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12.6: Adulthood

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    Many theories on personality and cognitive development end with adolescence. As one enters into adulthood, it is assumed, one has accomplished all of the tasks necessary to be an adult, including one’s identity. And yet, if adolescence ends sometime in the late teens, many people can reasonably expect to live another 60 to 80 years. Does it really make any sense to propose that nothing meaningful happens during those years? Of course, Erikson described development stages throughout adulthood and old age, but what about other psychologists? Srivastava, et al. (2003) examined changes in the Big Five personality traits across the years of adulthood. They found that conscientiousness and agreeableness increased through early and middle adulthood, whereas neuroticism decreased in women, but not in men. In other words, both men and women become more responsible and cooperative as they grow through adulthood, and women become more stable. One can speculate that these changes fit well within Erikson’s model, in which most adults take on the tasks involved in raising a family. Self-esteem rises steadily throughout adulthood, before dropping sharply in old age (Robins & Trzesniewski, 2005). Similarly, the ability to integrate cognitive and affective components of the self, in order to maintain positive self-development, increases steadily during adulthood until beginning to decline with old age (Labouvie-Vief, 2003). Thus, adulthood does appear to be a time of personality change.

    Adulthood, however, means different things in different cultures. In Adulthood (Erikson, 1978), Erikson brought together a collection of authors who examined adulthood from a variety of cultural perspectives. For a Christian adult, growth occurs primarily through social experiences. One encounters Christ in service to others, or in other words, by loving your neighbor. Christ himself serves as the model for adulthood (Bouwsma, 1978). Adulthood in Islam carries with it responsibility for the religious commands and obligations of Islam. One must reconcile the reality of the world with one’s place in it, as willed by Allah. Adulthood then becomes an expression of the inner peace achieved by living in the world in accord with the divinely revealed reality (Lapidus, 1978). In the Confucian tradition, adulthood is the complete process of becoming a person. In this patriarchal model, first a man comes of age, then he marries and has children, then he begins a career as a scholar-official, and that career is expected to be served with distinction (Wei-Ming, 1978). In Japan, adulthood is a time of social responsibility, discipline, and perseverance, in preparation for the integrity and respect typically associated with old age (Rohlen, 1978). India presents a particularly difficult challenge, and it is not really possible to speak of a single adulthood model. The caste system inherent in the India of the past created vastly different life conditions for the people of India (Rudolph & Rudolph, 1978). The problems of language and multicultural populations create unique difficulties for understanding adulthood in Russia and America (Jordan, 1978; Malia, 1978). What is clear across cultures is that adulthood is a time of continued development, it can vary quite dramatically (even within a culture), and it often involves an aspect of anticipating old age. The anticipation of old age, however, can vary dramatically, based on individual and cultural attitudes about old age, as we will see in the next section.

    Adulthood can be the most productive and, in some ways, most gratifying years of life. Some of the unique challenges of adulthood have become popular topics in psychology, such as the midlife crisis and the empty nest syndrome. And yet, adulthood is the least studied period of life. One possible explanation for this neglect, according to Smelser (1980a), is that most research is done by adults, and they tend to be more interested in stages of development other than their own. In a second collection of articles, entitled Themes of Work and Love in Adulthood (Smelser & Erikson, 1980), Smelser and Erikson brought together a variety of perspectives on what they viewed as two of the most important life phenomena that dominate the adulthood years. Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said that maturity is to be found in the capacity to love and to work. Throughout one’s life, both of these phenomena follow certain paths, typically involving a period of growing interest and ability, followed by a fairly stable level (which typically lasts for decades), followed by a gradual (as in work) or sudden (as in the death of a spouse) decline (Smelser, 1980a). In examining the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, evident in their letters to one another, Erikson (1980b) found distinctly adult content related to such topics as mutual regard, confidence, affection, intimate concern for their families, both good and bad observations regarding their professional colleagues, and an ongoing debate regarding the important issues in psychodynamic theory and the psychoanalytic movement. There are similarities, but some interesting contrasts, between these letters and the ones Freud had written to Wilhelm Fliess years earlier. In that younger period of adulthood, Freud seemed more in need of a close friend, particularly since he was in the process of creating the field that was becoming well-established by the time Freud met Jung. Perhaps due to Freud being older when he met Jung, it seems that he interacted with Fliess and Jung in different ways: when Freud was young he interacted with his colleague Fliess as a colleague, but when he was older he interacted with Jung in a much more father-son type relationship (and Jung had lost his father years earlier).

    Work and love interact, or don’t, depending on the nature of individual cultures. For example, in America we compartmentalize our lives. We tend to have clearly defined career paths, and our personal relationships exist primarily outside of the workplace (Smelser, 1980b). In contrast, the Gusii in Kenya have not traditionally had “careers,” but rather a domestically based economy. They also practice polygyny (each man having many wives, but not vice versa). Thus, a husband must balance the resources at his command between his different wives and their children. As such, although love plays some role in marriage, it can actually become a problem for that man who cannot maintain fair and equitable treatment of each wife and her children. This is handled by maintaining a certain distance from each wife, including having his own house, and visiting each wife on a rotating schedule that is acceptable to everyone (LeVine, 1980). Such a concept of love and marriage is extraordinarily alien to the symbolic and mythic nature of the love ideal that lies at the foundation of American culture: a man and a woman committed to one another in a way that ennobles and transforms them both (Swidler, 1980).

    However, the romantic vision of love in American culture is not without its drawbacks. The romantic, passionate, committed love that Americans envision completes one’s identity. In Erikson’s terms, it stands in opposition to isolation. However, it is all too common that most marriages, as well as other long-term relationships, eventually come to an end. What then happens to each person’s identity? Love also provides a basis for rebellion, such as when a person “marries for love” in spite of the objections of one’s family and/or friends. Love can also lead to conformity, such as one sees in the term “settling down” or when women, in particular, are expected to take on the primary responsibility for the household as an expression of their love, even if they also have a job outside of the home as their husband does. When one partner, more so than the other, must engage in self-sacrifice, what happens to their opportunities for self-realization? If it is possible to find fulfillment through the love of another, then self-sacrifice can be self-realization (Swidler, 1980). If not, we might see high divorce rates. And a high divorce rate is the reality in America today.

    So, whether love and work are intermingled or separate, whether simple or complex, whether fulfilling or a necessary social expectation, they dominate the years of early and middle adulthood. No one period in adulthood is more likely than another to result in change, as different stressors impact each age differently. Work related stress is particularly likely for the young adult, but older adults face the challenge of preparing (both financially and psychologically) for retirement, and unexpected changes can occur at any age. Love, particularly as it relates to marriage, causes stress throughout adulthood, but in different ways. Younger couples are more likely to experience separation and/or divorce, middle-aged adults experience their children leaving home and possible career transitions, and older couples are more likely to experience illness, disabilities, and perhaps the loss of a spouse. Each of these different forms of stress brings with it a need for coping mechanisms, and if those coping mechanisms fail, the likelihood for psychological distress becomes very real (Pearlin, 1980). Perhaps the most challenging stressor in our lives, one that ultimately cannot be overcome, but that may be transcended and accepted, is old age and our inevitable death.

    Connections Across Cultures: Glorifying Youth vs. Valuing the Elderly

    We hear a lot in our society about how we value youth, and consider the elderly to be of little worth. The obsession with youth and appearance is such that plastic surgery has become the subject of numerous television shows. But is our society really different than other societies, and if so, what factors might have contributed to the difference? The matter is particularly important today, since the world’s older population is the fastest growing group. One estimate has suggested by the year 2020 the total population of people over 65 years of age will be 690 million (Hillier & Barrow, 1999). Thus, it won’t be long before there are a billion people over the age of 65. But is 65 years old a valid point for declaring someone as old?

    Old age can be defined functionally, as in whether or not a person can still do the things expected of them in their culture, it can be defined formally by some external event, such as the birth of the first grandchild, or it can be determined chronologically, as it typically is in the United States (we traditionally use the age of 65 years). Each measure has its advantages and disadvantages, but regardless, when a person is viewed by others as old, the question becomes one of how they will be treated. Generally speaking, the more industrialized a society is, the less likely it is to treat its elderly with respect and dignity. In non-industrialized societies, the elderly play a number of important roles in the traditions and ceremonies emphasized by such cultures, since they know the most about those traditions and ceremonies. Older members of the community function as historians, vocational instructors, and often as doctors and ministers. In agrarian societies they continue to work as long as they are able. As a result, the elderly are still vital, contributing members of the community, and as such, they are naturally treated with the respect they deserve (Hillier & Barrow, 1999).

    There are, however, variations even within non-industrialized societies. For example, nomadic societies have few resources, and often live in harsh climates. Their geographic mobility favors youth and vigor, as well as individual autonomy, all elements that fade with advanced age. Even with minor advances in technology, the important roles that elders played in many cultures have faded with time. Among the Aleuts in Northern Russia there were always one or two old men who educated the children. However, the availability of printed material has largely eliminated the need for this type of education. In places such as Turkey and Nepal, the elderly have lost their place in the workforce with the urbanization and industrialization of the country. The Igbo of Nigeria once held their elders in high regard, but mass migrations have diminished their authority, and formal education in schools has supplanted their spiritual roles (Hillier & Barrow, 1999). Many more examples can be found of changes in how communities, societies, and cultures treat the elderly more poorly than they have in the past.

    As a result, many older people want to look and feel younger. Studies have shown that one’s attitude about their body image is positively correlated with their self-esteem, and that this holds true throughout the lifespan. In other words, people with high self-esteem feel good about their bodies, but people with low self-esteem feel bad about their bodies. People who are treated without respect or dignity, who feel that they are being discarded by society, are likely to experience lowered self-esteem, and with it a lower regard for their body image. These people become easy targets for fraudulent cures for arthritis, cancer, weight-loss, and sexual aids. It is estimated that Americans spend as much as $27 billion dollars a year on quack medical products or services (Hillier & Barrow, 1999). There are also many products that do help people look younger, so even more money is spent in a vain effort to pretend that people are younger than they actually are.

    Consider your own relationships with people who are much older, or if you are a bit older yourself, with people who are younger than you. Do you even have relationships with people of different ages, or do such relationships tend to make you uncomfortable? How do you feel about the efforts of some people to try looking younger? Has there been an older person in your life, perhaps a grandparent, who has had a dramatic, positive influence on who you are today? Try to imagine your life at 60 or 70 years old, and how your children and grandchildren, or perhaps co-workers and friends, might treat you. Remember, your attitudes and actions toward older people today might have a significant effect on how your family and friends act toward you when the roles are reversed.

    This page titled 12.6: Adulthood is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.