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Learning Objective Questions (items marked *** are required objectives)

After completing Chapter 16, students should be able to:


16.1            ***How do the views of Erikson and Vaillant differ with regard to generativity?

16.2            ***How do proponents of the midlife crisis and the life events perspective approach middle age differently?

16.3            ***What contributes to the “mellowing” of partnerships in middle adulthood?

16.4            What is the family role of middle-aged adults with respect to older and younger generations?

16.5            How does the grandparent role affect middle-aged adults?

16.6            How might caregiver burden affect a middle-aged adult’s life?

16.7            How do social networks change during middle adulthood?

16.8            What is the evidence for continuity and change in personality throughout adulthood?

16.9            ***What factors influence work satisfaction in middle adulthood?

16.10        What strategies do middle-aged workers use to maintain job performance at a satisfactory level?

16.11        What are the factors that contribute to career transitions in mid-life?

16.12        How do Baby Boomers differ from previous cohorts with respect to preparation for retirement?




Erikson's Generativity versus Stagnation Stage


16.1     ***How do the views of Erikson and Vaillant differ with regard to generativity


Middle-aged adults are in Erikson's generativity versus stagnation stage.  Their developmental task is to acquire a sense of generativity, which involves an interest in establishing and guiding the next generation.  It involves not only bearing and rearing one's own children, but in more symbolic ways, such as teaching, serving as a mentor, or taking on leadership roles in various organizations.  The optimum expression of generativity requires turning outward from preoccupation with self, a kind of psychological expansion toward caring for others.  Those who fail to develop generativity suffer from stagnation and self-absorption.  Generativity appears to be a more prominent theme in the lives of middle-aged women than of middle-aged men, and it continues to be important in old age.  It is related to mental health, such as satisfaction in life and work and emotional well-being, among middle-aged adults.


Research on Generativity

Erikson's theory raises questions about the impact of childlessness on adult development.  Researchers from a longitudinal study found that the way a man responded earlier to his childlessness was predictive of his psychological health at age 47.  At that age, each man was rated in his degree of generativity.  A man was considered to be "generative" if he had participated in some kind of mentoring or other teaching or supervising of children or younger adults.  Those who were rated as most generative were likely to have responded to their childlessness by finding another child to nurture, such as a nephew or a niece.


Vaillant’s Revision of Erikson’s Theory

Psychiatrist George Vaillant has spent the past three decades chronicling the development of several hundred adults through early, middle, and late adulthood.  His findings for the middle adulthood period prompted him to propose a modification of Erikson’s theory of lifespan development.


Vaillant argued that there is a stage between intimacy and generativity called career consolidation.  The outcome of this phase is the creation of a new social network for which the middle-aged adult’s primary work serves as a hub.


Following generativity versus stagnation, Vaillant argued, is another stage called keeper of the meaning.  In this phase, middle-aged adults focus on preserving the institutions and values of their culture that they believe will benefit future generations.


Mid-Life Crisis: Fact or Fiction?


16.2     ***How do proponents of the mid-life crisis and the life events perspective approach middle age differently?


The crisis concept is central to Erikson's theory, and a mid-life crisis has been part of several other theories as well, including Levinson's.  Levinson argued that each person must confront a constellation of difficult tasks at mid-life:  accepting of one's own mortality, recognizing new physical limitations and health risks, and adapting to major changes in most roles.  Dealing with all these tasks, according to Levinson, is highly likely to exceed an adult's ability to cope, thus creating a crisis.


When developmentalists look at the research, they often question this conclusion.  Some developmentalists argue that a life events approach to explaining the unique stresses of the middle adulthood period is preferable to a theoretical perspective that proposes a universal crisis.  The life-events approach focuses on normative and non-normative events and middle-aged adults’ responses to them.


§         The physical changes of middle-adulthood are the backdrop against which the major life events of this period are played out.  Consequently, all middle-aged adults are dealing with new stressors for which they must develop new ways of coping, and research shows that concerns about the limitations imposed by these physical changes increases across the middle adulthood years.

§         Most middle-aged adults experience the loss of a parent or must cope with major declines in their parents’ ability to care for themselves.

§         Most are also dealing with work-related issues.

§         For those who have children, major shifts are occurring in the nature of parent-child relationships.

§         Another important factor is that many of these stressors last for a long time.


Some developmentalists argue that the best way to understand middle adulthood is to study how people in this age group manage to integrate all of these changes and their interpretations of them into the coherent stories of their own middle adulthood experiences.

The stresses associated with the events of middle age are often complicated by role conflict, any situation in which two or more roles are at least partially incompatible, either because they call for different behaviors or because their separate demands add up to more hours than there are in the day.  A person experiences role strain when her own qualities or skills do not measure up to the demands of some role.





16.3     ***What contributes to the “mellowing” of partnerships in middle adulthood?


Evidence suggests that, on average, marital stability and satisfaction increase in mid-life as conflicts over child-rearing and other matters decline.  As couples get older, the number of shared friends they have increases as the number of non-shared friends decreases.  As a result, the social network tends to get a bit tighter in middle age.  This may be one reason for age-related improvements in relationship satisfaction.


Improvement in marital satisfaction may also derive from middle-aged adults' increased sense of control—a kind of marital self-efficacy.  It is likely that middle-aged partners' identification of successful problem-solving strategies contributes to the sense that they have control over their relationship.  One researcher called the strategy "skilled diplomacy," an approach to solving problems that involves confrontation of the spouse about an issue, followed by a period during which the confronting spouse works to restore harmony.  Skilled diplomacy is practiced more often by wives than by husbands, but it appears to be an effective skill for marital problem-solving no matter which spouse uses it.


As age-related increases in marital satisfaction would predict, middle-aged couples are far less likely to divorce than those who are younger.  Middle-aged women are better able to cope with divorce than younger women.  Perhaps a “mellowing” of personality renders the middle-aged woman more resilient in the face of such traumatic events.


Children and Parents


16.4     What is the family role of middle-aged adults with respect to older and younger generations?


When looking at family relationships from the perspective of middle age, we have to look in both directions: down the generational chain to relationships with grown children, and up the chain to relationships with aging parents.  Each of the positions in a family generational chain has certain role prescriptions.  In middle adulthood, the family role involves not only maximum amounts of assistance given in both directions in the generational chain, but also the maximum responsibility for maintaining affectional bonds, producing what is sometimes called the mid-life “squeeze,” or the “sandwich generation.”  Those between ages 40 and 65 give more than they receive in both directions in the family lineage—to adult children and to aging parents.  Whether most middle-aged adults experience this combination of responsibilities as a burden is not clear from the available information.




16.5     How does the grandparent role affect middle-aged adults?


The role that the majority of adults add in middle adulthood is that of grandparenting.  Indeed, one could argue that it is one of the few normative experiences of middle adulthood.  Most grandparents see or talk to their grandchildren regularly and describe the relationships as warm and loving.  Many studies have demonstrated the positive impact of warm relationships with grandparents on children's development.  Grandparents seem to be an especially important source of stability in the lives of children of divorced parents.  Court rulings in the U.S. make it clear that the rights of grandparents are limited by the rights of the parents.


Cherlin and Furstenberg identify three basic styles of grandparenting.

§         Grandparents with remote relationships see their grandchildren relatively infrequently and have little direct influence over their grandchildren's lives.  The most common reason for this remoteness is physical distance, but some grandparents who live nearby are still emotionally detached.

§         Grandparents with companionate relationships create very warm, pleasurable relationships with their grandchildren.  They love the grandchildren--and then send them home.

§         Grandparents with involved relationships are those who are much more actively involved in the rearing of their grandchildren.  Some live in three-generational households with one or more children and grandchildren, but this relationship can also occur when the grandparent has no daily responsibility for the grandchild's care but creates an unusually close link.


The grandmother’s role is likely to be both broader and more intimate than that of the grandfather.  In addition, young grandparents have less day-to-day contact with grandchildren than those who are older, perhaps because they are still working.  The role of grandparent obviously brings many middle-aged and older adults a good deal of pleasure and satisfaction.  For the most part, however, grandparenthood is not central to their lives, their sense of self, or to their overall morale.


Caring for Aging Parents


16.6     How might caregiver burden affect a middle-aged adult’s life?


Another role that may be added at mid-life, and that has a powerful effect on overall life satisfaction, is that of major caregiver to one's aging parents.  In virtually every culture, a great majority of adults feel a strong sense of responsibility to their aging parents.  When their parents need assistance, they endeavor to provide it.


The impact of the caregiving role on a middle-aged adult may drain both energy and finances, especially if the caregiver is also trying to meet the needs of her (or his) own job and family.  The caregiver of a parent (or spouse) who is disabled, frail, or demented are more depressed and have lower marital satisfaction than those in comparison groups of similar age and social class.  They may also be more likely to become ill themselves or to have some reduced efficiency of immune system functioning.  Collectively, these effects are often termed caregiver burden.


For the majority of mid-life adults, the relationship with aging parents is far more positive.  Most give more assistance to their parents than they gave in young adulthood.  They also continue to see their parents regularly for ceremonial and celebratory occasions and to feel affection as well as filial responsibility.  Parents are also symbolically important to middle-aged adults, because as long as they are alive, they occupy the role of elder in the family lineage.  When they are gone, each generation moves up a notch in the sequence.  Those in the middle generation must come to terms with the fact that they are now the elders and are confronted with their own mortality.




16.7     How do social networks change during middle adulthood?


The scant research on friendships in middle adulthood suggests that the total number of friendships is lower than in young adulthood.  At the same time, there are other bits of research suggesting that mid-life friendships are as intimate and close as at earlier ages.  Carstensen found that the frequency of interactions with a best friend dropped between age 17 and age 50, but that the closeness of the best-friend relationship remained high.


The social network of middle-aged adults is relatively small, although relationships are just as intimate as they were at earlier ages.  It may be that the social network shrinks as adults age because there is less need for it.  Role conflict and role strain decline significantly in middle age, and the need for emotional support from a social network outside the family seems to decrease accordingly.  Yet, because the relationships that do endure are close, the social network is available when needed.  Friendship depends less on frequent contact than on a sense that friends are there to provide support as needed.  Thus, the nature of friendship itself may be different in middle age.


Continuity and Change in Personality


16.8     What is the evidence for continuity and change in personality throughout adulthood?


A stable set of personality traits called the Big Five emerge during middle childhood.  Many studies show that the Big Five are relatively stable from childhood to old age.  There are subtle age-related changes in the five factors across the years of adulthood.  Openness, extraversion, and neuroticism decline as adults age.  Agreeableness increases, as does conscientiousness up until around age 70 when it begins to show decline.  Thus, these traits follow a general pattern of stability in most people but that they are also subject to some degree of modification.


Studies of negative and positive emotionality suggest a similar pattern.  Even though negative emotionality in early adulthood is moderately to strongly correlated with negative emotionality in middle adulthood, longitudinal studies show that many individuals become less negative over time.  When researchers consider large groups to correlate variables, they find that personality is fairly stable over time.  The correlations, however, can mask a number of individual cases in which there is a great deal of change.  The best conclusion to draw is that stability is the general pattern, but the increased individual variability in personality that is typically found among middle-aged and older adults suggest that change is clearly possible and may even be common.


Personality is an important contributor to middle-aged adults’ capacity for managing stress.  In one study, researchers found that adults who were higher in extraversion and conscientiousness were less likely to feel strained by work-related issues.  By contrast, those who were high in neuroticism were less able to cope with on-the-job problems.



Work in mid-life is characterized by the following two paradoxes:

§         Work satisfaction is at its peak in these years, despite the fact that most adults receive few work promotions in middle age.

§         The quality of work performance remains high, despite declines in some cognitive or physical skills.


Work Satisfaction


16.9     ***What factors influence work satisfaction in middle adulthood?


There are many aspects of life that improve with age.  Interestingly, middle-aged workers are less likely than younger workers to experience burnout.  People with burnout lack energy and feel emotionally drained and are pessimistic about the possibility of changing their situations.  People who feel their work is unappreciated and are more subject to burnout than others.  Middle-aged workers who have avoided burnout in high stress professions are those who have learned to pace themselves and to rely less on external sources of job satisfaction.


In addition, despite the plateau in work promotions that occurs for most adults in these middle years, job satisfaction is typically at its peak, as is a sense of power or clout in the job.  One reason for the increase may be that careers become more stable in middle age, with fewer interruptions caused by either voluntary or involuntary job changes.  Still, patterns of work and work satisfaction do vary between men and women in middle adulthood.


Men and women cite the same sources of work dissatisfaction in middle age:  time pressure, difficult co-workers, boring tasks, and fear of losing one's job.  They cope with these challenges differently, however.

§         Men are more likely to negotiate with supervisors and co-workers directly to effect change.  Men are more likely to improve their level of satisfaction in situations where change is possible.

§         Women tend to withdraw and to engage in collective complaining with female co-workers.  Still, women are better able to balance their dissatisfaction with areas of contentment.  Women are probably better able to cope with work settings where they must adjust to dissatisfaction because the situation cannot be changed.


Despite their differences, both men and women in mid-life have a greater sense of control over their work lives.  One reason for the increased feeling of control may be that social-cognitive skills improve from early to middle adulthood.  At the same time, by middle age, they have become proficient at directing their own behavior in ways that allow them to maintain levels of personal satisfaction even in unpleasant circumstances.


Job Performance


16.10   What strategies do middle-aged workers use to maintain job performance at a satisfactory level?


Paul and Margaret Baltes argue that maintaining high productivity or job performance is possible because adults, faced with small but noticeable erosions of cognitive or physical skill, engage in a process called “selective optimization with compensation.”  Three sub-processes are involved:

§         Selection involves narrowing one's range of activities, by focusing on only the most central tasks, delegating more responsibilities to others, or giving up or reducing peripheral job activities.

§         Optimization involves deliberate "exercise" of crucial abilities so as to remain as close to maximum skill as possible.

§         Compensation involves pragmatic strategies for overcoming specific obstacles, such as getting stronger glasses or hearing aids, or devising ways to reduce memory loads with systematic list-making.


Measuring each of the three aspects of proposed compensatory processes as well as job competence, they found that the link between the use of selection, optimization, and compensation on the one hand and the quality of work performance on the other, gets stronger and stronger with increasing age.  That is, the older the worker, the more it mattered whether he or she used helpful compensatory practices.  In the older groups, those who used the most selection, optimization, and compensation had the highest work performance.  Among the younger workers, the same relationship did not hold.  The results of the study provide some support for the idea that job performance remains high during middle age at least in part because adults take deliberate compensatory actions.


Unemployment and Career Transitions


16.11   What are the factors that contribute to career transitions in mid-life?


In today's rapidly changing job market, it is not unusual for men and women to change occupations.  Career transitions can be more difficult in middle age than earlier in adulthood, however, because mid-life career changers must overcome ageism in obtaining new employment.  To understand mid-life career changes, it is useful to categorize workers on the basis of their reasons for changing occupations.  People change careers for either external or internal reasons and can thus be classified as either involuntary or voluntary career changers.


Involuntary Career Changers

Involuntary career changers are people who are in transition because of external reasons:  Their skills have become obsolete, their jobs have been eliminated through organizational restructuring, or they have been laid off because of shifting economic conditions.  They experience heightened levels of anxiety and depression and higher risk of physical illness in the months after the job loss.  Re-employment seems to restore health, emotional stability, and a sense of well-being quite rapidly.


Predictably, the Big Five personality dimensions, especially neuroticism and openness to experience, contribute to mental health during involuntary career transitions across all racial and ethnic groups.  The impact of an involuntary career change on an individual's life may be more directly affected by his or her coping skills.  Mid-life career changers who have good coping skills and use them to manage involuntary transitions are less likely to become depressed.


As with all types of stress, the effects of unemployment can be partially buffered by having adequate social support.  Further, involuntary career changers benefit from career counseling that addresses both their occupational needs and their psychosocial development.  Counselors can help them learn to think of the transition as an opportunity to re-examine goals and priorities and to avoid acting impulsively.


Voluntary Career Changers

Voluntary career changes leave one career to pursue another for a variety of internal reasons, such as finding a new job that is more fulfilling.  Some people look at the next step in the career ladder and decide to change careers instead.  Others change careers to express aspects of their personalities that they believe are not utilized in their present jobs.


Twin studies suggest that the tendency to change careers voluntarily in adulthood may have a genetic basis, and that such transitions may be a by-product of personality.  Specifically, voluntary job changers appear to be people who have a higher tolerance for risk-taking than people who seldom actively seek to change jobs.  Most also appear to be people who do not regard either working or job-seeking as particularly stressful.  Whatever, the reason, voluntary career changers have a better sense of control over their situation than do people whose job changes are forced on them, but the transition is still stressful.  Spouses and family members may not understand why the person wants to change careers, and long periods of unemployment and a reduction in income may be involved in the change.  Thus, voluntary career changers manifest many of the same symptoms of anxiety and depression seen in involuntary career changers.  Consequently, they may also benefit from social support and career counseling.


Preparing for Retirement


16.12   How do Baby Boomers differ from previous cohorts with respect to preparation for retirement?


Many middle-aged adults begin to prepare for retirement in various ways, often as early as 15 years before their anticipated date.  One aspect of preparation is a gradual reduction in workload.


The retirement preparations of the Baby Boom cohort are quite different from those of their parents.

§         Among their parents, retirement planning was primarily a male responsibility; Baby Boom women are also doing retirement planning.

§         Retirement-minded Boomers are largely responsible for the growth of electronic financial services because of their enthusiastic response to the availability of such services on the Internet.

§         Most Baby Boomers expect to die in their mid-80s or later, but expect to retire fairly early, in their early 60s.  Their expected length of retirement is far longer than that of earlier generations, 20 years or more.


Gerontologist Ken Dychtwald found that Baby Boomers intend to continue working into retirement, but most intend to combine paid work with other pursuits.  He identified five distinct approaches to what those non-work pursuits should be.

§         Wealth Builders intend to spend their spare time finding new ways to make money and building upon the wealth that they have already accumulated.

§         Anxious Idealists would like to do volunteer work and give money to charity after they retire, but they recognize that their tendency toward impracticality has left then with insufficient economic resources to do either.

§         Empowered Trailblazers expected to spend time traveling, taking classes, and doing volunteer work, and they believe they are financially secure enough to meet these goals.

§         Stretched and Stressed boomers are in deep trouble financially, and they are aware of it.  Most worried about how they will be able to pay for basic necessities such as food and health care.

§         Leisure Lifers intend to spend most of their time engaging in recreational pursuits and are geared toward very early retirement in their early to mid-50s.

Dychtwald’s survey found that only 2% had actually saved enough money to be able to do what they said they wanted to do in retirement.