Midlife Psychological Development Research Paper

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The timing of the midlife period has been the subject of a great deal of controversy. The modal responses to survey questions suggest that midlife begins at 40 and ends at 60 years of age (Lachman et al. 1994). However, there is great variability in the responses, with the age range for midlife typically from 30 to 75. Moreover, the ages of entry and exit are positively correlated with age, such that the older one’s present age the later the expected timing of midlife. For example, on average, those in their twenties report that midlife begins at 30, whereas those in their seventies often include themselves within the period of midlife (Lachman et al. 1994). This is particularly salient because research indicates that one’s subjective conception of age is a better indicator of well-being and functioning than chronological age.

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The middle years are an important and central part of the lifespan, yet there has been little research focused directly on this period (Brim 1992). Those in midlife are often in leadership positions; thus, the well-being of middle-aged adults has an impact on the welfare of those who are both younger and older. Middle-aged adults may have responsibility for mentoring younger workers and taking care of multiple generations of family members. While raising their own children, middle-aged adults may also need to provide care for their own parents, if they are widowed, disabled, or frail (Moen and Wethington 1999).

1. Perspectives on Midlife

It is useful to examine the midlife period within the context of the entire life span (Baltes et al. 1997). The nature of psychological functioning in the middle years is likely to be more meaningful when considered relative to what has come before and what lies ahead. On most dimensions, middle-aged adults may fall somewhere in between younger and older adults. However, in some domains, middle-aged adults may function more like those who are younger, and in other domains they may be more similar to older adults.

A life-span perspective suggests that the ratio of gains and losses changes during adulthood (Baltes et al. 1997). In young adulthood the gains outnumber the losses. In midlife, the tendency is toward a balance of gains and losses. This balance is tipped in later life, when the number of losses may exceed the potential gains. As this transition occurs, the process of adapting to losses, some of which are uncontrollable, is important to well-being. As adults age they begin to use more compensatory strategies, such as reducing the number of demands or responsibilities (Brim 1992). Brandstadter and Renner (1990) found that during middle age and beyond, adults were more inclined to use accommodative strategies, that is changing or even giving up one’s goals to be more consistent with one’s abilities or revised priorities. In contrast, those in young adulthood more frequently use assimilative strategies, taking on more goals and persisting in the face of obstacles. These adaptive processes can be applied to the physical, psychological, and social changes that occur during the middle years.

2. Theories of Development in Midlife

There are a number of stage theories that include the midlife period (Erikson 1963, Levinson et al. 1978). According to Erikson (1963), the key focus of midlife involves the life task of generativity vs. stagnation. Successful negotiation of this stage entails focusing one’s efforts on the younger generation. In midlife one is able to guide the next generation by sharing knowledge and wisdom with younger co-workers and family members. The middle-aged adult serves important roles in the family and the workplace. They are often guides for the younger and older generation, with an ability to draw on their experience in multiple domains (McAdams 2001). According to Erikson, if adults are not successful in achieving generativity, they may be considered stagnant or nonproductive because a key task for midlife is to transmit knowledge and values to the next generation.

3. Physical and Psychological Changes

One of the hallmarks of midlife is that it is a time of peak performance in a variety of psychological domains, while at the same time there are declines in physical and some aspects of cognitive functioning. The midlife period is accompanied by physical changes such as changes in sensory functioning and hormonal changes (Avis 1999). Although some aspects of physical functioning (e.g., lung function, reaction time) or cognitive performance (e.g., working memory) typically show declines by midlife, many cognitive functions are at their peak (e.g., reasoning) or still improving (e.g., knowledge) (Miller and Lachman 2000, Willis and Schaie 1999). Some functions may have begun to decline, such as speed of processing or working memory (Dixon et al. 2001), while other aspects are increasing, such as verbal ability and wisdom (Miller and Lachman 2001, Staudinger et al. 1992). Other abilities peak at midlife, including problem solving and reasoning abilities (Willis and Schaie 1999). Some psychosocial variables such as positive mood (Mroczek and Kolarz 1998), selfconfidence, and sense of mastery also appear to peak in midlife (Lachman et al. 1994, Neugarten 1968).

4. Multiple Roles and Transitions

A number of role transitions typically occur during the middle years. Middle-aged parents are said to experience the empty nest syndrome when their adult children leave home. Although some have assumed this would be a traumatic time, especially for women, research shows that this is often a welcome period when middle-aged adults pursue new interests, enjoy the freedom from raising children, and often strengthen the intimacy of the marital bond (Paul 1997).

The menopause for women marks a major shift in biological functioning, with changes in hormone levels and reproductive ability. Recent medical developments, however, may make it more common for postmenopausal women to bear children. There are wide individual differences in the experiences of menopause. Physiological symptoms such as hot flushes or sleeplessness are not universal. (Avis 1999). There are a number of myths associated with the menopause, including that it is accompanied by depression, mood swings, and fatigue. In fact, research shows that the menopause is generally not a negative experience, but is often associated with a sense of relief that menstruation is over and a welcomed freedom from concern about pregnancy (Avis 1999).

5. Personality and the Self in Midlife

Personality traits are relatively stable throughout adulthood (Costa and McCrae 1980). These enduring characteristics play a major role in shaping the course of development. Some aspects of the self are more malleable and influenced by experience, making the person resilient or vulnerable to stress. Thus, the selfconcept can serve as a resource or a risk factor. Selfesteem, self-efficacy, and the sense of control affect choice and selection of goals as well as the amount of effort expended to accomplish them in midlife (Bandura 1997). There are some areas in which the sense of control increases in later life, such as over work, marriage, and finances (Lachman and Weaver 1998). In other domains, including memory, sex life, and relationship with children, the sense of control declines with age. The sense of control also contributes to health (Lachman and Weaver 1998). Those who have a greater sense of mastery and lower perceived constraints on their life have better health and functional status. Those who believe they have more control over health are more likely to engage in healthpromoting behaviors including exercising and eating a healthy diet.

Sex role characteristics also shift during the middle years. In early adulthood men are more agentic and women are more communal. However, there is evidence that during the middle years both genders become less sex-stereotyped and adopt more of the opposite-sex characteristics, but they do not necessarily lose their sex-typed characteristics. Thus, both genders appear to develop more integrated and androgenous characteristics (Parker and Aldwin 1997, James and Lewkowicz 1997).

6. The Midlife Crisis

Perhaps the most ubiquitous association with midlife is the midlife crisis. The media and popular literature have portrayed midlife as a period involving inner turmoil, regret about growing older, disappointment about one’s marriage or career, and a sense of loss when children leave home (Brim 1992). However, there is little evidence in support of a universal midlife crisis of this nature. Indeed there are some who experience distress, but they tend to be those who have had tumultuous periods throughout their lives. Those who have more neurotic personality styles are the ones who are more likely to experience a midlife crisis (Costa and McCrae 1980, Whitbourne and Connolly 1999). Even among those who do have a crisis, the nature of the midlife crisis also varies considerably. For some it is a reappraisal of life, for others it is a fear of getting older, or it may be a realization that one has not fulfilled one’s goals (Rosenberg et al. 1999). Rather than being an inevitable part of middle age (Levinson et al. 1978), empirical evidence supports the view that a crisis in midlife is more a function of stable personality characteristics or coping styles than of a particular age period (Costa and McCrae 1980, Whitbourne and Connolly 1999). People who have crises during midlife are likely to have them at other ages or transitions as well.

7. Future Directions

More research is needed to understand the nature of the midlife period. It is important to understand how behaviors and patterns laid down in the early and middle years of adulthood impact the nature and course of aging. Clearly, if midlife serves as a window on aging, there may be early warning signs apparent in midlife that may be important to identify for prevention efforts. Mental health and physical well-being in adulthood is determined by multiple factors, many of which are under one’s control. Lifestyle factors involving social relationships, diet, exercise, mental stimulation, smoking, and alcohol intake all have a bearing on one’s quality of life (Rowe and Kahn 1997). Well-being in midlife is an important area of study because the outcome impacts multiple generations who are touched by middle-aged adults in the family and the workplace. The nature of midlife functioning and behavior may be a key indicator of the length and quality of life in the later years.


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