Life Events and the Life Cycle: Crises of Adulthood


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Life stages are less fixed than in the past. Image by Seemann.

Life stages are less fixed than in the past. Image by Seemann.

Life happens.  And it changes us. Students who study introductory psychology learn about theories of the development of the psyche through the life cycle.

In the twentieth century, psychologist Jean Piaget divided childhood into stages of cognitive development. Later, Eric Ericson looked at responses to life crises throughout the lifespan.

Sociologists noted that we approach aging and death in different ways, and they developed theories about aging.

Today, researchers have examined large swathes of data and tracked the way individuals transition through life. These researchers note that things may not as tidy as previously believed, but that our chronological age still determines many of the challenges we face.

Piaget and Ericson

Saul McLeod, lecturer at the University of Manchester provides recaps of the work of major psychologists on SimplyPsychology.  He writes that Piaget was the first to examine the development of thinking.  His work indicated that children were not simply worse at thinking than adults, but that they thought differently, depending upon which developmental stage they occupied.

Rather than cognitive development, psychologist Eric Ericson looked at resolution of life crises in childhood and adulthood. McLeod summarizes the key assumption behind the nine stages of development according to Ericson by stating “Erikson assumes that a crises occurs at each stage of development.”  For instance, the first stage is said to occur in the first eighteen months of life. In the stage of “Trust vs. Mistrust” an infant faces the psychological dilemma of whether or not to trust others.

Ericson wrote that in other stages adults struggled with issues such as “intimacy vs. isolation“, and “generativity vs. stagnation,” and “ego-integrity vs. despair.”  

Between the ages of 18 and 40 the goal, as Ericson sees it, is intimacy. Traditionally this is the time when dating, marriage, and growing a family is presumed to occur. From ages 40 to 65 the challenge is to maintain generativity.  This refers to continuing to work and accomplish meaningful things after the family building stage has passed.

The last crisis Ericson cited is avoiding despair.  He places this stage at ages over 65.  Those who look back over their lives and feel they met previous challenges will face the end of life without negative emotions.

Disengagement and Activity Theories

Age is still a key factor in life events. Image by pedrojperez.

Age is still a key factor in life events. Image by pedrojperez.

Jason Powell of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom has recapped sociological theories of aging. The disengagement theory argued that it was functional for older adults to give up roles such as what happens with retirement.

Other theorists wrote that successful aging involved not disengagement, but continued activity. These “activity theorists” believed that older adults benefited from “maintaining roles and relationships.”

Research upholds activity theory.  Less depression and lower rates of mortality are found among older adults who maintain friendships despite losses in places as different as Delhi, India and Adelaide, Australia.

The Australian data indicated that maintaining friendships was associated with living longer, while family relationships did not have an influence

Life Events: Research Developments

Despite Ericson’s age categories, a 1979 article in The American Journal of Psychiatry  suggested that historically “the timing of life events is becoming less regular” and that “the trends are toward the fluid life cycle and an age-irrelevant society.”  Fertility treatments, grandparents serving as parents, and expanded lifespans are some indications this is true to an extent.

Still, a meta-analysis of various studies of social networks by Cornelia Wrzus found that while our networks change over our lifespans in relation to events such as “job entry,” “transition to parenthood” and “widowhood” with the bottom line being that “a portion of normative, age-related social network changes are due to normative, age-related life events.”

Or, what happens to us changes our social networks; but much of what happens to us remains expected or “normative” according to our ages.

While what happens to us may be largely age-related, the happenings are not identical from person to person. Depending on when they occur, life events may effect us in different ways. Life events can even change our personalities.  A German study measuring five major personality traits, ” Emotional Stability, Extraversion, Openness, and Agreeableness” found that the amount of personality change was most pronounced at early and older ages and the changes corresponded to life events as well as to general maturation. Researchers also found that “Conscientiousness,” the fifth trait, increased steadily over time.

Life Happens and We Must Rise to the Challenges

The general sweep of research on life events and stages is that some things, like cognition, are maturational and happen before adulthood.  In adulthood, many transitions are “normative” and age related, however some things that used to happen somewhat predictably may now be spread over the life cycle, such as family building and retirement.

The things that happen to us change us. Aging changes us.  We can choose to monitor our struggles to reach expected milestones, and if we cannot or do not wish to reach these milestones, to choose other goals. We can learn to interpret our outcomes positively. If we “failed,” what did we learn? We can maintain our friendships and interests as we age.  We can be aware that life’s challenges shape us and those around us, and be ready to embrace the challenge and the change.

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