Adulthood: Psychosocial Development
Changes During Middle Age

Is middle age a time of crisis & upheaval?

Many personal changes occur during middle age, including:
    1. the awareness that one is beginning to grow old.
    2. the need to make adjustments in parental roles as children enter adolescence & subsequently 
    3. reaching a plateau in one’s career.
    4. the tendency to questions choices that have been made about intimacy & generativity.

    Sandwich Generation: the generation “in between” having both grown children & elderly parents. 

    Some middle-aged people feel pressured by the needs & demands of their adult children on the 
one hand & of their elderly (& perhaps ailing or widowed) parents on the other. This group was 
once thought to be of considerable significance.

    Midlife Crisis: a period of unusual anxiety, radical reexamination, and sudden transformation that is 
widely associated with middle age, but which actually has more to do with developmental history than 
with chronological age.

Life-Span View:

    Almost ½ of all middle adulthood adults have grown children living with them, largely because of 
higher unemployment and more single parenthood.

    Increasingly, middle adulthood adults are also called upon to provide care for an elderly relative.

    Social scientists note that although stressful care giving relationships can disrupt established family 
patterns, most men & women welcome their continuing responsibilities.

Personality through Adulthood

    Longitudinal & cross-sectional research finds five basic clusters of personality traits that remain 
stable throughout adulthood.

The BIG FIVE clusters of personality traits:

   1. Openness: imaginative, curious, artistic, open to new experiences
   2. Conscientiousness: organized, deliberate & conforming
   3. Extroversion: outgoing, assertive & active
   4. Agreeableness: kind, helpful & easygoing
   5. Neuroticism: anxious, moody & self-punishing

Big 5 Memory Aid: OCEAN

    In pinpointing the reasons for the apparent consistency of some traits, researchers note the 
importance of genes, culture, early child rearing and the experiences and choices made during late 
adolescence and early adulthood.

    The manifestation of these traits is usually stable by age 30, when most people have settled into 
an ecological niche - including vocations, mates, neighborhood and daily routines, that are compatible 
with their particular personality needs and interests.

    Age-related shifts in adult personality generally reflect whatever traits are valued in one’s culture at 
the time – including a tendency toward self-improvement & greater generativity.

    Gender Crossover: the idea that each sex takes on the other sex’s roles and traits in later life; this idea 
is disputed, but there is no doubt that maleness & femaleness become less salient (prominent) in middle age.


    * Crossover (switching roles)
    * Convergence (coming together) 

    Gender convergence may be caused by reduced levels of sex hormones, which may allow men and 
women to express previously suppressed traits. 

Family Dynamics in Middle Adulthood

    Being the “generation in the middle”, middle age adults are the cohort bridge between their children 
& their parents.
•  Contemporary family members are more supportive of each other, with less trouble & tension, when 
they live apart.
   Kinkeeper: the person who celebrates family achievements, gathers the family together and keeps in 
touch with family members who no longer live nearby; they maintain the links between the generations.
   Familism: the idea that family members should support each other because family unity is more 
important than individual freedom and success; stronger among ethnic minority groups than among 
the white majority.

    Generally, ongoing grandparent-grandchild relationships take one of three forms:

   1. Remote: typical of American grandparents a century ago, grandparents who are distant but who are
 honored, respected and obeyed by the younger generations in their families.
   2. Involved: grandparents who remain active in the everyday activities of their grandchildren, typically 
living in or nearby the grandchildren’s household.
   3. Companionate: grandparents whose relationships with their children & grandchildren are characterized 
by independence and friendship, with visits occurring by the grandparents’ choice; most grandparents today
– they can maintain autonomy and independence. 


    Surrogate parents:  the role some grandparents play for their grandchildren due to their children’s extreme 
social problems; grandparents take over the work of raising their children’s children; if the relationship is the 
result of a legal decision that the parents were abusive or neglectful, it becomes kinship care.

    Throughout adulthood, marriage is the family relationship that seems most closely linked to personal 
happiness, health & companionship.

    After a dip in the first decade or so, marital happiness gradually increases. Several reasons have been 
suggested for this improvement: the greater financial security of families at the empty-nest stage, the increasing 
sense of equity in the relationship, and increased time for shared activities once the children have left home.

    Most divorced people remarry within 5 years of being divorced.


    Work continues to be an important source of both stress & status in middle age.

    One of the improvements that occur over the decades of adulthood is that many adults learn how to 
coordinate the demands of a partner, children, & an employer. A "balance of life" is more likely reached 
in middle age.

    Job security usually increases during middle adulthood, and there is often a shift in the balance among 
work, family & self.

    During early adulthood, the combined demands of the workplace and the individual’s own aspirations for 
promotion often create “workaholics”.
   One statistic which shows the job stability typical of middle age is that employees in their early 50s are a third 
less likely to be actively seeking a new job than employees in their early 30s.

    Mentor: a guide or teacher who helps an inexperienced person through example, shared activities, or explicit 
advice. Occurs more often in middle age.

    During the “establishment” stage of a dual-earner marriage, women and men with children often engage in a
 scaling back of their employment effort in order to combine work & family. One spouse may choose to work part 
time. Or, both partners may work full time, one at a “job” to earn money and the other at a lower paying “career”.
   In another scaling-back strategy, the partners take turns pursuing work, housework & child care.

Key Questions

1. What factors might cause a midlife crisis?
2. What changes might occur in the five trait clusters in personality?
3. Give an example (other than the one in the text) of the way one's ecological niche contributes to stability 
of personality.
4. How might men& women be affected differently by middle age?
5. How does the relationship between children and elderly parents typically change when children reach middle age?
6. How does the relationship between parents and children change when the children reach adulthood?
7. How has grandparenthood changed over the past 100 years?
8. How does the marriage relationship change over the decades?
9. How do middle aged adults cope with divorce - their own and that of their adult child?
10. What are the differences between work in middle age and work in young adulthood? 
11. In your experience - Describe a relationship that you know of in which a middle aged person and a younger adult 
learned from each other.

                                                 Growth & Development
                                                       Robert C. Gates