The prime of our lives; what seems to mark our adult years most is our shifting perspective on ourselves and our world

The prime of our lives; what seems to mark our adult years most is our shifting perspective on ourselves and our world – Life Flow; includes related article on life’s milestones

Anne Rosenfeld

The Prime of Our Lives

My parents had givenme everything they could possibly owe a child and more. Now it was my turn to decide and nobody . . . could help me very far . . ..’ That’s how Graham Greene described his feelings upon graduation from Oxford. And he was right. Starting on your own down the long road of adulthood can be scary.

But the journey can also be exciting, withdreams and hopes to guide us. Maybe they’re conventional dreams: getting a decent job, settling down and starting to raise a family before we’ve left our 20s. Or maybe they’re more grandiose: making a million dollars by age 30, becoming a movie star, discovering a cure for cancer, becoming President, starting a social revolution.

Our youthful dreams reflect our unique personalities,but are shaped by the values and expectations of those around us–and they shift as we and our times change. Twenty years ago, college graduates entered adulthood with expectations that in many cases had been radically altered by the major upheavals transforming American society. The times were “a-changin’,’ and almost no one was untouched. Within a few years many of the scrubbed, obedient, wholesome teenagers of the early ’60s had turned into scruffy, alienated campus rebels, experimenting with drugs and sex and deeply dissatsfied with their materialistic middle-class heritage.

Instead of moving right on to the careertrack, marrying and beginning families, as their fathers had done, many men dropped out, postponing the obligations of adult life. Others traveled a middle road, combining “straight’ jobs with public service rather than pursuing conventional careers. And for the first time in recent memory, large numbers of young men refused to serve their country in the military. In the early 1940s, entire fraternities went together to enlist in World War II. In the Age of Aquarius, many college men sought refuge from war in Canada, graduate school, premature marriages or newly discovered medical ailments.

Women were even more dramatically affectedby the social changes of the 1960s. Many left college in 1967 with a traditional agenda–work for a few years, then get married and settle down to the real business of raising a family and being a good wife–but ended up following a different and largely unexpected path. The women’s movement and changing economics created a whole new set of opportunities. For example, between 1967 and 1980, women’s share of medical degrees in the United States rocketed from 5 percent to 26 percent, and their share of law degrees leaped from 4 percent to 22 percent.

A group of women from the University ofMichigan class of 1967 who were interviewed before graduation and again in 1981 described lives very different from their original plans. Psychologists Sandra Tangri of Howard University and Sharon Jenkins of the University of California found that far more of these women were working in 1981 than had expected to, and far more had gotten advanced degrees and were in “male’ professions. Their home lives, too, were different from their collegiate fantasies: Fewer married, and those who did had much smaller families.

Liberation brought problems as well as opportunities.By 1981, about 15 percent of the women were divorced (although some had remarried), and many of the women who “had it all’ told Tangri and Jenkins that they felt torn between their careers and their families.

Living out our dreams in a rapidly changingsociety demands extreme flexibility in adjusting to shifting social realities. Our hopes and plans, combined with the traditional rhythms of the life course, give some structure, impetus and predictability to our lives. But each of us must also cope repeatedly with the unplanned and unexpected. And in the process, we are gradually transformed.

For centuries, philosophers have been tryingto capture the essence of how people change over the life course by focusing on universally experienced stages of life, often linked to specific ages. Research on child development, begun earlier in this century, had shown that children generally pass through an orderly succession of stages that correspond to fairly specific ages. But recent studies have challenged some of the apparent orderliness of child development, and the pattern of development among adults seems to be even less clear-cut.

When we think about what happens as wegrow older, physical changes leap to mind–the lessening of physical prowess, the arrival of sags, spreads and lines. But these take a back seat to psychological changes, according to psychologist Bernice Neugarten of Northwestern University, a pioneer in the field of human development. She points out that although biological maturation heavily influences childhood development, people in young and middle adulthood are most affected by their own experiences and the timing of those experiences, not by biological factors. Even menopause, that quintessentially biolgical event, she says, is of relatively little psychological importance in the lives of most adult women.

In other words, chronological age is an increasinglyunreliable indicator of what people will be like at various points. A group of newborns, or even 5-year-olds, shows less variation than a group of 35-year-olds, or 50-year-olds.

What seems to mark our adult years most isour shifting perspective on ourselves and our world–who we think we are, what we expect to get done, our timetable for doing it and our satisfactions with what we have accomplished. The scenarios and schedules of our lives are so varied that some researchers believe it is virtually impossible to talk about a single timetable for adult development. However, many people probably believe there is one, and are likely to cite Gail Sheehy’s 1976 best-seller Passages to back them up.

Sheehy’s book, which helped make “midlifecrisis’ a household word, was based on a body of research suggesting that adults go through progressive, predictable, age-linked stages, each offering challenges that must be met before moving on to the next stage. The most traumatic of these transitions, Sheehy claimed, is the one between young and middle adulthood –the midlife crisis.

Sheehy’s ideas were based, in part, on thework of researchers Daniel Levinson, George Vaillant and Roger Gould, whose separate studies supported the stages of adult development Erik Erikson had earlier proposed in his highly influential model (see “Erikson’s Eight Stages,’ below).

Levinson, a psychologist, had started hisstudy in 1969, when he was 49 and intrigued with his own recent midlife strains. He and his Yale colleagues intensively interviewed 40 men between the ages of 35 and 45 from four occupational groups. Using these interviews, bolstered by the biographies of great men and the development of memorable characters in literature, they described how men develop from 17 to 65 years of age (see “Levinson’s Ladder,’ this article).

At the threshold of each major period ofadulthood, they found, men pass through predictably unstable transitional periods, including a particularly wrenching time very close to age 40. At each transition a man must confront issues that may involve his career, his marriage, his family and the realization of his dreams if he is to progress successfully to the next period. Seventy percent to 80 percent of the men Levinson interviewed found the midlife transition (ages 40 to 45) tumultuous and psychologically painful, as most aspects of their lives came into question. The presumably universal timetable Levinson offered was very rigid, allowing no more than four years’ leeway for each transition.

Vaillant’s study, although less age-boundthan Levinson’s, also revealed that at midlife men go through a period of pain and preparation –“a time for reassessing and reordering the truth about adolescence and young adulthood.’ Vaillant, a psychistrist, when he conducted his study at Harvard interviewed a group of men who were part of the Grant Study of Adult Development. The study had tracked almost 270 unusually accomplished, self-reliant and healthy Harvard freshmen (drawn mostly from the classes of 1942 to 1944) from their college days until their late 40s. In 1967 and 1977 Vaillant and his team interviewed and evaluated 94 members of this select group.

They found that, despite inner turmoil, themen judged to have the best outcomes in their late 40s “regarded the period from 35 to 49 as the happiest in their lives, and the seemingly calmer period from 21 to 35 as the unhappiest.’ But the men least well adapted at midlife “longed for the relative calm of their young adulthood and regarded the storms of later life as too painful.’

While Levinson and Vaillant were completingtheir studies, psychiatrist Roger Gould and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, were looking at how the lives of both men and women change during young and middle adulthood. Unlike the Yale and Harvard studies, Gould’s was a one-time examination of more than 500 white, middle-class people from ages 16 to 60. Gould’s study, like those of Levinson and Vaillant, found that the time around age 40 was a tough one for many people, both personally and maritally. He stressed that people need to change their early expectations as they develop. “Childhood delivers most people into adulthood with a view of adults that few could ever live up to,’ he wrote. Adults must confront this impossible image, he said, or be frustrated and dissatisfied.

The runaway success of Passages indicatedthe broad appeal of the stage theorists’ message with its emphasis on orderly and clearly defined transitions. According to Cornell historian Michael Kammen, “We want predictability, and we desperately want definitions of “normality.” And almost everyone could find some relationship to their own lives in the stages Sheehy described. Stage theories, explains sociologist Orville Brim Jr., former president of the Russell Sage Foundation, are “a little like horoscopes. They are vague enough so that everyone can see something of themselves in them. That’s why they’re so popular.’

But popularity does not always mean validity.Even at the time there were studies contradicting the stage theorists’ findings. When sociologist Michael Farrell of the State University of New York at Buffalo and social psychologist Stanley Rosenberg of Dartmouth Medical School looked for a crisis among middle-aged men in 1971 it proved elusive. Instead of finding a “universal midlife crisis,’ they discovered several different developmental paths. “Some men do appear to reach a state of crisis,’ they found, “but others seem to thrive. More typical than either of these responses is the tendency for men to bury their heads and deny and avoid all the pressures closing in on them.’

Another decade of research has made thepicture of adult development even more complex. Many observations and theories accepted earlier as fact, especially by the general public, are now being debated. Researchers have especially challenged Levinson’s assertion that stages are predictable, tightly linked to specific ages and built upon one another.

In fact, Gould, described as a stage theoristin most textbooks, has since changed his tune, based upon his clinical observations. He now disagrees that people go through “formal’ developmental stages in adulthood, although he says that people “do change their ways of looking at and experiencing the world over time.’ But the idea that one must resolve one stage before going on to the next, he says, is “hogwash.’

Levinson, however, has stuck by his conceptualguns over the years, claiming that no one has evidence to refute his results. “The only way for my theory to be tested is to study life structure as it develops over adulthood,’ he says. “And by and large psychologists and sociologists don’t study lives, they study variables.’

Many researchers have found that changingtimes and different social expectations affect how various “cohorts’–groups of people born in the same year or time period–move through the life course. Neugarten has been emphasizing the importance of this age-group, or cohort, effect since the early 1960s. Our values and expectations are shaped by the period in which we live. People born during the trying times of the Depression have a different outlook on life from those born during the optimistic 1950s, according to Neugarten.

The social environment of a a particular agegroup, Neugarten argues, can influence its social clock–the timetable for when people expect and are expected to accomplish some of the major tasks of adult life, such as getting married, having children or establishing themselves in a work role. Social clocks guide our lives, and people who are “out of sync’ with them are likely to find life stressful than those who are on schedule, she says.

Since the 1960s, when Neugarten first measuredwhat people consider to be the “right’ time for major life events, social clocks have changed (see “What’s the Right Time?’ this article), further altering the lives of those now approaching middle age, and possibly upsetting the timetable Levinson found in an earlier generation.

As sociologist Alice Rossi of the Universityof Massachusetts observes, researchers trying to tease out universal truths and patterns from the lives of one birth cohort must consider the vexing possibility that their findings may not apply to any other group. Most of the people studied by Levinson, Vaillant and Gould were born before and during the Depression (and were predominantly male, white and upper middle class). What was true for these people may not hold for today’s 40-year-olds, born in the optimistic aftermath of World War II, or the post baby-boom generation just approaching adulthood. In Rossi’s view, “The profile of the midlife men in Levinson’s and Vaillant’s studies may strike a future developmental researcher as burned out at a premature age, rather than reflecting a normal developmental process all men go through so early in life.’

Based on her studies of women at midlife,Nancy Schlossberg, a counselor educator at the University of Maryland, also disagrees that there is a single, universal timetable for adult development–or that one can predict the crises in people’s lives by knowing their age. “Give me a roomful of 40-year-old women and you have told me nothing. Give me a case story about what each has experienced and then I can tell if one is going to have a crisis and another a tranquil period.’ Says Schlossberg: “What matters is what transitions she has experienced. Has she been “dumped’ by a husband, fired from her job, had a breast removed, gone back to school, remarried, had her first book published. It is what has happened or not happened to her, not how old she is, that counts. . . . There are as many patterns as people.’

Psychologist Albert Bandura of StanfordUniversity adds more fuel to the anti-stage fire by pointing out that chance events play a big role in shaping our adult lives. Careers and marriages are often made from the happenstance of meeting the right–or wrong–person at the right–or wrong–time. But, says Bandura, while the events may be random, their effects are not. They depend on what people do with the chance opportunities fate deals them.

The ages-and-stages approach to adult developmenthas been further criticized because it does not appear to apply to women. Levinson claims to have confirmed that women do follow the same age-transition timetable that men do. But his recent study of women has yet to be published, and there is little other evidence that might settle the case one way or the other.

Psychologists Rosalind Barnett and GraceBaruch of the Wellesley Center for Research on Women say, “It is hard to know how to think of women within this [stage] theory–a woman may not enter the world of work until her late 30s, she seldom has a mentor, and even women with lifelong career commitments rarely are in a position to reassess their commitment pattern by age 40.’

But University of Wisconsin-Madison paychologistCarol Ryff, who has directly compared the views of men and women from different age groups, has found that the big psychological issues of adulthood follow a similar developmental pattern for both sexes.

Recently she studied two characteristicshighlighted as hallmarks of middle age: Erikson’s “generativity’ and Neugarten’s “complexity.’ Those who have achieved generativity, according to Ryff, see themselves as leaders and decision makers and are interested in helping and guiding younger people. The men and women Ryff studied agreed that generativity is at its peak in middle age.

Complexity, which describes people’s feelingthat they are in control of their lives and are actively involved in the world, followed a somewhat different pattern. It was high in young adulthood and stayed prominent as people maturned. But it was most obvious in those who are now middle-aged–the first generation of middle-class people to combine family and work in dual-career families. This juggling of roles, although stressful, may make some men and women feel actively involved in life.

Psychologist Ravenna Helson and her colleaguesValory Mitchell and Geraldine Moane at the University of California, Berkeley, have recently completed a long-term study of the lives of 132 women that hints at some of the forces propelling people to change psychologically during adulthood. The women were studied as seniors at Mills College in California in the late 1950s, five years later and again in 1981, when they were between the ages of 42 and 45.

Helson and her colleagues distinguishedthree main groups among the Mills women: family-oriented, career-oriented (whether or not they also wanted families) and those who followed neither path (women with no children who pursued only low-level work). Despite their different profiles in college, and their diverging life paths, the women in all three groups underwent similar broad psychological changes over time, although those in the third group changed less than those committed to career or family.

Personality tests given through the years revealedthat from age 21 to their mid-40s, the Mills women became more self-disciplined and committed to duties, as well as more independent and confident. And between age 27 and the early 40s, there was a shift toward less traditionally “feminine’ attitudes, including greater dominance, higher achievement motivation, greater interest in events outside the family and more emotional stability.

To the Berkeley researchers, familiar withthe work of psychologist David Gutmann of Northwestern University, these changes were not surprising in women whose children were mostly grown. Gutmann, after working with Neugarten and conducting his own research, had theorized that women and men, largely locked into traditional sex roles by parenthood, become less rigidly bound by these roles once the major duties of parenting decline; both are then freer to become more like the opposite sex–and do. Men, for example, often become more willing to share their feelings. These changes in both men and women can help older couples communicate and get along better.

During their early 40s, many of the womenHelson and Moane studied shared the same midlife concerns the stage theorists had found in men: “concern for young and old, introspectiveness, interest in roots and awareness of limitation and death.’ But the Berkeley team described the period as one of midlife “consciousness,’ not “crisis.’

In summing up their findings, Helson andMoane stress that commitment to the tasks of young adulthood–whether to a career or family (or both)–helped women learn to control impulses, develop skills with people, become independent and work hard to achieve goals. According to Helson and Moane, those women who did not commit themselves to one of the main life-style patterns faced fewer challenges and therefore did not develop as fully as the other women did.

The dizzying tug and pull of data and theoriesabout how adults change over time may frustrate people looking for universal principles or certainty in their lives. But it leaves room for many scenarios for people now in young and middle adulthood and those to come.

People now between 20 and60 are the best-educated and among the healthiest and most fit of all who have passed through the adult years. No one knows for sure what their lives will be like in the years to come, but the experts have some fascinating speculations.

For example, Rossi suspectsthat the quality of midlife for baby boomers will contrast sharply with that of the Depression-born generation the stage theorists studied. Baby boomers, she notes, have different dreams, values and opportunities than the preceding generation. And they are much more numerous.

Many crucial aspects of theirpast and future lives may best be seen in an economic rather than a strictly psychological light, Rossi says. From their days in overcrowded grade schools, through their struggles to gain entry into college, to the fight for the most desirable jobs, the baby boomers have had to compete with one another. And, she predicts, their competitive struggles are far from over. She foresees that many may find themselves squeezed out of the workplace as they enter their 50s–experiencing a crisis at a time when it will be difficult to redirect their careers.

But other factors may help to make life easierfor those now approaching midlife. People are on a looser, less compressed timetable, and no longer feel obliged to marry, establish their careers and start their families almost simultaneously. Thus, major life events may not pil eup in quite the same way they did for the older generation.

Today’s 20-year-olds–the first wave of whatsome have labeled “the baby busters’–have a more optimistic future than the baby boomers who preceded them, according to economist Richard Easterlin of the University of Southern California. Easterlin has been studying the life patterns of various cohorts, beginning with the low-birthrate group born in the 1930s–roughly a decade before the birthrate exploded.

The size of a birth cohort, Easterlin argues,affects that group’s quality of life. In its simplest terms, his theory says that the smaller the cohort the less competition among its members and the more fortunate they are; the larger the cohort the more competition and the less fortunate.

Compared with the baby boomers, the smallercohort just approaching adulthood “will have much more favorable experiences as they grow up–in their families, in school and finally in the labor market,’ he says. As a result, they will “develop a more positive psychological outlook.’

The baby busters’ optimism will encouragethem to marry young and have large families– producing another baby boom. During this period there will be less stress in the family and therefore, Easterline predicts, divorce and suicide rates will stabilize.

Psychologist Elizabeth Douvan of the Universityof Michigan’s Institute for Social Research shares Easterlin’s optimistic view about the future of these young adults. Surprisingly, she sees as one of their strengths the fact that, due to divorce and remarriage, many grew up in reconstituted families. Douvan believes that the experience of growing up close to people who are not blood relatives can help to blur the distinction between kinship and friendship, making people more open in their relationships with others.

Like many groups before them, they are likelyto yearn for a sense of community and ritual, which they will strive to fulfill in many ways, Douvan says. For some this may mean a turn toward involvement in politics, neighborhood or religion, although not necessarily the religion of their parents.

In summing up the future quality of life fortoday’s young adults and those following them, Douvan says: “Life is more open for people now. They are judging things internally and therefore are more willing to make changes in the external aspects. That’s pretty exciting. It opens up a tremendous number of possibilities for people who can look at life as an adventure.’

Table: U.S. Families: 1965 to 1985

Table: Erikson’sEight Stages

According toErik Erikson, people must grapple with the conflicts of one stage before they can move on to a higher one.

Table: Age ofMothers at the Birth of Their Babies

Table: Women in the Workplace:1965 to 1985


Two surveys asking the same questions 20 years apart (late 1950sand late 1970s) have shown a dramatic decline in the consensus among middle-class, middle-aged people about what’s the right age for various major events and achievements of adult life.

Photo: Gail Sheehy’s best-sellerpopularized stage theory and made midlife crisis a requisite of adulthood.

Photo: Levinson’sLadder

Deniel Levinsonsays at each age a man faces specific tasks and challenges –such as choosing a career and a mate, and realizing his dreams– which he must meet if he is to proceed successfully up the ladder of life.

Photo: During the past 20years, single parenting, dual careers and divorce have rewritten the traditional adult agenda for women.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group