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7.1: Early and Middle Adulthood

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    • Describe the main life stages of Daniel Levinson’s theory of adult male development.
    • Describe the stages of adult female development.

    Universal Generalizations

    • Every adult has a life structure which is defined by a combination of factors.
    • In American society, the life patterns of adult males and females are somewhat different.
    • Men in American society, remain continuously in the workforce for most of their adult lives.
    • There are three eras of adulthood.
    • Men and women deal differently with the statuses and roles that are attached to each era of adulthood.

    Guiding Questions

    • What is life structure?
    • What are the main eras of adult male development according to Daniel Levinson’s theory?
    • What role does a mentor play?
    • What similarities exist in all eras of adulthood?
    • How does adult female development differ from male adult development?
    • What factors are significant in determining whether a woman stays home after giving birth or enters the workforce again?
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Adult Male Development

    In American society, males and females life courses differ. For many women in the United States, they enter the labor force, take time to start a family, and then return to work after some time of absence. While males remain for the most part of their adult lives in the labor force. Since traditional family patterns are still prevalent, male and female adult development stages differ significantly.

    Daniel Levinson a psychologist at Yale University began an extensive study to determine the adult male development stages. Levinson and his associates proposed four sequential eras of male development linked to chronological age. Levinson (1978) suggests that within these eras are periods of development that are characterized by a unique set of tasks that cause a person to attempt to build or modify life structures. Eras last for approximately twenty-five years and transitions between eras take three to six years to complete (Levinson, 1978). Transitions are periods of upheaval because, to continue to develop, one must change the character of one’s life (Levinson, 1978).

    Levinson based his model on biographical interviews of 40 American men. These 40 men were between 35 to 45 years in age and they worked as biology professors, novelists, business executives or industrial laborers. The biographical interviews lasted one or two hours and ranged from six to ten interviews for each subject. The questions asked focused on the subject’s life accounts in their post-adolescent years. The interviews focused on topics such as the men’s background (education, religion, political beliefs) and major events or turning points in their lives.

    Levinson's eras and developmental periods (Dean, 2007) are:

    1. Childhood and adolescence: birth to 20
    2. Early adulthood: 17-45
      Early adult transition: 17-22
      Entering the adult world: 22-28
      Age thirty transition: 28 - 33
      Settling down: 33 - 40
    3. Middle adulthood: 40-65
      Midlife transition: 40-45
      Entering middle adulthood: 45-50
      Age fifty transition: 50-55
      Culmination of middle adulthood: 55-60
    4. Late adulthood: 60+
      Late adult transition: 60-65

    Levinson’s concept of life structure (the men’s socio-cultural world, their participation in their world and various aspects of themselves) was the major component in Levinson’s theory. The life structure for each person evolves through the developmental stages as people’s age. Life structures are the patterns of a person’s life. These structures are embraced during stable periods and questioned during transitions as new patterns are adopted (Dean, 2007). One of the principal tasks of this stage is to modify or terminate relationships with family and significant others (mentors, social groups, childhood friends). In light of these changing relationships, young adults in Early Adult Transition face reassessment and modification of their sense of self (Smith, 1999).

    Two key concepts in Levinson’s model are the stable period and the transitional period in a person’s development. The stable period is the time when a person makes crucial choices in life, builds a life structure around the choices, and seeks goals within the structure. The transitional period is the end of a person’s stage and the beginning of a new stage.

    Levinson’s model contains five main stages. They are the pre-adulthood stage (age 0 – 22), the early adulthood stage (age 17 – 45), the middle adult stage (age 40 – 65), the late adulthood stage (age 60 – 85) and the late adult stage (age 80 plus). Levinson states “the shift from one era to the next is a massive development step and require a transitional period of several years.”(Levinson, 1977) This would explain why there is an overlap in each of these stages.

    Levinson’s first adult stage in his model is called the Early Adult Transition Period. This phase is similar to Erikson’s psychological theory in that both concerns the young adult’s identity crisis or role confusion. It is during this phase that the young adult first gains independence (financial or otherwise) and leaves the home. This is a transitional stage because it marks the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood.

    The second stage would be a stable period because it marks the time where the adult must pick a role, establish goals and build a life structure. This stage provides the young adult with any roles and choices for their future. Levinson believes that it is during this time that the young person dreams of his future success in a career, family life and status. Levinson also believes that the presence of a mentor or older teacher is a great influence in guiding the person through the obstacles in their career paths.

    The third stage, which can be divided into two parts, is called the Age 30 transition. The first part of this phase deals with when the young adult reflects on their career and past successes and also plans for future success and status in their career as well as making plans in starting a family and settling down. In Levinson’s own words, the Age 30 transition “provides an opportunity to work on the flaws and limitations of the first adult life structure and to create the basis for a new and more satisfactory structure with which to complete the era of early adulthood.” (Levinson, 1977) This Age 30 transition parallels Erikson’s autonomy versus shame and doubt stage which Erikson applies to toddlers. The second part of the Age 30 transition period is the settling downstage. It is in this stage that the person feels a need to establish a role in society, whether in their career or their family life, whichever is the most central part of their life structure.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The fourth phase of Levinson’s model is called Becoming One’s Own Man or BOOM phase. In this stage, the man feels constrained by the authority figures in their world. The individual wants more independence, authority and to be true to their own voice. With this larger amount of authority, there comes a greater amount of responsibility and burden. This is also a time of conflict as the person struggles with the notion of becoming an established adult and leaving behind the flaws of the early adult they once were. Levinson uses the phrase “breaking out” to describe the adult’s radical change in life structure. The conflict in this stage is the beginning of the major transitional period in life called the mid-life transition.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    In the Mid-life transition, which Levinson believes to last from age 40 to 45, the adult faces a crucial point in their development. Much soul searching and reflecting is done during this phase. The adults question their past life structures and accomplishments and reevaluate their goals. There are very few adults, according to Levinson, that find this mid-life stage difficult. The painful process of the mid-life transition stage results in a drastically different life structure with new goals within it. Even if an adult chooses not to change their life structure, they must still reappraise their life and recommit themselves on different terms to their old choices. This troubling transitional phase does, according to Levinson, have beneficial results. Levinson believes that “the life structure that emerges in the middle 40s varies greatly in its satisfactoriness…”(Levinson, 1977). Levinson also states that for some, the outcome of this transition provides the person with fulfillment and a better direction.

    Levinson’s model emphasizes that development of life structures is a continuous life process. In the stages which follow the mid-life transition are not focused on, but Levinson does state that the mid-life transition is not the last opportunity for growth and change. He believes there are later transitional periods in late adulthood as well. He states that “as long as life continues, no period marks the end of the opportunities, and the burdens of further development.” (McAdams and Levinson, 1977)

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Adult Female Development

    Levinson repeated the life-structure study with women and drew on the conclusions that men and women go through same stages of adult development. Also, men and women deal with developmental tasks in each stage differently.

    However, not everyone agrees with Levinson's findings on the similarities of male and female adult development. Irene Frieze and Esther Sales argue there are significant differences in the developmental processes of men and women. Research conducted by Frieze and Sales indicates there are three phases in female adult development.

    PHASE I "leaving the family" - Women entering the adult world is much like that of men. Women breaking from parents and family and begin to develop a life plan. For some women, there is a greater emphasis on marriage and less on their careers. This greater emphasis on marriage than on their own careers is a factor that distinguishes the female adult development from male adult development.

    PHASE II " entering the adult world" - Though they say they would like to wed, most Americans are not in a hurry to do so. In 2011, the median age at first marriage was at a record high—about 29 for men and about 27 for women, according to census data. The median age at first marriage, which declined for the first half of the 20th century, has been rising since then. As recently as the early 1980s, the median age for men was 25 and for women 22.

    Many women tend to combine motherhood and a career. For many, playing these different roles simultaneously has created stress. As a result of this, a high percentage of new mothers return to the labor force before their baby reaches one year. According to Esther Sales, the break in employment in another factor that sets adult female development apart from adult male development.

    Labor force participation rate of women by age of youngest child, March 1975-2007
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): By 2004, the rate for these mothers had receded to 71 percent, where it remained through 2007.

    In general, mothers with older children (6 to 17 years of age, none younger) are more likely to participate in the labor force than mothers with younger children (under 6 years of age).

    Phase III " re-entering the world of work" Many mothers return to the world of work when their children reach school age. During this stage, women have more opportunities to pursue their career choices. This coincides with the time that males are having doubts about their own careers. During this stage, there is also a prevalence of women in career positions increasing.

    The attitudes on marriage and gender roles in America have been changing in recent years. Americans are waiting longer and longer to get married. Last year, according to Census data, the median age at first marriage was 29.0 for men and 26.6 for women, both the highest since at least 1890. The low for both sexes since then came in 1956 when the median age at first marriage was 22.5 for men and 20.1 for women. It rose slowly through the next two decades, then more sharply starting in the late 1970s.

    Changes such as delaying marriage and having children and women achieving high working positions, and in some cases women earning more money may be the beginning of developmental patterns of males and females are blending.

    Though they say they would like to wed, most Americans are not in a hurry to do so. In 2011, the median age at first marriage was at a record high—about 29 for men and about 27 for women, according to census data. The median age at first marriage, which declined for the first half of the 20th century, has been rising since then. As recently as the early 1980s, the median age for men was 25 and for women 22.

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