult children.

When an adult child encounters difficulties, resist the urge to “fix” things.

Accept the fact that no meaningful change can take place without the willing cooperation of the adult child. Stepping in and taking over communicates a lack of confidence and respect. Find out whether the adult child wants your help, advice, and decision-making skills.

Be clear about your own needs and preferences.

When it is difficult to arrange for a visit, babysit, or provide other assistance, say so and negotiate a reasonable compromise rather than letting resentment build.

Grandparent–Grandchild Relationships.

Grandparents’ styles of relating to grandchildren vary as widely as the meanings they derive from their new role. The grandparent’s and grandchild’s age and sex make a difference. When their granddaughter was young, Trisha and Devin enjoyed an affectionate, playful relationship with her. As she got older, she looked to them for information and advice in addition to warmth and caring. By the time their granddaughter reached adolescence, Trisha and Devin had become role models, family historians, and conveyers of social, vocational, and religious values.

Living nearby is the strongest predictor of frequent, face-to-face interaction with young grandchildren. Despite high family mobility in Western industrialized nations, most grandparents live close enough to at least one grandchild to enable regular visits. But because time and resources are limited, number of “grandchild sets” (households with grandchildren) reduces grandparent visits (Uhlenberg & Hammill, 1998 ). A strong desire to affect the development of grandchildren can motivate grandparents’ involvement. As grandchildren get older, distance becomes less influential and relationship quality more so: The extent to which adolescent or young-adult grandchildren believe their grandparent values contact is a good predictor of a close bond (Brussoni & Boon, 1998 ).


Many grandparents derive great joy from an affectionate, playful relationship with young grandchildren. As this grandchild gets older, he may look to his grandfather for advice, as a role model, and for family history in addition to warmth and caring.


As Figure 16.3 shows, maternal grandmothers report more frequent visits with grandchildren than do paternal grandmothers, who are slightly advantaged over both maternal and paternal grandfathers (Uhlenberg & Hammill, 1998 ). Typically, relationships are closer between grandparents and grandchildren of the same sex and, especially, between maternal grandmothers and granddaughters—a pattern found in many countries (Brown & Rodin, 2004 ). Grandmothers also report higher satisfaction with the grandparent role than grandfathers, perhaps because grandmothers are more likely to participate in recreational, religious, and family activities with grandchildren (Reitzes & Mutran, 2004 ; Silverstein & Marenco, 2001 ). The grandparent role may be a vital means through which women satisfy their kinkeeping function.

SES and ethnicity also influence grandparent–grandchild ties. In higher-income families, where the grandparent role is not central to family maintenance and survival, it is fairly unstructured and takes many forms. In low-income families, by contrast, grandparents often perform essential activities. For example, many single parents live with their families of origin and depend on grandparents’ financial and caregiving assistance to reduce the impact of poverty. Compared with grandchildren in intact families, grandchildren in single-parent and stepparent families report engaging in more diverse, higher-quality activities with their grandparents (Kennedy & Kennedy, 1993 ). As children experience the stress of family transition, bonds with grandparents take on increasing importance.


FIGURE 16.3 Influence of grandparent sex and lineage on frequent visiting of grandchildren.

When a nationally representative sample of 4,600 U.S. grandparents were asked how often they visited a particular set of grandchildren, maternal grandmothers were especially likely to report visiting frequently (at least once a week). Paternal grandmothers slightly exceeded both maternal and paternal grandfathers.

(From P. Uhlenberg & B. G. Hammill, 1998, “Frequency of Grandparent Contact with Grandchild Sets: Six Factors That Make a Difference,” Gerontologist, 38, p. 281. Copyright © 1998 The Gerontological Society of America. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press and Peter Uhlenberg.)

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