Emotional and Social Development in Middle Adulthood

chapter 16 Emotional and Social Development in Middle Adulthood


Midlife is a time of increased generativity—giving to and guiding younger generations. Charles Callis, director of New Zealand’s Olympic Museum, shows visiting schoolchildren how to throw a discus. His enthusiastic demonstration conveys the deep sense of satisfaction he derives from generative activities.

chapter outline

·   Erikson’s Theory: Generativity versus Stagnation

· ■  SOCIAL ISSUES: HEALTH  Generative Adults Tell Their Life Stories

Other Theories of Psychosocial Development in Midlife

·   Levinson’s Seasons of Life

·   Vaillant’s Adaptation to Life

·   Is There a Midlife Crisis?

·   Stage or Life Events Approach

Stability and Change in Self-Concept and Personality

·   Possible Selves

·   Self-Acceptance, Autonomy, and Environmental Mastery

·   Coping with Daily Stressors

·   Gender Identity

·   Individual Differences in Personality Traits

· ■  BIOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENT  What Factors Promote Psychological Well-Being in Midlife?

Relationships at Midlife

·   Marriage and Divorce

·   Changing Parent–Child Relationships

·   Grandparenthood

·   Middle-Aged Children and Their Aging Parents

·   Siblings

·   Friendships

· ■  SOCIAL ISSUES: HEALTH  Grandparents Rearing Grandchildren: The Skipped-Generation Family

·   Vocational Life

·   Job Satisfaction

·   Career Development

·   Career Change at Midlife

·   Unemployment

·   Planning for Retirement


One weekend when Devin, Trisha, and their 24-year-old son, Mark, were vacationing together, the two middle-aged parents knocked on Mark’s hotel room door. “Your dad and I are going off to see a crafts exhibit,” Trisha explained. “Feel free to stay behind,” she offered, recalling Mark’s antipathy toward attending such events as an adolescent. “We’ll be back around noon for lunch.”

“That exhibit sounds great!” Mark replied. “I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

“Sometimes I forget he’s an adult!” exclaimed Trisha as she and Devin returned to their room to grab their coats. “It’s been great to have Mark with us—like spending time with a good friend.”

In their forties and fifties, Trisha and Devin built on earlier strengths and intensified their commitment to leaving a legacy for those who would come after them. When Mark faced a difficult job market after graduating from college, he returned home to live with Trisha and Devin and remained there for several years. With their support, he took graduate courses while working part-time, found steady employment in his late twenties, fell in love, and married in his mid-thirties. With each milestone, Trisha and Devin felt a sense of pride at having escorted a member of the next generation into responsible adult roles. Family activities, which had declined during Mark’s adolescent and college years, increased as Trisha and Devin related to their son as an enjoyable adult companion. Challenging careers and more time for community involvement, leisure pursuits, and each other contributed to a richly diverse and gratifying time of life.


The midlife years were not as smooth for two of Trisha and Devin’s friends. Fearing that she might grow old alone, Jewel frantically pursued her quest for an intimate partner. She attended singles events, registered with dating services, and traveled in hopes of meeting a like-minded companion. “I can’t stand the thought of turning 50,” she lamented in a letter to Trisha. Jewel also had compensating satisfactions—friendships that had grown more meaningful, a warm relationship with a nephew and niece, and a successful consulting business.

Tim, Devin’s best friend from graduate school, had been divorced for over five years. Recently, he had met Elena and had come to love her deeply. But Elena was in the midst of major life changes. In addition to her own divorce, she was dealing with a troubled daughter, a career change, and a move away from the city that served as a constant reminder of her unhappy past. Whereas Tim had reached the peak of his career and was ready to enjoy life, Elena wanted to recapture much of what she had missed in earlier decades, including opportunities to realize her talents. “I don’t know where I fit into Elena’s plans,” Tim wondered aloud on the phone with Trisha.

With the arrival of middle adulthood, half or more of the lifespan is over. Increasing awareness of limited time ahead prompts adults to reevaluate the meaning of their lives, refine and strengthen their identities, and reach out to future generations. Most middle-aged people make modest adjustments in their outlook, goals, and daily lives. But a few experience profound inner turbulence and initiate major changes, often in an effort to make up for lost time. Together with advancing years, family and work transitions contribute greatly to emotional and social development.

More midlifers are addressing these tasks than ever before, now that the baby boomers have reached their forties, fifties, and sixties (see  page 12  in  Chapter 1  to review how baby boomers have reshaped the life course). Indeed, 45- to 54-year-olds are currently the largest age sector of the U.S. population, and they are healthier, better educated, and—despite the late-2000s recession—more financially secure than any previous midlife cohort (U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ; Whitbourne & Willis,  2006 ). As our discussion will reveal, they have brought increased self-confidence, social consciousness, and vitality—along with great developmental diversity—to this period of the lifespan.

A monumental survey called Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS), conducted in the mid-1990s, has contributed enormously to our understanding of midlife emotional and social development. Conceived by a team of researchers spanning diverse fields, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and medicine, the aim of MIDUS was to generate new knowledge on the challenges faced by middle-aged adults. Its nationally representative sample included over 7,000 U.S. 25- to 75-year-olds, enabling those in the middle years to be compared with younger and older individuals. Through telephone interviews and self-administered questionnaires, participants responded to over 1,100 items addressing wide-ranging psychological, health, and background factors, yielding unprecedented breadth of information in a single study (Brim, Ryff, & Kessler,  2005 ). The research endeavor also included “satellite” studies, in which subsamples of respondents were questioned in greater depth on key topics. And it has been extended longitudinally, with 75 percent of the sample recontacted at first follow-up, in the mid-2000s (Radler & Ryff,  2010 ).

MIDUS has greatly expanded our knowledge of the multidimensional and multidirectional nature of midlife change, and it promises to be a rich source of information about middle adulthood and beyond for many years to come. Hence, our discussion repeatedly draws on MIDUS, at times delving into its findings, at other times citing them alongside those of other investigations. Let’s turn now to Erikson’s theory and related research, to which MIDUS has contributed.

image4 Erikson’s Theory: Generativity versus Stagnation


Through his work with severely malnourished children in Niger, this nurse, affiliated with the Nobel Prize–winning organization Doctors Without Borders, integrates personal goals with a broader concern for society.

Erikson’s psychological conflict of midlife is called  generativity versus stagnation.  Generativity involves reaching out to others in ways that give to and guide the next generation. Recall from  Chapter 14  that generativity is under way in early adulthood through work, community service, and childbearing and child rearing. Generativity expands greatly in midlife, when adults focus more intently on extending commitments beyond oneself (identity) and one’s life partner (intimacy) to a larger group—family, community, or society. The generative adult combines the need for self-expression with the need for communion, integrating personal goals with the welfare of the larger social world (McAdams & Logan,  2004 ). The resulting strength is the capacity to care for others in a broader way than previously.

Erikson ( 1950 ) selected the term generativity to encompass everything generated that can outlive the self and ensure society’s continuity and improvement: children, ideas, products, works of art. Although parenting is a major means of realizing generativity, it is not the only means: Adults can be generative in other family relationships (as Jewel was with her nephew and niece), as mentors in the workplace, in volunteer endeavors, and through many forms of productivity and creativity.

Notice, from what we have said so far, that generativity brings together personal desires and cultural demands. On the personal side, middle-aged adults feel a need to be needed—to attain symbolic immortality by making a contribution that will survive their death (Kotre,  1999 ; McAdams, Hart, & Maruna,  1998 ). This desire may stem from a deep-seated evolutionary urge to protect and advance the next generation. On the cultural side, society imposes a social clock for generativity in midlife, requiring adults to take responsibility for the next generation through their roles as parents, teachers, mentors, leaders, and coordinators (McAdams & Logan,  2004 ). And according to Erikson, a culture’s “belief in the species”—the conviction that life is good and worthwhile, even in the face of human destructiveness and deprivation—is a major motivator of generative action. Without this optimistic worldview, people would have no hope of improving humanity.

The negative outcome of this stage is stagnation: Once people attain certain life goals, such as marriage, children, and career success, they may become self-centered and self-indulgent. Adults with a sense of stagnation express their self-absorption in many ways—through lack of interest in young people (including their own children), through a focus on what they can get from others rather than what they can give, and through taking little interest in being productive at work, developing their talents, or bettering the world in other ways.

Some researchers study generativity by asking people to rate themselves on generative characteristics, such as feelings of duty to help others in need or obligation to be an involved citizen. Others ask open-ended questions about life goals, major high points, and most satisfying activities, rating people’s responses for generative references. And still others look for generative themes in people’s narrative descriptions of themselves (Keyes & Ryff,  1998a  1998b ; McAdams,  2006  2011 ; Newton & Stewart,  2010 ; Rossi,  2001  2004 ). Whichever method is used, generativity tends to increase in midlife. For example, in longitudinal and cross-sectional studies of college-educated women, and in an investigation of middle-aged adults diverse in SES, self-rated generativity rose throughout middle adulthood (see  Figure 16.1 ). At the same time, participants expressed greater concern about aging, increased security with their identities, and a stronger sense of competence (Miner-Rubino, Winter, & Stewart,  2004 ; Stewart, Ostrove, & Helson,  2001 ; Zucker, Ostrove, & Stewart,  2002 ). As the Social Issues: Health box on  page 534  illustrates, generativity is also a major unifying theme in middle-aged adults’ life stories.


FIGURE 16.1 Age-related changes in self-rated generativity, concern about aging, identity security, and sense of competence.

In a longitudinal study of over 300 college-educated women, self-rated generativity increased from the thirties to the fifties, as did concern about aging. The rise in generativity was accompanied by other indicators of psychological health—greater security with one’s identity and sense of competence.

(Adapted from Stewart, Ostrove, & Helson, 2001.)

Just as Erikson’s theory suggests, highly generative people appear especially well-adjusted—low in anxiety and depression; high in autonomy, self-acceptance, and life satisfaction; and more likely to have successful marriages and close friends (Ackerman, Zuroff, & Moskowitz,  2000 ; An & Cooney,  2006 ; Grossbaum & Bates,  2002 ; Westermeyer,  2004 ). They are also more open to differing viewpoints, possess leadership qualities, desire more from work than financial rewards, and care greatly about the welfare of their children, their partner, their aging parents, and the wider society (Peterson,  2002 ; Peterson, Smirles, & Wentworth,  1997 ). Furthermore, generativity is associated with more effective child rearing—higher valuing of trust, open communication, transmission of generative values to children, and an authoritative style (Peterson,  2006 ; Peterson & Duncan,  2007 ; Pratt et al.,  2008 ). Generative midlifers are also more involved in political activities, including voting, campaigning, and contacting public officials (Cole & Stewart,  1996 ).

Although these findings characterize adults of all backgrounds, individual differences in contexts for generativity exist. Having children seems to foster generative development in both men and women. In several studies, including the MIDUS survey, fathers scored higher in generativity than childless men (Marks, Bumpass, & Jun,  2004 ; McAdams & de St. Aubin,  1992 ; Snarey et al.,  1987 ). Similarly, in an investigation of well-educated women from ages 43 to 63, those with family commitments (with or without a career) expressed greater generative concerns than childless women who were solely focused on their careers (Newton & Stewart,  2010 ). Parenting seems to spur especially tender, caring attitudes toward succeeding generations.

For low-SES men with troubled pasts as sons, students, workers, and intimate partners, fatherhood can provide a context for highly generative, positive life change (Roy & Lucas,  2006 ). At times, these fathers express this generativity as a refusal to pass on their own history of suffering. As one former gang member, who earned an associate’s degree and struggled to keep his teenage sons off the streets, explained, “I came through the depths of hell to try to be a father. I let my sons know, ‘You’re never without a daddy, don’t you let anybody tell you that.’ I tell them that if me and your mother separate, I make sure that wherever I go, I build something for you to come to” ( p. 153 ).

Social Issues: Health Generative Adults Tell Their Life Stories

In research aimed at understanding how highly generative adults make sense of their lives, Dan McAdams and his colleagues interviewed two groups of midlifers: those who often behave generatively and those who seldom do. Participants were asked to relate their life stories, including a high point, a low point, a turning point, and important scenes from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (McAdams,  2006  2011 ; McAdams et al.,  2001 ). Analyses of story lines and themes revealed that adults high and low in generativity reconstruct their past and anticipate their future in strikingly different ways.

Narratives of highly generative people usually contained an orderly sequence of events that the researchers called a commitment story, in which adults give to others as a means of giving back to family, community, and society (McAdams,  2006 ). The generative storyteller typically describes an early special advantage (such as a good family or a talent), along with early awareness of the suffering of others. This clash between blessing and suffering motivates the person to view the self as “called,” or committed, to being good to others. In commitment stories, the theme of redemption is prominent. Highly generative adults frequently describe scenes in which extremely negative life events, involving frustration, failure, loss, or death, are redeemed, or made better, by good outcomes—personal renewal, improvement, and enlightenment.

Consider a story related by Diana, a 49-year-old fourth-grade teacher. Born in a small town to a minister and his wife, Diana was a favorite among the parishioners, who showered her with attention and love. When she was 8, however, her life hit its lowest point: As she looked on in horror, her younger brother ran into the street and was hit by a car; he died later that day. Afterward, Diana, sensing her father’s anguish, tried—unsuccessfully—to be the “son” he had lost. But the scene ends on an upbeat note, with Diana marrying a man who forged a warm bond with her father and who became accepted “as his own son.” One of Diana’s life goals was to improve her teaching, because “I’d like to give something back … to grow and help others grow” (McAdams et al.,  1997 , p. 689). Her interview overflowed with expressions of generative commitment.

Whereas highly generative adults tell stories in which bad scenes turn good, less generative adults relate stories with themes of contamination, in which good scenes turn bad. For example, a good first year of college turns sour when a professor grades unfairly. A young woman loses weight and looks good but can’t overcome her low self-esteem.

Why is generativity connected to life-story redemption events? First, some adults may view their generative activities as a way to redeem negative aspects of their lives. In a study of the life stories of ex-convicts who turned away from crime, many spoke of a strong desire to do good works as penance for their transgressions (Maruna,  2001 ; Maruna, LeBel, & Lanier,  2004 ). Second, generativity seems to entail the conviction that the imperfections of today can be transformed into a better tomorrow. Through guiding and giving to the next generation, mature adults increase the chances that the mistakes of the past will not happen again. Finally, interpreting one’s own life in terms of redemption offers hope that hard work will lead to future benefits—an expectation that may sustain generative efforts of all kinds, from rearing children to advancing communities and societies.

Life stories offer insight into how people imbue their lives with meaning and purpose. Adults high and low in generativity do not differ in the number of positive and negative events included in their narratives. Rather, they interpret those events differently. Commitment stories, filled with redemption, involve a way of thinking about the self that fosters a caring, compassionate approach to others (McAdams & Logan,  2004 ). Such stories help people realize that although their own personal story will someday end, other stories will follow, due in part to their own generative efforts.

The more redemptive events adults include in their life stories, the higher their self-esteem, life satisfaction, and certainty that the challenges of life are meaningful, manageable, and rewarding (Lilgendahl & McAdams,  2011 ; McAdams,  2001 ). Researchers still have much to learn about factors that lead people to view good as emerging from adversity.


Carlos Arredondo, who lost his older son in the Iraq War and his younger son to suicide, now travels the country, telling the story of how he overcame despair and committed himself to campaigning for peace in his sons’ memory. After the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, Arredondo, a spectator, leapt into action and rescued this gravely injured bystander.

Finally, compared with Caucasians, African Americans more often engage in certain types of generativity. They are more involved in religious groups and activities, offer more social support to members of their community, and are more likely to view themselves as role models and sources of wisdom for their children (Hart et al.,  2001 ). A life history of strong support from church and extended family may strengthen these generative values and actions. Among Caucasian Americans, religiosity and spirituality are also linked to greater generative activity (Dillon & Wink,  2004 ; Son & Wilson,  2011 ; Wink & Dillon,  2008 ). Highly generative middle-aged adults often indicate that as children and adolescents, they internalized moral values rooted in a religious tradition and sustained their commitment to those values, which provided lifelong encouragement for generative action (McAdams,  2006 ). Especially in individualistic societies, belonging to a religious community or believing in a higher being may help preserve generative commitments.

image8 Other Theories of Psychosocial Development in Midlife

Erikson’s broad sketch of psychosocial change in midlife has been extended by Levinson and Vaillant. Let’s revisit their theories, which were introduced in  Chapter 14 .

Levinson’s Seasons of Life

Return to  page 470  to review Levinson’s eras (seasons of life). His interviews with adults revealed that middle adulthood begins with a transition, during which people evaluate their success in meeting early adulthood goals. Realizing that from now on, more time will lie behind than ahead, they regard the remaining years as increasingly precious. Consequently, some make drastic revisions in their life structure: divorcing, remarrying, changing careers, or displaying enhanced creativity. Others make smaller changes in the context of marital and occupational stability.

· Whether these years bring a gust of wind or a storm, most people turn inward for a time, focusing on personally meaningful living (Neugarten,  1968b ). According to Levinson, to reassess and rebuild their life structure, middle-aged adults must confront four developmental tasks. Each requires the individual to reconcile two opposing tendencies within the self, attaining greater internal harmony.

· ● Young–old: The middle-age person must seek new ways of being both young and old. This means giving up certain youthful qualities, transforming others, and finding positive meaning in being older. Perhaps because of the double standard of aging (see  pages 516  517  in  Chapter 15 ), most middle-aged women express concern about appearing less attractive as they grow older (Rossi,  2005 ). But middle-aged men—particularly non-college-educated men, who often hold blue-collar jobs requiring physical strength and stamina—are also highly sensitive to physical aging. In one study, they were more concerned about physical changes than both college- and non-college-educated women, who exceeded college-educated men (Miner-Rubino, Winter, & Stewart,  2004 ).

Compared with previous midlife cohorts, U.S. baby boomers are especially interested in controlling physical changes—a desire that has helped energize a huge industry of anti-aging cosmetic products and medical procedures (Jones, Whitbourne, & Skultety,  2006 ; Lachman,  2004 ). And sustaining a youthful subjective age (feeling younger than one’s actual age) is more strongly related to self-esteem and psychological well-being among American than Western-European middle-aged and older adults (Westerhof & Barrett,  2005 ; Westerhof, Whitbourne, & Freeman,  2012 ). In the more individualistic U.S. context, a youthful self-image seems more important for viewing oneself as self-reliant and capable of planning for an active, fulfilling late adulthood.

· ● Destruction–creation: With greater awareness of mortality, the middle-aged person focuses on ways he or she has acted destructively. Past hurtful acts toward parents, intimate partners, children, friends, and co-workers are countered by a strong desire to participate in activities that advance human welfare and leave a legacy for future generations. The image of a legacy can be satisfied in many ways—through charitable gifts, creative products, volunteer service, or mentoring young people.

· ● Masculinity–femininity: The middle-aged person must create a better balance between masculine and feminine parts of the self. For men, this means greater acceptance of “feminine” traits of nurturance and caring, which enhance close relationships and compassionate exercise of authority in the workplace. For women, it generally means being more open to “masculine” characteristics of autonomy and assertiveness. Recall from  Chapter 8  that people who combine masculine and feminine traits have an androgynous gender identity. Later we will see that androgyny is associated with favorable personality traits and adjustment.

· ● Engagement–separateness: The middle-aged person must forge a better balance between engagement with the external world and separateness. For many men, and for women who have had successful careers, this may mean reducing concern with ambition and achievement and attending more fully to oneself. But women who have been devoted to child rearing or an unfulfilling job often feel compelled to move in the other direction (Levinson,  1996 ). At age 48, Elena left her position as a reporter for a small-town newspaper, pursued an advanced degree in creative writing, accepted a college teaching position, and began writing a novel. Tim, in contrast, recognized his overwhelming desire for a gratifying romantic partnership. By scaling back his own career, he realized he could grant Elena the time and space she needed to build a rewarding work life—and that doing so might deepen their attachment to each other.

People who flexibly modify their identities in response to age-related changes yet maintain a sense of self-continuity are more aware of their own thoughts and feelings and are higher in self-esteem and life satisfaction (Jones, Whitbourne, & Skultety,  2006 ; Sneed et al.,  2012 ). But adjusting one’s life structure to incorporate the effects of aging requires supportive social contexts. When poverty, unemployment, and lack of a respected place in society dominate the life course, energies are directed toward survival rather than realistically approaching age-related changes. And even adults whose jobs are secure and who live in pleasant neighborhoods may find that employment conditions restrict possibilities for growth by placing too much emphasis on productivity and profit and too little on the meaning of work. In her early forties, Trisha left a large law firm, where she felt constant pressure to bring in high-fee clients and received little acknowledgment of her efforts, for a small practice.

Opportunities for advancement ease the transition to middle adulthood. Yet these are far less available to women than to men. Individuals of both sexes in blue-collar jobs also have few possibilities for promotion. Consequently, they make whatever vocational adjustments they can—becoming active union members, shop stewards, or mentors of younger workers (Christensen & Larsen,  2008 ; Levinson,  1978 ). Many men find compensating rewards in moving to the senior generation of their families.

Vaillant’s Adaptation to Life

Whereas Levinson interviewed 35- to 45-year-olds, Vaillant ( 1977  2002 )—in his longitudinal research on well-educated men and women—followed participants past the half-century mark. Recall from  Chapter 14 how adults in their late fifties and sixties extend their generativity, becoming “keepers of meaning,” or guardians of their culture (see  page 471 ). Vaillant reported that the most-successful and best-adjusted entered a calmer, quieter time of life. “Passing the torch”—concern that the positive aspects of their culture survive—became a major preoccupation.

In societies around the world, older people are guardians of traditions, laws, and cultural values. This stabilizing force holds in check too-rapid change sparked by the questioning and challenging of adolescents and young adults. As people approach the end of middle age, they focus on longer-term, less-personal goals, such as the state of human relations in their society. And they become more philosophical, accepting the fact that not all problems can be solved in their lifetime.

Is There a Midlife Crisis?

Levinson ( 1978  1996 ) reported that most men and women in his samples experienced substantial inner turmoil during the transition to middle adulthood. Yet Vaillant ( 1977  2002 ) saw few examples of crisis but, rather, slow and steady change. These contrasting findings raise the question of how much personal upheaval actually accompanies entry to midlife. Are self-doubt and stress especially great during the forties, and do they prompt major restructuring of the personality, as the term  midlife crisis  implies?

Consider the reactions of Trisha, Devin, Jewel, Tim, and Elena to middle adulthood. Trisha and Devin moved easily into this period, whereas Jewel, Tim, and Elena engaged in greater questioning of their situations and sought alternative life paths. Clearly, wide individual differences exist in response to mid-life.  TAKE A MOMENT…  Now ask several individuals in their twenties and thirties whether they expect to encounter a midlife crisis between ages 40 and 50. You are likely to find that Americans often anticipate it, perhaps because of culturally induced apprehension of aging (Wethington, Kessler, & Pixley,  2004 ). Yet little evidence supports this view of middle age as a turbulent time.


Like many midlifers, elementary school teacher Jaime Malwitz modified his career in ways that resemble a turning point, not a crisis. He designed a scientist-in-residence program for elementary schools. Here he serves as a resident physicist, discussing a density experiment with a fifth grader.

When MIDUS participants were asked to describe “turning points” (major changes in the way they felt about an important aspect of their lives) that had occurred during the past five years, most of the ones reported concerned work. Women’s work-related turning points peaked in early adulthood, when many adjusted their work lives to accommodate marriage and childrearing (see  Chapter 14 ). The peak for men, in contrast, came at midlife, a time of increased career responsibility and advancement. Other common turning points in early and middle adulthood were positive: They involved fulfilling a dream and learning something good about oneself (Wethington, Kessler, & Pixley,  2004 ). Overall, turning points rarely resembled midlife crises. Even negative work-related turning points generally led to personal growth—for example, a layoff that sparked a positive career change or a shift in energy from career to personal life.

Asked directly if they had ever experienced something they would consider a midlife crisis, only one-fourth of the MIDUS respondents said yes. And they defined such events much more loosely than researchers do. Some reported a crisis well before age 40, others well after age 50. And most attributed it not to age but rather to challenging life events (Wethington,  2000 ). Consistent with this view, Elena had considered both a divorce and a new career long before she initiated these changes. In her thirties, she separated from her husband; later she reconciled with him and told him that she desired to return to school, which he firmly opposed. She put her own life on hold because of her daughter’s academic and emotional difficulties and her husband’s resistance.

Another way of exploring midlife questioning is to ask adults about life regrets—attractive opportunities for career or other life-changing activities they did not pursue or lifestyle changes they did not make. In two investigations of women in their early forties, those who acknowledged regret without making life changes, compared to those who modified their lives, reported less favorable psychological well-being and poorer physical health over time (Landman et al.,  1995 ; Stewart & Vandewater,  1999 ). The two groups did not differ in social or financial resources available to effect change. Rather, they differed in personality: Those who made changes were higher in confidence and assertiveness.

By late midlife, with less time ahead to make life changes, people’s interpretation of regrets plays a major role in their well-being. Mature, contented adults acknowledge a past characterized by some losses, have thought deeply about them, and feel stronger because of them. At the same time, they are able to disengage from them, investing in current, personally rewarding goals (King & Hicks,  2007 ). Among a sample of several hundred 60- to 65-year-olds diverse in SES, about half expressed at least one regret. Compared to those who had not resolved their disappointments, those who had come to terms with them (accepted and identified some eventual benefits) or had “put the best face on things” (identified benefits but still had some lingering regret) reported better physical health and greater life satisfaction (Torges, Stewart, & Miner-Rubino,  2005 ).

In sum, life evaluation is common during middle age. Most people make changes that are best described as turning points rather than drastic alterations of their lives. Those who cannot modify their life paths often look for the “silver lining” in life’s difficulties (King & Hicks,  2007 ; Wethington, Kessler, & Pixley,  2004 ). The few midlifers who are in crisis typically have had early adulthoods in which gender roles, family pressures, or low income and poverty severely limited their ability to fulfill personal needs and goals, at home or in the wider world.

Stage or Life Events Approach

That crisis and major restructuring in midlife are rare raises, once again, a question we considered in  Chapter 14 : Can adult psychosocial changes can be organized into stages, as Erikson’s, Levinson’s, and Vaillant’s theories indicate? A growing number of researchers believe the midadult transition is not stagelike (Freund & Ritter,  2009 ; McCrae & Costa,  2003 ; Srivastava et al.,  2003 ). Some regard it as simply an adaptation to normative life events, such as children growing up, reaching the crest of a career, and impending retirement.

Yet recall from earlier chapters that life events are no longer as age-graded as they were in the past. Their timing is so variable that they cannot be the sole cause of midlife change. Furthermore, in several studies, people were asked to trace their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and hopes during early and middle adulthood. Psychosocial change, in terms of personal disruption followed by reassessment, coincided with both family life cycle events and chronological age. For this reason, most experts regard adaptation during midlife as the combined result of growing older and social experiences (Lachman,  2004 ; Sneed, Whitbourne, & Culang,  2006 ).  TAKE A MOMENT…  Return to our discussion of generativity and the midlife transition on  page 533 , and notice how both factors are involved.

Finally, in describing their lives, the large majority of middle-aged people report troubling moments that prompt new understandings and goals. As we look closely at emotional and social development in middle adulthood, we will see that this period, like others, is characterized by both continuity and change. Debate persists over whether midlife psychosocial changes are stagelike. With this in mind, let’s turn to the diverse inner concerns and outer experiences that contribute to psychological well-being and decision making in midlife.


REVIEW What personal and cultural forces motivate generativity? Why does it increase and contribute vitally to favorable adjustment in midlife?

CONNECT How might the approach of many middle-aged adults to handling life regrets prevent the occurrence of midlife crises?

APPLY After years of experiencing little personal growth at work, 42-year-old Mel looked for a new job and received an attractive offer in another city. Although he felt torn between leaving close friends and pursuing a long-awaited career opportunity, after several weeks of soul searching, he took the new job. Was Mel’s dilemma a midlife crisis? Why or why not?

REFLECT Think of a middle-aged adult whom you admire. Describe the various ways that individual expresses generativity.

image10 Stability and Change in Self-Concept and Personality

Midlife changes in self-concept and personality reflect growing awareness of a finite lifespan, longer life experience, and generative concerns. Yet certain aspects of personality remain stable, revealing the persistence of individual differences established during earlier periods.

Possible Selves

On a business trip, Jewel found a spare afternoon to visit Trisha. Sitting in a coffee shop, the two women reminisced about the past and thought aloud about the future. “It’s been tough living on my own and building the business,” Jewel said. “What I hope for is to become better at my work, to be more community-oriented, and to stay healthy and available to my friends. Of course, I would rather not grow old alone, but if I don’t find that special person, I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that I’ll never have to face divorce or widowhood.”

Jewel is discussing  possible selves,  future-oriented representations of what one hopes to become and what one is afraid of becoming. Possible selves are the temporal dimension of self-concept—what the individual is striving for and attempting to avoid. To lifespan researchers, these hopes and fears are just as vital in explaining behavior as people’s views of their current characteristics. Indeed, possible selves may be an especially strong motivator of action in midlife, as adults attach increased meaning to time (Frazier & Hooker,  2006 ). As we age, we may rely less on social comparisons in judging our self-worth and more on temporal comparisons—how well we are doing in relation to what we had planned.

Throughout adulthood, the personality traits people assign to their current selves show considerable stability. A 30-year-old who says he is cooperative, competent, outgoing, or successful is likely to report a similar picture at a later age. But reports of possible selves change greatly. Adults in their early twenties mention many possible selves, and their visions are lofty and idealistic—being “perfectly happy,” “rich and famous,” “healthy throughout life,” and not being “down and out” or “a person who does nothing important.” With age, possible selves become fewer in number and more modest and concrete. Most middle-aged people no longer desire to be the best or the most successful. Instead, they are largely concerned with performance of roles and responsibilities already begun—“being competent at work,” “being a good husband and father,” “putting my children through the colleges of their choice,” “staying healthy,” and not being “a burden to my family” or “without enough money to meet my daily needs” (Bybee & Wells,  2003 ; Cross & Markus,  1991 ; Ryff,  1991 ).

What explains these shifts in possible selves? Because the future no longer holds limitless opportunities, adults preserve mental health by adjusting their hopes and fears. To stay motivated, they must maintain a sense of unachieved possibility, yet they must still manage to feel good about themselves and their lives despite disappointments (Lachman & Bertrand,  2002 ). For example, Jewel no longer desired to be an executive in a large company, as she had in her twenties. Instead, she wanted to grow in her current occupation. And although she feared loneliness in old age, she reminded herself that marriage can lead to equally negative outcomes, such as divorce and widowhood—possibilities that made not having attained an important interpersonal goal easier to bear.

Unlike current self-concept, which is constantly responsive to others’ feedback, possible selves (though influenced by others) can be defined and redefined by the individual, as needed. Consequently, they permit affirmation of the self, even when things are not going well (Bolkan & Hooker,  2012 ). Researchers believe that possible selves may be the key to continued well-being in adulthood, as people revise these future images to achieve a better match between desired and achieved goals. Many studies reveal that the self-esteem of middle-aged and older individuals equals or surpasses that of younger people, perhaps because of the protective role of possible selves (Robins & Trzesniewski,  2005 ).

Self-Acceptance, Autonomy, and Environmental Mastery

An evolving mix of competencies and experiences leads to changes in certain aspects of personality during middle adulthood. In  Chapter 15 , we noted that midlife brings gains in expertise and practical problem solving. Middle-aged adults also offer more complex, integrated descriptions of themselves than do younger and older individuals (Labouvie-Vief,  2003 ). Furthermore, midlife is typically a period in which the number of social roles peaks—spouse, parent, worker, and engaged community member. And status at work and in the community typically rises, as adults take advantage of opportunities for leadership and other complex responsibilities (Helson, Soto, & Cate,  2006 ).

· These changes in cognition and breadth of roles undoubtedly contribute to other gains in personal functioning. In research on adults ranging in age from the late teens into the seventies, and in cultures as distinct as the United States and Japan, three qualities increased from early to middle adulthood:

· ● Self-acceptance: More than young adults, middle-aged people acknowledged and accepted both their good and bad qualities and felt positively about themselves and life.

· ● Autonomy: Middle-aged adults saw themselves as less concerned about others’ expectations and evaluations and more concerned with following self-chosen standards.

· ● Environmental mastery: Middle-aged people saw themselves as capable of managing a complex array of tasks easily and effectively (Karasawa et al.,  2011 ; Ryff & Keyes,  1995 ).

As these findings indicate, midlife is generally a time of increased comfort with the self, independence, assertiveness, commitment to personal values, and life satisfaction (Helson, Jones, & Kwan,  2002 ; Keyes, Shmotkin, & Ryff,  2002 ; Stone et al.,  2010 ). Perhaps because of this rise in overall psychological well-being, middle age is sometimes referred to as “the prime of life.”

At the same time, factors contributing to psychological well-being differ substantially among cohorts, as self-reports gathered from 25- to 65-year-old MIDUS survey respondents reveal (Carr,  2004 ). Among women who were born during the baby-boom years or later, and who thus benefited from the women’s movement, balancing career with family predicted greater self-acceptance and environmental mastery. But also consider that women born before or during World War II who sacrificed career to focus on child rearing—expected of young mothers in the 1950s and 1960s—were similarly advantaged in self-acceptance. Likewise, men who were in step with prevailing social expectations scored higher in well-being. Baby-boom and younger men who modified their work schedules to make room for family responsibilities—who fit their cohort’s image of the “good father”—were more self-accepting. But older men who made this accommodation scored much lower in self-acceptance than those who focused on work and thus conformed to the “good provider” ideal of their times. (See the Biology and Environment box on  pages 540  541  for additional influences on midlife psychological well-being.)

Notions of happiness, however, vary among cultures. In comparisons of Japanese and Korean adults with same-age U.S. MIDUS participants, the Japanese and Koreans reported lower levels of psychological well-being, largely because they were less willing than the Americans to endorse individualistic traits, such as self-acceptance and autonomy, as characteristic of themselves (Karasawa et al.,  2011 ; Keyes & Ryff,  1998b ). Consistent with their collectivist orientation, Japanese and Koreans’ highest well-being scores were on positive relations with others. The Korean participants clarified that they viewed personal fulfillment as achieved through family, especially the success of children. Americans also regarded family relations as relevant to well-being but placed greater emphasis on their own traits and accomplishments than on their children’s.

Coping with Daily Stressors

In  Chapter 15 , we discussed the importance of stress management in preventing illness. It is also vital for psychological well-being. In a MIDUS satellite study in which more than 1,000 participants were interviewed on eight consecutive evenings, researchers found an early- to mid-adulthood plateau in frequency of daily stressors, followed by a decline as work and family responsibilities ease and leisure time increases (see  Figure 16.2 ) (Almeida & Horn,  2004 ). Women reported more frequent role overload (conflict among roles of employee, spouse, parent, and caregiver of an aging parent) and family-network and child-related stressors, men more work-related stressors, but both genders experienced all varieties. Compared with older people, young and midlife adults also perceived their stressors as more disruptive and unpleasant, perhaps because they often experienced several at once, and many involved financial risks and children.

But recall, also, from  Chapter 15  that midlife brings an increase in effective coping strategies. Middle-aged individuals are more likely to identify the positive side of difficult situations, postpone action to permit evaluation of alternatives, anticipate and plan ways to handle future discomforts, and use humor to express ideas and feelings without offending others (Diehl, Coyle, & Labouvie-Vief,  1996 ). Notice how these efforts flexibly draw on both problem-centered and emotion-centered strategies.


FIGURE 16.2 Age-related changes in daily stressors among men and women.

In a MIDUS satellite study, researchers interviewed more than 1,000 adults on eight consecutive evenings. Findings revealed an early- to mid-adulthood plateau, followed by a decline as work and family responsibilities ease and leisure time increases.

(From D. M. Almeida & M. C. Horn, 2004, “Is Daily Life More Stressful During Middle Adulthood?” in O. G. Brim, C. D. Ruff, and R. C. Kessler [Eds.], How Healthy Are We? A National Study of Well-Being at Midlife. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 438. Adapted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.)

Why might effective coping increase in middle adulthood? Other personality changes seem to support it. Complex, integrated, coherent self-descriptions—which increase in midlife, indicating an improved ability to blend strengths and weaknesses into an organized picture—predict a stronger sense of personal control over outcomes and good coping strategies (Hay & Diehl,  2010 ; Labouvie-Vief & Diehl,  2000 ). Midlife gains in emotional stability and confidence in handling life’s problems may also contribute (Roberts et al.,  2007 ; Roberts & Mroczek,  2008 ). These attributes predict work and relationship effectiveness—outcomes that reflect the sophisticated, flexible coping of middle age.

Gender Identity

In her forties and early fifties, Trisha appeared more assertive at work. She spoke out more freely at meetings and took a leadership role when a team of lawyers worked on an especially complex case. She was also more dominant in family relationships, expressing her opinions to her husband and son more readily than she had 10 or 15 years earlier. In contrast, Devin’s sense of empathy and caring became more apparent, and he was less assertive and more accommodating to Trisha’s wishes than before.

Many studies report an increase in “masculine” traits in women and “feminine” traits in men across middle age (Huyck,  1990 ; James et al.,  1995 ). Women become more confident, self-sufficient, and forceful, men more emotionally sensitive, caring, considerate, and dependent. These trends appear in cross-sectional and longitudinal research, in people varying in SES, and in diverse cultures—not just Western industrialized nations but also village societies such as the Maya of Guatemala, the Navajo of the United States, and the Druze of the Middle East (Fry,  1985 ; Gutmann,  1977 ; Turner,  1982 ). Consistent with Levinson’s theory, gender identity in midlife becomes more androgynous—a mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics.

Although the existence of these changes is well-accepted, explanations for them are controversial. A well-known evolutionary view,  parental imperative theory , holds that identification with traditional gender roles is maintained during the active parenting years to help ensure the survival of children. Men become more goal-oriented, while women emphasize nurturance (Gutmann & Huyck,  1994 ). After children reach adulthood, parents are free to express the “other-gender” side of their personalities.

Biology and environment What Factors Promote Psychological Well-Being in Midlife?


These yoga students express a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Maintaining an exercise regimen contributes greatly to midlife psychological well-being.

For Trisha and Devin, midlife brought contentment and high life satisfaction. But the road to happiness was rockier for Jewel, Tim, and Elena. What factors contribute to individual differences in psychological well-being at midlife? Consistent with the lifespan perspective, biological, psychological, and social forces are involved, and their effects are interwoven.

Good Health and Exercise

Good health affects energy and zest for life at any age. But during middle and late adulthood, taking steps to improve health and prevent disability becomes a better predictor of psychological well-being. Many studies confirm that engaging in regular exercise—walking, dancing, jogging, or swimming—is more strongly associated with self-rated health and a positive outlook in older than in younger adults (Bherer,  2012 ). Middle-aged people who maintain an exercise regimen are likely to perceive themselves as particularly active for their age and, therefore, to feel a special sense of accomplishment (Netz et al.,  2005 ). In addition, physical activity enhances self-efficacy and effective stress management (see  page 515 in  Chapter 15 ).

Sense of Control and Personal Life Investment

Middle-aged adults who report a high sense of control over events in various aspects of their lives—health, family, and work—also report more favorable psychological well-being. Sense of control contributes further to self-efficacy. It also predicts use of more effective coping strategies, including seeking of social support, and thereby helps sustain a positive outlook in the face of health, family, and work difficulties (Lachman, Neupert, & Agrigoroaei,  2011 ).

Personal life investment—firm commitment to goals and involvement in pursuit of those goals—also adds to mental health and life satisfaction (Staudinger & Bowen,  2010 ). According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a vital wellspring of happiness is flow—the psychological state of being so engrossed in a demanding, meaningful activity that one loses all sense of time and self-awareness. People describe flow as the height of enjoyment, even as an ecstatic state. The more people experience flow, the more they judge their lives to be gratifying (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi,  2009 ). Although flow is common in people engaged in creative endeavors, many others report it—students who love studying, employees who like their jobs, adults involved in challenging leisure pursuits, and parents and grandparents engaged in pleasurable learning activities with children. Flow depends on perseverance and skill at complex endeavors that offer potential for growth. These qualities are well-developed in middle adulthood.

Positive Social Relationships

Developing gratifying social ties is closely linked to midlife psychological well-being. In a survey of college alumni, those who preferred occupational prestige and high income to close friends were twice as likely as other respondents to describe themselves as “fairly” or “very” unhappy (Perkins,  1991 , as cited by Myers,  2000 ).

Supportive relationships, especially with friends and relatives, improve mental health by promoting positive emotions and protecting against stress (Fiori, Antonucci, & Cortina,  2006 ; Powdthavee,  2008 ). Enjoyable social ties can even strengthen the impact of an exercise regimen on well-being. Among an ethnically diverse sample of women using a private gym or an African Caribbean community center, exercising with likeminded companions contributed to their happiness and life satisfaction (Wray,  2007 ). The social side of going to the gym appeared especially important to minority women, who were less concerned with physical-appearance benefits than their Caucasian agemates.

A Good Marriage

Although friendships are important, a good marriage boosts psychological well-being even more. The role of marriage in mental health increases with age, becoming a powerful predictor by late midlife (Marks, Bumpass, & Jun,  2004 ; Marks & Greenfield,  2009 ).

Longitudinal studies tracking people as they move in and out of intimate relationships suggest that marriage actually brings about well-being. For example, when interviews with over 13,000 U.S. adults were repeated five years later, people who remained married reported greater happiness than those who remained single. Those who separated or divorced became less happy, reporting considerable depression (Marks & Lambert,  1998 ). Couples who married for the first time experienced a sharp increase in happiness, those who entered their second marriage a modest increase.

Although not everyone is better off married, the link between marriage and well-being is similar in many nations, suggesting that marriage changes people’s behavior in ways that make them better off (Diener et al.,  2000 ; Lansford et al.,  2005 ). Married partners monitor each other’s health and offer care in times of illness. They also earn and save more money than single people, and higher income is modestly linked to psychological well-being (Myers,  2000 ; Waite,  1999 ). Furthermore, sexual satisfaction predicts mental health, and married couples have more satisfying sex lives than singles (see  Chapter 13 ).

Mastery of Multiple Roles

Finally, success in handling multiple roles—spouse, parent, worker, community volunteer—is linked to psychological well-being. In the MIDUS survey, as role involvement increased, both men and women reported greater environmental mastery, more rewarding social relationships, heightened sense of purpose in life, and more positive emotion. Furthermore, adults who occupied multiple roles and who also reported high control (suggesting effective role management) scored especially high in well-being—an outcome that was stronger for less-educated adults (Ahrens & Ryff,  2006 ). Control over roles may be vital for individuals with lower educational attainment, whose role combinations may be particularly stressful and who have fewer economic resources.

Finally, among nonfamily roles, community volunteering in the latter part of midlife contributes uniquely to psychological well-being (Choi & Kim,  2011 ; Ryff et al.,  2012 ). It may do so by strengthening self-efficacy, generativity, and altruism.

But this biological account has been criticized. As we discussed in earlier chapters, parents need both warmth and assertiveness (in the form of firmness and consistency) to rear children effectively. And although children’s departure from the home is related to men’s openness to the “feminine” side of their personalities, the link to a rise in “masculine” traits among women is less apparent (Huyck,  1996  1998 ). In longitudinal research, college-educated women in the labor force became more independent by their early forties, regardless of whether they had children; those who were homemakers did not. Women attaining high status at work gained most in dominance, assertiveness, and outspokenness by their early fifties (Helson & Picano,  1990 ; Wink & Helson,  1993 ). Furthermore, cohort effects can contribute to this trend: In one study, middle-aged women of the baby-boom generation—who experienced new career opportunities as a result of the women’s movement—more often described themselves as having masculine and androgynous traits than did older women (Strough et al.,  2007 ).

Additional demands of midlife may prompt a more androgynous orientation. For example, among men, a need to enrich a marital relationship after children have departed, along with reduced chances for career advancement, may be involved in the awakening of emotionally sensitive traits. Compared with men, women are far more likely to face economic and social disadvantages. A greater number remain divorced, are widowed, and encounter discrimination in the workplace. Self-reliance and assertiveness are vital for coping with these circumstances.

In sum, androgyny in midlife results from a complex combination of social roles and life conditions. In  Chapter 8 , we noted that androgyny predicts high self-esteem. In adulthood, it is also associated with cognitive flexibility, creativity, advanced moral reasoning, and psychosocial maturity (Prager & Bailey,  1985 ; Runco, Cramond, & Pagnani,  2010 ; Waterman & Whitbourne,  1982 ). People who integrate the masculine and feminine sides of their personalities tend to be psychologically healthier, perhaps because they are able to adapt more easily to the challenges of aging.


In middle age, gender identity becomes more androgynous for both sexes. Men tend to show an increase in “feminine” traits, becoming more emotionally sensitive, caring, considerate, and dependent.

Individual Differences in Personality Traits

Although Trisha and Jewel both became more self-assured and assertive in midlife, in other respects they differed. Trisha had always been more organized and hard-working, Jewel more gregarious and fun-loving. Once, the two women traveled together. At the end of each day, Trisha was disappointed if she had not kept to a schedule and visited every tourist attraction. Jewel liked to “play it by ear”—wandering through streets and stopping to talk with shopkeepers and residents.

In previous sections, we considered personality changes common to many middle-aged adults, but stable individual differences also exist. Through factor analysis of self-report ratings, the hundreds of personality traits on which people differ have been reduced to five basic factors, often referred to as the  “big five” personality traits:  neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.  Table 16.1  provides a description of each. Notice that Trisha is high in conscientiousness, whereas Jewel is high in extroversion.

Longitudinal and cross-sectional studies of U.S. men and women reveal that agreeableness and conscientiousness increase from the teenage years through middle age, whereas neuroticism declines, and extroversion and openness to experience do not change or decrease slightly—changes that reflect “settling down” and greater maturity. Similar trends have been identified in more than fifty countries varying widely in cultural traditions, including Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and South Korea (McCrae & Costa,  2006 ; Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer,  2006 ; Schmitt et al.,  2007 ; Soto et al.,  2011 ; Srivastava et al.,  2003 ). The consistency of these cross-cultural findings has led some researchers to conclude that adult personality change is genetically influenced. They note that individual differences in the “big five” traits are large and highly stable: A person who scores high or low at one age is likely to do the same at another, over intervals ranging from 3 to 30 years (McCrae & Costa,  2006 ).

TABlE 16.1 The “Big Five” Personality Traits

Neuroticism Individuals who are high on this trait are worrying, temperamental, self-pitying, self-conscious, emotional, and vulnerable.
Extroversion Individuals who are high on this trait are affectionate, talkative, active, fun-loving, and passionate. Individuals who are low are reserved, quiet, passive, sober, and emotionally unreactive.
Openness to experience Individuals who are high on this trait are imaginative, creative, original, curious, and liberal. Individuals who are low are down-to-earth, uncreative, conventional, uncurious, and conservative.
Agreeableness Individuals who are high on this trait are soft-hearted, trusting, generous, acquiescent, lenient, and good-natured. Individuals who are low are ruthless, suspicious, stingy, antagonistic, critical, and irritable.
Conscientiousness Individuals who are high on this trait are conscientious, hard-working, well-organized, punctual, ambitious, and persevering. Individuals who are low are negligent, lazy, disorganized, late, aimless, and nonpersistent.

Source: McCrae, 2011; McCrae & Costa, 2006.

How can there be high stability in personality traits, yet significant changes in aspects of personality discussed earlier? Studies of the “big five” traits include very large samples and typically do not examine the impact of a host of contextual factors—including life events, the social clock, and cultural values—that shape aspirations, goals, and expectations for appropriate behavior (Caspi & Roberts,  2001 ). Look closely at the traits in  Table 16.1 , and you will see that they differ from the attributes considered in previous sections: They do not take into account motivations, preferred tasks, and coping styles, nor do they consider how certain aspects of personality, such as masculinity and femininity, are integrated. Theorists concerned with change due to experience focus on how personal needs and life events induce new strategies and goals; their interest is in “the human being as a complex adaptive system” (Block,  1995  2011 , p. 19). In contrast, those who emphasize stability due to heredity measure personality traits on which individuals can easily be compared and that are present at any time of life.

To resolve this apparent contradiction, we can think of adults as changing in overall organization and integration of personality but doing so on a foundation of basic, enduring dispositions that support a coherent sense of self as people adapt to changing life circumstances. When more than 2,000 individuals in their forties were asked to reflect on their personalities during the previous six years, 52 percent said they had “stayed the same,” 39 percent said they had “changed a little,” and 9 percent said they had “changed a lot” (Herbst et al.,  2000 ). Again, these findings contradict a view of middle adulthood as a period of great turmoil and change. But they also underscore that personality remains an “open system,” responsive to the pressures of life experiences. Indeed, certain midlife personality changes may strengthen trait consistency! Improved self-understanding, self-acceptance, and skill at handling challenging situations may result in less need to modify basic personality dispositions over time.


REVIEW Summarize personality changes at midlife. How can these changes be reconciled with increasing stability of the “big five” personality traits?

CONNECT List cognitive gains that typically occur during middle adulthood. (See  Chapter 15  pages 518  519  and  524  525 .) How might they support midlife personality changes?

APPLY Jeff, age 46, suggested to his wife, Julia, that they set aside time once a year to discuss their relationship—both positive aspects and ways to improve. Julia was surprised because Jeff had never before expressed interest in working on their marriage. What midlife developments probably fostered this new concern?

REFLECT List your hoped-for and feared possible selves. Then ask family members in early and middle adulthood to do the same. Are their reports consistent with age-related research findings? Explain.

image14 Relationships at Midlife

The emotional and social changes of midlife take place within a complex web of family relationships and friendships and an intensified personal focus on generative concerns. Although some middle-aged people live alone, the vast majority—87 percent in the United States—live in families, most with a spouse (U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ). Partly because they have ties to older and younger generations in their families and partly because their friendships are well-established, people tend to have a larger number of close relationships during midlife than at any other period (Antonucci, Akiyama, & Takahashi,  2004 ).

The middle adulthood phase of the family life cycle is often referred to as “launching children and moving on.” In the past, it was called the “empty nest,” but this phrase implies a negative transition, especially for women who have devoted themselves entirely to their children and for whom the end of active parenting can trigger feelings of emptiness and regret. But for most people, middle adulthood is a liberating time, offering a sense of completion and opportunities to strengthen social ties and rekindle interests.

As our discussion in  Chapter 14  revealed, increasing numbers of young adults are living at home because of tight job markets and financial challenges, yielding launch–return–relaunch patterns for many middle-aged parents. Still, a declining birthrate and longer life expectancy mean that many contemporary parents do launch children a decade or more before retirement and then turn to other rewarding activities. As adult children depart and marry, middle-aged parents must adapt to new roles of parent-in-law and grandparent. At the same time, they must establish a different type of relationship with their aging parents, who may become ill or infirm and die.

Middle adulthood is marked by the greatest number of exits and entries of family members. Let’s see how ties within and beyond the family change during this time of life.

Marriage and Divorce

Although not all couples are financially comfortable, middle-aged households are well-off economically compared with other age groups. Americans between 45 and 54 have the highest average annual income. And the baby boomers—more of whom have earned college and postgraduate degrees and live in dual-earner families—are financially better off than previous midlife generations (Eggebeen & Sturgeon,  2006 ; U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ). Partly because of increased education and financial security, the contemporary social view of marriage in midlife is one of expansion and new horizons.

These forces strengthen the need to review and adjust the marital relationship. For Devin and Trisha, this shift was gradual. By middle age, their marriage had permitted satisfaction of family and individual needs, endured many changes, and culminated in deeper feelings of love. Elena’s marriage, in contrast, became more conflict-ridden as her teenage daughter’s problems introduced added strains and as departure of children made marital difficulties more obvious. Tim’s failed marriage revealed yet another pattern. With passing years, the number of problems declined, but so did the love expressed (Rokach, Cohen, & Dreman,  2004 ). As less happened in the relationship, good or bad, the couple had little to keep them together.

As the Biology and Environment box on  pages 540  541  revealed, marital satisfaction is a strong predictor of midlife psychological well-being. Middle-aged men who have focused only on career often realize the limited nature of their pursuits. At the same time, women may insist on a more gratifying relationship. And children fully engaged in adult roles remind middle-aged parents that they are in the latter part of their lives, prompting many to decide that the time for improving their marriages is now (Berman & Napier,  2000 ).


For many middle-aged couples, having forged a relationship that permits satisfaction of both family and individual needs results in deep feelings of love.

As in early adulthood, divorce is one way of resolving an unsatisfactory marriage in midlife. The divorce rate of U.S. 50-to 65-year-olds has doubled over the past two decades (Brown & Lin,  2012 ). Divorce at any age takes a heavy psychological toll, but midlifers seem to adapt more easily than younger people. A survey of more than 13,000 Americans revealed that following divorce, middle-aged men and women reported less decline in psychological well-being than their younger counterparts (Marks & Lambert,  1998 ). Midlife gains in practical problem solving and effective coping strategies may reduce the stressful impact of divorce.

Because the divorce rate is more than twice as great among remarried couples as among those in first marriages, about half of midlife divorces involve people who have had one or more previous unsuccessful marriages. Highly educated middle-aged adults are more likely to divorce, probably because their more comfortable economic circumstances make it easier to leave an unhappy marriage (Skaff,  2006 ). Nevertheless, for many women, marital breakup—especially when it is repeated—severely reduces standard of living (see  page 347  in  Chapter 10 ). For this reason, in midlife and earlier, it is a strong contributor to the  feminization of poverty —a trend in which women who support themselves or their families have become the majority of the adult population living in poverty, regardless of age and ethnic group. Because of weak public policies safeguarding families (see  Chapter 2 ), the gender gap in poverty is higher in the United States than in other Western industrialized nations (U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ).

What do recently divorced middle-aged people say about why their marriages ended? Women frequently mention communication problems, inequality in the relationship, adultery, gradual distancing, substance abuse, physical and verbal abuse, or their own desire for autonomy. Men also bring up poor communication and sometimes admit that their “workaholic” lifestyle or emotional inattentiveness played a major role in their marital failure. Women are more likely than men to initiate divorce, and those who do fare somewhat better in psychological well-being. Men who initiate a split often already have another romantic involvement to turn to (Rokach, Cohen, & Dreman,  2004 ; Sakraida,  2005 ; Schneller & Arditti,  2004 ).

Longitudinal evidence reveals that middle-aged women who weather divorce successfully tend to become more tolerant, comfortable with uncertainty, nonconforming, and self-reliant in personality—factors believed to be fostered by divorce-forced independence. And both men and women reevaluate what they consider important in a healthy relationship, placing greater weight on equal friendship and less on passionate love than they had the first time. As in earlier periods, divorce represents both a time of trauma and a time of growth (Baum, Rahav, & Sharon,  2005 ; Schneller & Arditti,  2004 ). Little is known about long-term adjustment following divorce among middle-aged men, perhaps because most enter new relationships and remarry within a short time.

Changing Parent–Child Relationships

Parents’ positive relationships with their grown children are the result of a gradual process of “letting go,” starting in childhood, gaining momentum in adolescence, and culminating in children’s independent living. As noted earlier, most parents “launch” adult children sometime in midlife. But because more people are delaying having children to their thirties and even forties (see  page 438  in  Chapter 13 ), the age at which midlifers experience their children’s departure varies widely. Most parents adjust well; only a minority have difficulty (Mitchell & Lovegreen,  2009 ). Investment in nonparental relationships and roles, children’s characteristics, parents’ marital and economic circumstances, and cultural forces affect the extent to which this transition is expansive and rewarding or sad and distressing.

After their son Mark secured a career-entry job and moved out of the family home permanently, Devin and Trisha felt a twinge of nostalgia combined with a sense of pride in their grown son’s maturity and success. Beyond this, they returned to rewarding careers and community participation and delighted in having more time for each other. Parents who have developed gratifying alternative activities typically welcome their children’s adult status (Mitchell & Lovegreen,  2009 ). A strong work orientation, especially, predicts gains in life satisfaction after children depart from the home (Silverberg,  1996 ).

Wide cultural variations exist in the social clock for children’s departure. Recall from  Chapter 13  that many young people from low-SES homes and with cultural traditions of extended-family living do not leave home early. In the Southern European countries of Greece, Italy, and Spain, parents often actively delay their children’s leaving. In Italy, for example, parents believe that moving out without a “justified” reason signifies that something is wrong in the family. Hence, many more Italian young adults reside with their parents until marriage than in other Western nations. At the same time, Italian adults grant their grown children extensive freedom within the parental home (Rusconi,  2004 ). Parent–adult-child relationships are usually positive, making living with parents attractive.

With the end of parent–child coresidence comes a substantial decline in parental authority. Devin and Trisha no longer knew of Mark’s daily comings and goings or expected him to inform them. Nevertheless, Mark telephoned at regular intervals to report on events in his life and seek advice about major decisions. Although the parental role changes, its continuation is important to middle-aged adults. Departure of children is a relatively minor event as long as parent–child contact and affection are sustained (Mitchell & Lovegreen,  2009 ). When it results in little or no communication, parents’ psychological well-being declines.

Whether or not they reside with parents, adolescent and young-adult children who are “off-time” in development—who deviate from parental expectations about how the path to adult responsibilities should unfold—can prompt parental strain (Pillemer & Suitor,  2002 ; Settersten,  2003 ). Consider Elena, whose daughter was doing poorly in her college courses and in danger of not graduating. The need for extensive parental guidance, at a time when she expected her daughter to be more responsible and independent, caused anxiety and unhappiness for Elena, who was ready to reduce time devoted to active parenting.

In one study, researchers asked a large sample of 40-to 60-year-old parents to report on their grown children’s problems and successes along with their own psychological well-being. Consistent with the familiar saying, “parents are only as happy as their least happy child,” having even one problematic child dampened parents’ well-being, but having a successful child did not have a compensating positive effect. The more grown children with problems, the poorer parents’ well-being. In contrast, it took multiple successful grown children to sway parents’ well-being in a favorable direction (Fingerman et al.,  2012a ). As with marriages, negative, conflict-ridden experiences with grown children are particularly salient, profoundly affecting midlife parents’ psychological states.

Throughout middle adulthood, parents continue to give more assistance to children than they receive, especially while children are unmarried or when they face difficulties, such as marital breakup or unemployment (Ploeg et al.,  2004 ; Zarit & Eggebeen,  2002 ). Support in Western countries typically flows “downstream”: Although ethnic variations exist, most middle-aged parents provide more financial, practical, emotional, and social support to their offspring than to their aging parents, unless a parent has an urgent need (declining health or other crises) (Fingerman & Birditt,  2011 ; Fingerman et al.,  2011a ). In explaining their generous support of adult children, parents usually mention the importance of the relationship. And providing adult children with assistance enhances midlife psychological well-being (Marks & Greenfield,  2009 ). Clearly, middle-aged adults remain invested in their adult children’s development and continue to reap deep personal rewards from the parental role.

When children marry, parents must adjust to an enlarged family network that includes in-laws. Difficulties occur when parents do not approve of their child’s partner or when the young couple adopts a way of life inconsistent with parents’ values. Parents who take steps to forge a positive tie with a future daughter- or son-in-law generally experience a closer relationship after the couple marries (Fingerman et al.,  2012b ). And when warm, supportive relationships endure, intimacy between parents and children increases over the adult years, with great benefits for parents’ life satisfaction (Ryff, Singer, & Seltzer,  2002 ). Members of the middle generation, especially mothers, usually take on the role of  kinkeeper, gathering the family for celebrations and making sure everyone stays in touch.

Parents of adult children expect a mature relationship, marked by tranquility and contentment. Yet many factors—on both the child’s and the parent’s side—affect whether that goal is achieved. Applying What We Know on  page 546  suggests ways middle-aged parents can increase the chances that bonds with adult children will be loving and rewarding and serve as contexts for personal growth.


Two years after Mark married, Devin and Trisha were thrilled to learn that a granddaughter was on the way. Although the stereotypical image of grandparents as elderly persists, today the average age of becoming a grandparent is 50 years for American women, 52 for American men (Legacy Project,  2012 ). A longer life expectancy means that many adults will spend one-third or more of their lifespan in the grandparent role.

Meanings of Grandparenthood.

Middle-aged adults typically rate grandparenthood as highly important, following closely behind the roles of parent and spouse but ahead of worker, son or daughter, and sibling (Reitzes & Mutran,  2002 ). Why did Trisha and Devin, like many others their age, greet the announcement of a grandchild with such enthusiasm? Most people experience grandparenthood as a significant milestone, mentioning one or more of the following gratifications:

· ● Valued elder—being perceived as a wise, helpful person

· ● Immortality through descendants—leaving behind not just one but two generations after death

· ● Reinvolvement with personal past—being able to pass family history and values to a new generation

· ● Indulgence—having fun with children without major child-rearing responsibilities (AARP,  2002 ; Hebblethwaite & Norris,  2011 )

Applying What We Know Ways Middle-Aged Parents Can Promote Positive Ties with Their Adult Children

Suggestion Description
Emphasize positive communication. Let adult children and their intimate partners know of your respect, support, and interest. This not only communicates affection but also permits conflict to be handled in a constructive context.
Avoid unnecessary comments that are a holdover from childhood. Adult children, like younger children, appreciate an age-appropriate relationship. Comments that have to do with safety, eating, and self-care (“Be careful on the freeway,” “Don’t eat those foods,” “Make sure you wear a sweater—it’s cold out today”) annoy adult children and can stifle communication.
Accept the possibility that some cultural values and practices and aspects of lifestyle will be modified in the next generation. In constructing a personal identity, most adult children have gone through a process of evaluating the meaning of cultural values and practices for their own lives. Traditions and lifestyles cannot be imposed on adult children.
When an adult child encounters difficulties, resist the urge to “fix” things. Accept the fact that no meaningful change can take place without the willing cooperation of the adult child. Stepping in and taking over communicates a lack of confidence and respect. Find out whether the adult child wants your help, advice, and decision-making skills.
Be clear about your own needs and preferences. When it is difficult to arrange for a visit, babysit, or provide other assistance, say so and negotiate a reasonable compromise rather than letting resentment build.

Grandparent–Grandchild Relationships.

Grandparents’ styles of relating to grandchildren vary as widely as the meanings they derive from their new role. The grandparent’s and grandchild’s age and sex make a difference. When their granddaughter was young, Trisha and Devin enjoyed an affectionate, playful relationship with her. As she got older, she looked to them for information and advice in addition to warmth and caring. By the time their granddaughter reached adolescence, Trisha and Devin had become role models, family historians, and conveyers of social, vocational, and religious values.

Living nearby is the strongest predictor of frequent, face-to-face interaction with young grandchildren. Despite high family mobility in Western industrialized nations, most grandparents live close enough to at least one grandchild to enable regular visits. But because time and resources are limited, number of “grandchild sets” (households with grandchildren) reduces grandparent visits (Uhlenberg & Hammill,  1998 ). A strong desire to affect the development of grandchildren can motivate grandparents’ involvement. As grandchildren get older, distance becomes less influential and relationship quality more so: The extent to which adolescent or young-adult grandchildren believe their grandparent values contact is a good predictor of a close bond (Brussoni & Boon,  1998 ).


Many grandparents derive great joy from an affectionate, playful relationship with young grandchildren. As this grandchild gets older, he may look to his grandfather for advice, as a role model, and for family history in addition to warmth and caring.


As  Figure 16.3  shows, maternal grandmothers report more frequent visits with grandchildren than do paternal grandmothers, who are slightly advantaged over both maternal and paternal grandfathers (Uhlenberg & Hammill,  1998 ). Typically, relationships are closer between grandparents and grandchildren of the same sex and, especially, between maternal grandmothers and granddaughters—a pattern found in many countries (Brown & Rodin,  2004 ). Grandmothers also report higher satisfaction with the grandparent role than grandfathers, perhaps because grandmothers are more likely to participate in recreational, religious, and family activities with grandchildren (Reitzes & Mutran,  2004 ; Silverstein & Marenco,  2001 ). The grandparent role may be a vital means through which women satisfy their kinkeeping function.

SES and ethnicity also influence grandparent–grandchild ties. In higher-income families, where the grandparent role is not central to family maintenance and survival, it is fairly unstructured and takes many forms. In low-income families, by contrast, grandparents often perform essential activities. For example, many single parents live with their families of origin and depend on grandparents’ financial and caregiving assistance to reduce the impact of poverty. Compared with grandchildren in intact families, grandchildren in single-parent and stepparent families report engaging in more diverse, higher-quality activities with their grandparents (Kennedy & Kennedy,  1993 ). As children experience the stress of family transition, bonds with grandparents take on increasing importance.


FIGURE 16.3 Influence of grandparent sex and lineage on frequent visiting of grandchildren.

When a nationally representative sample of 4,600 U.S. grandparents were asked how often they visited a particular set of grandchildren, maternal grandmothers were especially likely to report visiting frequently (at least once a week). Paternal grandmothers slightly exceeded both maternal and paternal grandfathers.

(From P. Uhlenberg & B. G. Hammill, 1998, “Frequency of Grandparent Contact with Grandchild Sets: Six Factors That Make a Difference,” Gerontologist, 38, p. 281. Copyright © 1998 The Gerontological Society of America. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press and Peter Uhlenberg.)

In some cultures, grandparents are absorbed into an extended-family household and become actively involved in child rearing. When a Chinese, Korean, or Mexican-American maternal grandmother is a homemaker, she is the preferred caregiver while parents of young children are at work (Kamo,  1998 ; Williams & Torrez,  1998 ). Similarly, involvement in child care is high among Native-American grandparents. In the absence of a biological grandparent, an unrelated aging adult may be integrated into the family to serve as a mentor and disciplinarian for children (Werner,  1991 ). (See  Chapter 2  page 66 , for a description of the grandmother’s role in the African-American extended family.)

Increasingly, grandparents have stepped in as primary caregivers in the face of serious family problems. As the Social Issues: Health box on  page 548  reveals, a rising number of American children live apart from their parents in grandparent-headed households. Despite their willingness to help and their competence at child rearing, grandparents who take full responsibility for young children experience considerable emotional and financial strain. They need more assistance from community and government agencies than is currently available.

Because parents usually serve as gatekeepers of grandparents’ contact with grandchildren, relationships between grandparents and their daughter-in-law or son-in-law strongly affect the closeness of grandparent–grandchild ties. A positive bond with a daughter-in-law seems particularly important in the relationship between grandparents and their son’s children (Fingerman,  2004 ). And after a marital breakup, grandparents who are related to the custodial parent (typically the mother) have more frequent contact with grandchildren.

When family relationships are positive, grandparenthood provides an important means of fulfilling personal and societal needs in midlife and beyond. Typically, grandparents are a frequent source of pleasure, support, and knowledge for children, adolescents, and young adults. They also provide the young with firsthand experience in how older people think and function. In return, grandchildren become deeply attached to grandparents and keep them abreast of social change. Clearly, grand-parenthood is a vital context for sharing between generations.

Middle-Aged Children and Their Aging Parents

The percentage of middle-aged Americans with living parents has risen dramatically—from 10 percent in 1900 to over 50 percent in the first decade of the twenty-first century (U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ). A longer life expectancy means that adult children and their parents are increasingly likely to grow old together. What are middle-aged children’s relationships with their aging parents like? And how does life change for adult children when an aging parent’s health declines?

Frequency and Quality of Contact.

A widespread myth is that adults of past generations were more devoted to their aging parents than are today’s adults. Although adult children spend less time in physical proximity to their parents, the reason is not neglect or isolation. Because of a desire to be independent, made possible by gains in health and financial security, fewer aging adults live with younger generations now than in the past. Nevertheless, approximately two-thirds of older adults in the United States live close to at least one of their children, and frequency of contact is high through both visits and telephone calls (U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ). Proximity increases with age: Aging adults who move usually do so in the direction of kin, and younger people tend to move in the direction of their aging parents.

Middle age is a time when adults reassess relationships with their parents, just as they rethink other close ties. Many adult children become more appreciative of their parents’ strengths and generosity and mention positive changes in the quality of the relationship, even after parents show physical declines. A warm, enjoyable relationship contributes to both parent and adult-child well-being (Fingerman et al.,  2007  2008 ; Pudrovska,  2009 ). Trisha, for example, felt closer to her parents and often asked them to tell her more about their earlier lives.

Social Issues: Health Grandparents Rearing Grandchildren: The Skipped-Generation Family


A custodial grandmother helps her 8-year-old granddaughter with homework. Although grandparents usually assume the parenting role under highly stressful circumstances, most find compensating rewards in rearing grandchildren.

Nearly 2.4 million U.S. children—4 to 5 percent of the child population—live with grandparents but apart from parents, in  skipped-generation families  (U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ). The number of grandparents rearing grandchildren has increased over the past two decades. The arrangement occurs in all ethnic groups, though more often in African-American, Hispanic, and Native-American families than in Caucasian families. Although grandparent caregivers are more likely to be women than men, many grandfathers participate (Fuller-Thomson & Minkler,  2005  2007 ; Minkler & Fuller-Thomson,  2005 ). Grandparents generally step in when parents’ troubled lives—as a result of substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, family violence, or physical or mental illness—threaten children’s well-being (Langosch,  2012 ). Often these families take in two or more children.

As a result, grandparents usually assume the parenting role under highly stressful life circumstances. Unfavorable child-rearing experiences have left their mark on the children, who show high rates of learning difficulties, depression, and antisocial behavior. Absent parents’ adjustment difficulties strain family relationships. Parents may interfere by violating the grandparents’ behavioral limits, taking grandchildren away without permission, or making promises to children that they do not keep. These youngsters also introduce financial burdens into households that often are already low-income (Mills, Gomez-Smith, & De Leon,  2005 ; Williamson, Softas-Nall, & Miller,  2003 ). All these factors heighten grandparents’ emotional distress.

Grandparents struggle with daily dilemmas—wanting to be grandparents, not parents; wanting the parent to be present in the child’s life but fearing for the child’s well-being if the parent returns and does not provide good care (Templeton,  2011 ). And grandparent caregivers, at a time when they anticipated having more time for spouses, friends, and leisure, instead have less. Many report feeling emotionally drained, depressed, and worried about what will happen to the children if their own health fails (Hayslip & Kaminski,  2005 ; Langosch,  2012 ). Some families are extremely burdened. Native-American care-giving grandparents are especially likely to be unemployed, to have a disability, to be caring for several grandchildren, and to be living in extreme poverty (Fuller-Thomson & Minkler,  2005 ).

Despite great hardship, these grandparents seem to realize their widespread image as “silent saviors,” often forging close emotional bonds with their grandchildren and using effective child-rearing practices (Fuller-Thomson & Minkler,  2000 ; Gibson,  2005 ). Compared with children in divorced, single-parent families, blended families, or foster families, children reared by grandparents fare better in adjustment (Rubin et al.,  2008 ; Solomon & Marx,  1995 ).

Skipped-generation families have a tremendous need for social and financial support and intervention services for troubled children. Custodial grandparents describe support groups—both for themselves and for their grandchildren—as especially helpful, yet only a minority make use of such interventions (Smith, Rodriguez, & Palmieri,  2010 ). This suggests that grandparents need special help in finding out about and accessing support services.

Although their everyday lives are often stressful, caregiving grandparents—even those rearing children with serious problems—report as much fulfillment in the grandparent role as typical grandparents do (Hayslip et al.,  2002 ). The warmer the grandparent–grandchild bond, the greater grandparents’ long-term life satisfaction (Goodman,  2012 ). Many grandparents mention joy from sharing children’s lives and feelings of pride at children’s progress, which help compensate for difficult circumstances. And some grandparents view the rearing of grandchildren as a “second chance”—an opportunity to make up for earlier, unfavorable parenting experiences and “do it right” (Dolbin-MacNab,  2006 ).

Research indicates that middle-aged daughters forge closer, more supportive relationships with aging parents, especially mothers, than do middle-aged sons (Fingerman,  2003 ). But this gender difference may be declining. Sons report closer ties and greater assistance to aging parents in recent than in previous studies (Fingerman et al.,  2007  2008 ). Changing gender roles are likely responsible. Because the majority of contemporary middle-aged women are employed, they face many competing demands on their time and energy. Consequently, men are becoming more involved in family responsibilities, including with aging parents (Fingerman & Birditt,  2011 ). Despite this shift, women’s investment continues to exceed men’s.


In midlife, many adults develop warmer, more supportive relationships with their aging parents. At a birthday party for her mother, this daughter expresses love and appreciation for her mother’s strengths and generosity.

In collectivist cultures, older adults most often live with their married children. For example, traditionally, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean seniors moved in with a son and his wife and children; today, many live with a daughter and her family, too. This tradition of coresidence, however, is declining in some parts of Asia and in the United States, as more Asian and Asian-American aging adults choose to live on their own (Davey & Takagi,  2013 ; Zhan & Montgomery,  2003 ; Zhang,  2004 ). In African-American and Hispanic families as well, coresidence is common. Regardless of whether coresidence and daily contact are typical, relationship quality usually reflects patterns established earlier: Positive parent–child ties generally remain so, as do conflict-ridden interactions.

Help exchanged between adult children and their aging parents is responsive to past and current family circumstances. The more positive the history of the parent–child tie, the more help given and received. Also, aging parents give more help to unmarried adult children and to those with disabilities. Similarly, adult children give more to elderly parents who are widowed or in poor health—usually emotional support and practical help, less often financial assistance. At the same time, middle-aged parents do what they can to maximize the overall quantity of help offered, as needed: While continuing to provide generous assistance to their children because of the priority placed on the parent–child tie (see  page 545 ), middle-aged adults augment the aid they give to elderly parents as parental health problems increase (Kunemund, Motel-Klingebiel, & Kohli,  2005 ; Stephens et al.,  2009 ).

Even when parent–child relationships have been emotionally distant, adult children offer more support as parents age, out of a sense of altruism and family duty (Silverstein et al.,  2002 ). And although the baby-boom generation is often described as self-absorbed, baby-boom midlifers actually express a stronger commitment to caring for their aging parents than the preceding middle-aged generation (Gans & Silverstein,  2006 ).

In sum, as long as multiple roles are manageable and the experiences within each are high in quality, midlife intergenerational assistance as family members (aging parents) have increased needs is best characterized as resource expansion rather than as merely conflicting demands that inevitably drain energy and detract from psychological well-being (Grundy & Henretta,  2006 ; Stephens et al.,  2009 ). Recall from the Biology and Environment box on  pages 540  541  that midlifers derive great personal benefits from successfully managing multiple roles. Their enhanced self-esteem, mastery, and sense of meaning and purpose expand their motivation and energy to handle added family-role demands, from which they reap additional personal rewards.

Caring for Aging Parents.

About 25 percent of U.S. adult children provide unpaid care to an aging adult (MetLife,  2011 ). The burden of caring for aging parents can be great. In  Chapter 2 , we noted that as birthrates have declined, the family structure has become increasingly “top-heavy,” with more generations alive but fewer younger members. Consequently, more than one older family member is likely to need assistance, with fewer younger adults available to provide it.

The term  sandwich generation  is widely used to refer to the idea that middle-aged adults must care for multiple generations above and below them at the same time (Riley & Bowen,  2005 ). Although only a minority of contemporary middle-aged adults who care for aging parents have children younger than age 18 at home, many are providing assistance to young-adult children and to grandchildren—obligations that, when combined with work and community responsibilities, can lead middle-aged caregivers to feel “sandwiched,” or squeezed, between the pressures of older and younger generations. As more baby boomers move into late adulthood and as their adult children continue to delay childbearing, the number of midlifers who are working, rearing young children, and caring for aging parents will increase.

Middle-aged adults living far from aging parents who are in poor health often substitute financial help for direct care, if they have the means. But when parents live nearby and have no spouse to meet their needs, adult children usually engage in direct care. Regardless of family income level, African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic adults give aging parents more direct care and financial help than Caucasian-American adults do (Shuey & Hardy,  2003 ). Compared with their white counterparts, African Americans and Hispanics express a stronger sense of obligation, and find it more personally rewarding, to support their aging parents (Fingerman et al.,  2011b ; Swartz,  2009 ). And African Americans often draw on close, family-like relationships with friends and neighbors for caregiving assistance.

In all ethnic groups, responsibility for providing care to aging parents falls more on daughters than on sons. Why are women usually the principal caregivers? Families turn to the person who seems most available—living nearby and with fewer commitments that might interfere with the ability to assist. These unstated rules, in addition to parents’ preference for same-sex caregivers (aging mothers live longer), lead more women to fill the role (see  Figure 16.4 ). Daughters also feel more obligated than sons to care for aging parents (Gans & Silverstein,  2006 ; Stein,  2009 ). And although couples strive to be fair to both sides of the family, they tend to provide more direct care for the wife’s parents. This bias, however, is weaker in ethnic minority families and is nonexistent in Asian nations where cultural norms specify that daughters-in-law provide care to their husband’s parents (Shuey & Hardy,  2003 ; Zhan & Montgomery,  2003 ).


Caring for an aging parent with a chronic illness or disability is highly stressful. But social support reduces physical and emotional strain, enabling adult children to find satisfactions and rewards in tending to parents’ needs.

As  Figure 16.4  shows, nearly one-fourth of American working women are caregivers; others quit their jobs to provide care. And the time they devote to caring for a disabled aging parent is substantial, averaging 10 to 20 hours per week (Metlife,  2011 ; Takamura & Williams,  2004 ). Nevertheless, men—although doing less than women—do contribute. In one investigation, employed men spent an average of 7½ hours per week caring for parents or parents-in-law (Neal & Hammer,  2007 ). Tim, for example, looked in on his father, a recent stroke victim, every evening, reading to him, running errands, making household repairs, and taking care of finances. His sister, however, provided more hands-on care—cooking, feeding, bathing, managing medication, and doing laundry. The care sons and daughters provide tends to be divided along gender-role lines. About 10 percent of the time—generally when no other family member can do so—sons become primary caregivers, heavily involved in basic-care tasks (Harris,  1998 ; Pinquart & Sörensen,  2006 ).

As adults move from early to later middle age, the sex difference in parental caregiving declines. Perhaps as men reduce their vocational commitments and feel less need to conform to a “masculine” gender role, they grow more able and willing to provide basic care (Marks,  1996 ; MetLife,  2011 ). At the same time, parental caregiving may contribute to men’s greater openness to the “feminine” side of their personalities. A man who cared for his mother, severely impaired by Alzheimer’s disease, commented on how the experience altered his outlook: “It was so difficult to do these tasks; things a man, a son, is not supposed to do. I have definitely modified my views on conventional expectations” (Hirsch,  1996 , p. 112).

Although most adult children help willingly, caring for a chronically ill or disabled parent is highly stressful. Over time, the parent usually gets worse, and the caregiving task escalates. As Tim explained to Devin and Trisha, “One of the hardest aspects is the emotional strain of seeing my father’s physical and mental decline up close.”

Caregivers who share a household with ill parents—about 23 percent of U.S. adult children—experience the most stress. When a parent and child who have lived separately for years must move in together, conflicts generally arise over routines and lifestyles. But the greatest source of stress is problem behavior, especially for caregivers of parents who have deteriorated mentally (Alzheimer’s Association,  2012b ). Tim’s sister reported that their father would wake during the night, ask repetitive questions, follow her around the house, and become agitated and combative.


FIGURE 16.4 Baby boomers, by work status and gender, who provide basic personal care to an aging parent in poor health.

A survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,100 U.S. men and women over age 50 with at least one parent living revealed that more nonworking than working adults engaged in basic personal care (assistance with such activities as dressing, feeding, and bathing). Regardless of work status, many more women than men were caregivers.

(Adapted from The MetLife Study of Caregiving Costs to Working Caregivers: Double Jeopardy for Baby Boomers Caring for Their Parents, June 2011, Figure 3. Reprinted by permission of The MetLife Mature Market Institute, New York, NY.)

Applying What We Know Relieving the Stress of Caring for an Aging Parent

Strategy Description
Use effective coping strategies. Use problem-centered coping to manage the parent’s behavior and caregiving tasks. Delegate responsibilities to other family members, seek assistance from friends and neighbors, and recognize the parent’s limits while calling on capacities the parent does have. Use emotion-centered coping to reinterpret the situation in a positive way, such as emphasizing the opportunity it offers for personal growth and for giving to parents in the last years of their lives. Avoid denial of anger, depression, and anxiety in response to the caregiving burden, which heightens stress.
Seek social support. Confide in family members and friends about the stress of caregiving, seeking their encouragement and help. So far as possible, avoid quitting work to care for an ill parent; doing so is associated with social isolation and loss of financial resources.
Make use of community resources. Contact community organizations to seek information and assistance, in the form of caregiver support groups, in-home respite help, home-delivered meals, transportation, and adult day care.
Press for workplace and public policies that relieve the emotional and financial burdens of caring for an aging parent. Encourage your employer to provide care benefits, such as flexible work hours and employment leave for caregiving. Communicate with lawmakers and other citizens about the need for additional government funding to help pay for caregiving. Emphasize the need for improved health insurance plans that reduce the financial strain of caring for an aging parent on middle- and low-income families.

Parental caregiving often has emotional, physical, and financial consequences. It leads to role overload, high job absenteeism, exhaustion, inability to concentrate, feelings of hostility, anxiety about aging, and high rates of depression, with women more profoundly affected than men (Neal & Hammer,  2007 ; Pinquart & Sörensen,  2006 ). Caregivers who must reduce their employment hours or leave the labor force to provide care (mostly women) face not just lost wages but also diminished retirement benefits. Despite having more time to care for an ill parent, women who quit work fare especially poorly in adjustment, probably because of social isolation and financial strain (Bookman & Kimbrel,  2011 ). Positive experiences at work can actually reduce the stress of parental care as caregivers bring a favorable self-evaluation and a positive mood home with them.

In cultures and subcultures where adult children feel an especially strong sense of obligation to care for aging parents, the emotional toll is also high (Knight & Sayegh,  2010 ). In research on Korean, Korean-American, and Caucasian-American caregivers of parents with mental disabilities, the Koreans and Korean Americans reported higher levels of family obligation and care burden—and also higher levels of anxiety and depression—than the Caucasian Americans (Lee & Farran,  2004 ; Youn et al.,  1999 ). And among African-American care-givers, women who strongly endorsed cultural reasons for providing care (“It’s what my people have always done”) fared less well in mental health two years later than women who moderately endorsed cultural reasons (Dilworth-Anderson, Goodwin, & Williams,  2004 ).

Social support is highly effective in reducing caregiver stress. Tim’s encouragement, assistance, and willingness to listen helped his sister cope with in-home care of their father so that she could find satisfactions in it. When caregiving becomes a team effort with multiple family members trading off, care-givers cope more effectively. Under these conditions, despite being demanding and stressful, it can enhance psychological well-being (Roberto & Jarrott,  2008 ). Adult children feel gratified at having helped and gain in self-understanding, problem solving, and sense of competence.


Ask a middle-aged adult caring for an aging parent in declining health to describe both the stressful and rewarding aspects of caregiving. What strategies does he or she use to reduce stress? To what extent does the caregiver share caregiving burdens with family members and enlist the support of community organizations?

In Denmark, Sweden, and Japan, a government-sponsored home helper system eases the burden of parental care by making specially trained nonfamily caregivers available, based on seniors’ needs (Saito, Auestad, & Waerness,  2010 ). In the United States, in-home care by a nonfamily caregiver is too costly for most families; only 10 to 20 percent arrange it (Family Caregiver Alliance,  2009 ). And unless they must, few people want to place their parents in formal care, such as nursing homes, which also are expensive. Applying What We Know above summarizes ways to relieve the stress of caring for an aging parent—at the individual, family, community, and societal levels. We will address additional care options, along with interventions for caregivers, in  Chapter 17 .


As Tim’s relationship with his sister reveals, siblings are ideally suited to provide social support. Nevertheless, a survey of a large sample of ethnically diverse Americans revealed that sibling contact and support decline from early to middle adulthood, rebounding only after age 70 for siblings living near each other (White,  2001 ). Decreased midlife contact is probably due to the demands of middle-aged adults’ diverse roles. However, most adult siblings report getting together or talking on the phone at least monthly (Antonucci, Akiyama, & Merline,  2002 ).

Despite reduced contact, many siblings feel closer in mid-life, often in response to major life events (Stewart et al.,  2001 ). Launching and marriage of children seem to prompt siblings to think more about each other. As Tim commented, “It helped our relationship when my sister’s children were out of the house and married. I’m sure she cared about me. I think she just didn’t have time!” When a parent becomes seriously ill, brothers and sisters who previously had little to do with one another may find themselves in touch about parental care. And when parents die, adult children realize they have become the oldest generation and must look to each other to sustain family ties.

Not all sibling bonds improve, of course. Recall Trisha’s negative encounters with her sister, Dottie (see  page 513  in  Chapter 15 ). Dottie’s difficult temperament had made her hard to get along with since childhood, and her temper flared when their father died and problems arose over family finances. Large inequities in division of labor in parental caregiving can also unleash intense sibling conflict (Silverstein & Giarrusso,  2010 ). As siblings grow older, good relationships often get better and poor relationships get worse.

As in early adulthood, sister–sister relationships are closer than sister–brother and brother–brother ties, a difference apparent in many industrialized nations (Cicirelli,  1995 ; Fowler,  2009 ). But a comparison of middle-aged men of the baby-boom generation with those of the preceding cohort revealed warmer, more expressive ties between baby-boom brothers (Bedford & Avioli,  2006 ). A contributing factor may be baby boomers’ more flexible gender-role attitudes.


These brothers, both in their fifties, express their mutual affection at a family reunion. Even when they have only limited contact, siblings often feel closer in midlife.

In industrialized nations, sibling relationships are voluntary. In village societies, they are generally involuntary and basic to family functioning. For example, among Asian Pacific Islanders, family social life is organized around strong brother–sister attachments. A brother–sister pair is often treated as a unit in exchange marriages with another family. After marriage, brothers are expected to protect sisters, and sisters serve as spiritual mentors to brothers. Families not only include biological siblings but bestow on other relatives, such as cousins, the status of brother or sister, creating an unusually large network of lifelong sibling support (Cicirelli,  1995 ). Cultural norms reduce sibling conflict, thereby ensuring family cooperation. In industrialized nations, promoting positive sibling ties in childhood is vital for warm sibling bonds in later years.


As family responsibilities declined in middle age, Devin found he had more time to spend with friends. On Friday afternoons, he met several male friends at a coffee house, and they chatted for a couple of hours. But most of Devin’s friendships were couple-based—relationships he shared with Trisha. Compared with Devin, Trisha more often got together with friends on her own.

Middle-aged friendships reflect the same trends discussed in  Chapter 14 . At all ages, men’s friendships are less intimate than women’s. Men tend to talk about sports, politics, and business, whereas women focus on feelings and life problems. Women report a greater number of close friends and say they both receive and provide their friends with more emotional support (Antonucci, Akiyama, & Takahashi,  2004 ).

Over the past decade, the average number of friendships rose among U.S. midlifers, perhaps because of ease of keeping in touch through social media (Wang & Wellman,  2010 ). Though falling short of young adults’ use, connecting regularly with friends through Facebook or other social networking sites has risen rapidly among middle-aged adults (see  Figure 16.5 ) (Brenner,  2013 ; Hampton et al.,  2011 ). As in early adulthood, women are more active users. And users have more offline close relationships, sometimes using Facebook to revive “dormant” friendships.

Still, for both sexes, number of friends declines from middle to late adulthood, probably because people become less willing to invest in nonfamily ties unless they are very rewarding. As selectivity of friendship increases, older adults try harder to get along with friends (Antonucci & Akiyama,  1995 ). Having chosen a friend, middle-aged people attach great value to the relationship and take extra steps to protect it.


Ask a middle-aged couple you know well to describe the number and quality of their friendships today compared with their friendships in early adulthood. Does their report match research findings? Explain.

By midlife, family relationships and friendships support different aspects of psychological well-being. Family ties protect against serious threats and losses, offering security within a long-term timeframe. In contrast, friendships serve as current sources of pleasure and satisfaction, with women benefiting somewhat more than men (Levitt & Cici-Gokaltun,  2011 ). As middle-aged couples renew their sense of companionship, they may combine the best of family and friendship.


FIGURE 16.5 Gains in use of social networking sites by age group from 2005 to 2012.

Repeated surveys of large representative samples of U.S. adults who use the Internet revealed that social networking site use increased substantially for all age groups. Though not as avid users as young adults, most middle-aged adults use social networking sites, primarily Facebook.

(From J. Brenner, 2013, “Pew Internet: Social Networking.” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Washington, D.C. February 14, 2013,  www.pewinternet.org . Adapted by permission.)


REVIEW How do age, sex, proximity, and culture affect grandparent–grandchild ties?

CONNECT Cite evidence that early family relationships affect middle-aged adults’ bonds with adult children, aging parents, and siblings.

APPLY Raylene and her brother Walter live in the same city as their aging mother, Elsie. When Elsie could no longer live independently, Raylene took primary responsibility for her care. What factors probably contributed to Raylene’s involvement in caregiving and Walter’s lesser role?

REFLECT Ask one of your parents for his or her view of how the parent–child relationship changed as you transitioned to new adult roles, such as college student, career-entry worker, married partner, or parent. Do you agree?

image24 Vocational Life

As we have seen, the midlife transition typically involves vocational adjustments. For Devin, it resulted in a move up the career ladder to a demanding administrative post as college dean. Trisha reoriented her career from a large to a small law firm, where she felt her efforts were appreciated. Recall from  Chapter 15  that after her oldest child left home, Anya earned a college degree and entered the work force for the first time. Jewel strengthened her commitment to an already successful business, while Elena changed careers. Finally, Tim reduced his career obligations as he prepared for retirement.

Work continues to be a salient aspect of identity and self-esteem in middle adulthood. More so than in earlier or later years, people attempt to increase the personal meaning and self-direction of their vocational lives. At the same time, certain aspects of job performance improve. Middle-aged employees have lower rates of absenteeism, turnover, and accidents. They are also more effective workplace citizens—more often helping colleagues and trying to improve group performance and less often complaining about trivial issues. And because of their greater knowledge and experience, their work productivity typically equals or exceeds that of younger workers (Ng & Feldman,  2008 ). Consequently, an older employee ought to be as valuable as a younger employee, and possibly more so.

The large tide of baby boomers currently moving through midlife and (as we will see in  Chapter 18 ) the desire of most to work longer than the previous generation means that the number of older workers will rise dramatically over the next few decades (Leonesio et al.,  2012 ). Yet a favorable transition from adult worker to older worker is hindered by negative stereotypes of aging—incorrect assumptions of limited learning capacity, slower decision making, and resistance to change and supervision (Posthuma & Campion,  2009 ). Furthermore, gender discrimination continues to restrict the career attainments of many women. Let’s take a close look at middle-aged work life.

Job Satisfaction

Job satisfaction has both psychological and economic significance. If people are dissatisfied at work, the consequences include absenteeism, turnover, grievances, and strikes, all of which are costly to employers.

Research shows that job satisfaction increases in midlife in diverse nations and at all occupational levels, from executives to hourly workers (see  Figure 16.6  on  page 554 ). The relationship is weaker for women than for men, probably because women’s reduced chances for advancement result in a sense of unfairness. It is also weaker for blue-collar than for white-collar workers, perhaps because blue-collar workers have less control over their own work schedules and activities (Avolio & Sosik,  1999 ). When different aspects of jobs are considered, intrinsic satisfaction—happiness with the work itself—shows a strong age-related gain. Extrinsic satisfaction—contentment with supervision, pay, and promotions—changes very little (Barnes-Farrell & Matthews,  2007 ).


FIGURE 16.6 Age-related changes in job satisfaction.

In this study of more than 2,000 university employees at all levels, from secretary to university president, job satisfaction dropped slightly in early adulthood as people encountered some discouraging experiences (see  Chapter 14 ). In middle age, job satisfaction showed a steady rise.

(From W. A. Hochwarter et al., 2001, “A Note on the Nonlinearity of the Age–Job-Satisfaction Relationship,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology31, p. 1232. Copyright © 2001, John Wiley and Sons. Reproduced with permission of Wiley Inc.)

What explains the rise in job satisfaction during middle adulthood? An improved capacity to cope effectively with difficult situations and a broader time perspective probably contribute. “When I first started teaching, I complained about a lot of things,” remarked Devin. “From my current vantage point, I can tell a big problem from a trivial one.” Moving out of unrewarding work roles, as Trisha did, can also boost morale. Key characteristics that predict job well-being include involvement in decision making, reasonable workloads, and good physical working conditions. Older people may have greater access to jobs that are attractive in these ways. Furthermore, having fewer alternative positions into which they can move, older workers generally reduce their career aspirations (Barnes-Farrell & Matthews,  2007 ). As the perceived gap between actual and possible achievements narrows, job involvement—importance of one’s work to self-esteem—increases (Warr,  2001 ).

Although emotional engagement with work is usually seen as psychologically healthy, it can also result in  burnout —a condition in which long-term job stress leads to mental exhaustion, a sense of loss of personal control, and feelings of reduced accomplishment. Burnout occurs more often in the helping professions, including health care, human services, and teaching, which place high emotional demands on employees. Although people in interpersonally demanding jobs are as psychologically healthy as other people, sometimes a worker’s dedication exceeds his or her coping skills, especially in an unsupportive work environment (Schmidt, Neubach, & Heuer,  2007 ). Burnout is associated with excessive work assignments for available time and lack of encouragement and feedback from supervisors. It tends to occur more often in the United States than in Western Europe, perhaps because of Americans’ greater achievement orientation (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter,  2001 ).

Burnout is a serious occupational hazard, linked to impaired attention and memory, severe depression, on-the-job injuries, physical illnesses, poor job performance, absenteeism, and turnover (Sandström et al.,  2005 ; Wang,  2005 ). To prevent burnout, employers can make sure workloads are reasonable, provide opportunities for workers to take time out from stressful situations, limit hours of stressful work, and offer social support. Interventions that enlist employees’ participation in designing higher-quality work environments show promise for increasing work engagement and effectiveness and reducing burnout (Leiter, Gascón, & Martínez-Jarreta,  2010 ). And provisions for working at home may respond to the needs of some people for a calmer, quieter work atmosphere.

Career Development

After several years as a parish nurse, Anya felt a need for additional training to do her job better. Trisha appreciated her firm’s generous support of workshop and course attendance, which helped her keep abreast of new legal developments. And as college dean, Devin took a summer seminar each year on management effectiveness. As these experiences reveal, career development is vital throughout work life.

Job Training.

Anya’s 35-year-old supervisor, Roy, was surprised when she asked for time off to upgrade her skills. “You’re in your fifties,” he replied. “What’re you going to do with so much new information at this point in your life?”

Roy’s insensitive, narrow-minded response, though usually unspoken, is all too common among managers—even some who are older themselves! Research suggests that training and on-the-job career counseling are less available to older workers. And when career development activities are offered, older employees may be less likely to volunteer for them (Barnes-Farrell & Matthews,  2007 ; Hedge, Borman, & Lammlein,  2006 ). What influences willingness to engage in job training and updating?

Personal characteristics are important: With age, growth needs give way somewhat to security needs. Consequently, learning and challenge may have less intrinsic value to many older workers. Perhaps for this reason, older employees depend more on co-worker and supervisor encouragement for vocational development. Yet as we have seen, they are less likely to have supportive supervisors. Furthermore, negative stereotypes of aging reduce older workers’ self-efficacy, or confidence that they can get better at their jobs (Maurer,  2001 ; Maurer, Wrenn, & Weiss,  2003 ). Self-efficacy is a powerful predictor of employees’ efforts to renew and expand career-relevant skills.

Workplace characteristics matter, too. An employee given work that requires new learning must pursue that learning to complete the assignment. Unfortunately, older workers sometimes receive more routine tasks than younger workers. Therefore, some of their reduced motivation to engage in career-relevant learning may be due to the type of assignments they receive. In companies with a more favorable age climate (view of older workers), mature employees participate frequently in further education and report greater self-efficacy and commitment to the organization (Bowen, Noack, & Staudinger,  2011 ).

Gender and Ethnicity: The Glass Ceiling.

In her thirties, Jewel became a company president by starting her own business. Having concluded that, as a woman, she had little chance of rising to a top executive position in a large corporation, she didn’t even try. Although women and ethnic minorities have gradually gained in access to managerial careers, they remain a long distance from gender and ethnic equality (Huffman,  2012 ). From career entry on, inequalities in promotion between men and women and between whites and blacks become more pronounced over time—findings still evident after education, work skills, and work productivity have been controlled (Barreto, Ryan, & Schmitt,  2009 ; Maume,  2004 ). Women who are promoted usually get stuck in mid-level positions. When the most prestigious high-level management jobs are considered, white men are overwhelmingly advantaged: They account for 70 percent of chief executive officers at large corporations and 93 percent at Fortune 500 companies (U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ).


Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg is among a handful of women who have attained top positions in major corporations. In her best-selling book, Lean In, she urges women to be more assertive in demonstrating qualities linked to leadership at work.

Women and ethnic minorities face a  glass ceiling,  or invisible barrier to advancement up the corporate ladder. Why is this so? Management is an art and skill that must be taught. Yet women and ethnic minorities have less access to mentors, role models, and informal networks that serve as training routes (Baumgartner & Schneider,  2010 ). And stereotyped doubts about women’s career commitment and ability to become strong managers (especially women with children) also contribute, leading supervisors to underrate their competence and not to recommend them for formal management training programs (Hoobler, Lemmon, & Wayne,  2011 ). Furthermore, challenging, high-risk, high-visibility assignments that require leadership and open the door to advancement, such as startup ventures, international experience, and troubleshooting, are less often granted to both women and minorities.

Finally, women who demonstrate qualities linked to leadership and advancement—assertiveness, confidence, forcefulness, and ambition—encounter prejudice because they deviate from traditional gender roles, even though they more often combine these traits with a democratic, collaborative style of leading than do men (Cheung & Halpern,  2010 ; Eagly & Carli,  2007 ). To overcome this bias, women in line for top positions must demonstrate greater competence than their male counterparts. In an investigation of several hundred senior managers at a multinational financial services corporation, promoted female managers had earned higher performance ratings than promoted male managers (Lyness & Heilman,  2006 ). In contrast, no gender difference existed in performance of managers not selected for promotion.

Like Jewel, many women have dealt with the glass ceiling by going around it, leaving the corporate environment and going into business for themselves. Today, more than half of all startup businesses in the United States are owned and operated by women. The large majority are successful entrepreneurs and leaders, meeting or exceeding their expansion and earnings goals (Ahuja,  2005 ; U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ). But when women and ethnic minorities leave the corporate world to further their careers, companies not only lose valuable talent but also fail to address the leadership needs of an increasingly diverse work force.

Career Change at Midlife

Although most people remain in the same vocation through middle age, career change does occur, as with Elena’s shift from journalism to teaching and creative writing. Recall that circumstances at home and at work motivated Elena’s decision to pursue a new vocation. Like other career changers, she wanted a more satisfying life—a goal she attained by ending an unhappy marriage and initiating a long-awaited vocational move at the same time.

As noted earlier, midlife career changes are seldom radical; they typically involve leaving one line of work for a related one. Elena sought a more stimulating, involving job. But other people move in the reverse direction—to careers that are more relaxing, free of painful decisions, and less demanding (Juntunen, Wegner, & Matthews,  2002 ). The decision to change is often difficult. The individual must weigh years invested in one set of skills, current income, and job security against present frustrations and hoped-for gains.


After many years as a professor of ancient Greek philosophy, Abe Schoener found himself at a dead end in his career. In his mid-forties, he decided to transform his passion for winemaking into a new vocation as a vintner—a radical shift that prompted the breakup of his marriage but ultimately led to a more satisfying life.

An extreme career shift, by contrast, usually signals a personal crisis (Young & Rodgers,  1997 ). In a study of professionals who abandoned their well-paid, prestigious positions for routine, poorly paid, semiskilled work, nonwork problems contributed to radical change. An eminent 55-year-old TV producer became a school bus driver, a New York banker a waiter in a ski resort (Sarason,  1977 ). Each was responding to feelings of personal meaninglessness—escaping from family conflict, difficult relationships with colleagues, and work that had become unsatisfying to a less burdensome life.

Among blue-collar workers—those in such occupations as construction, manufacturing, mining, maintenance, or foodservice work—midlife career shifts are seldom freely chosen. In one investigation, researchers followed a large sample of blue-collar men in their fifties over a seven-year period; all were employed by Alcoa, the world’s largest producer of aluminum. One-third had highly physically taxing jobs. Of the small minority who transitioned to less physically demanding work, an injury usually preceded the change (Modrek & Cullen,  2012 ). Transitioners appeared to change jobs to stay in the workforce, rather than being forced to retire early, at less than full pension benefits, because of their disability.

Yet opportunities to shift to less physically demanding work are limited, particularly in the late-2000s recession aftermath. A strong predictor of middle-aged workers’ eligibility for such jobs for is education—at least a high school diploma (Blau & Goldstein,  2007 ). Less educated workers with a physical disability face greatly reduced chances of remaining in the labor force.


As companies downsize, eliminating jobs, the majority of people affected are middle-aged and older. Although unemployment is difficult at any time, middle-aged adults show a sharper decline in physical and mental health than their younger counterparts. Those who perceive a company’s layoff process as unfair and inconsiderate—for example, giving them little time to prepare—often experience the event as highly traumatic (Breslin & Mustard,  2003 ; McKee-Ryan et al.,  2009 ). Older workers affected by layoffs remain jobless longer, suffering substantial income loss. In addition, people over age 40 who must reestablish occupational security find themselves “off-time” in terms of the social clock. Consequently, job loss can disrupt major tasks of midlife, including generativity and reappraisal of life goals and accomplishments. Finally, having been more involved in and committed to an occupation, the older unemployed worker has also lost something of greater value.

People who lose their jobs in midlife, whether executives or blue-collar workers, seldom duplicate the status and pay of their previous positions. As they search, they encounter age discrimination and find that they are over-qualified for many openings. Those also facing financial difficulties are at risk for deepening depression and physical health declines over time (Gallo et al.,  2006 ; McKee-Ryan,  2011 ). Counseling that focuses on financial planning, reducing feelings of humiliation due to the stigma of unemployment, and encouraging personal flexibility can help people implement effective problem-centered coping strategies in their search for alternative work roles.

Planning for Retirement

One evening, Devin and Trisha met Anya and her husband, George, for dinner. Halfway through the meal, Devin inquired, “George, tell us what you and Anya are going to do about retirement. Are you planning to close down your business or work part-time? Do you think you’ll stay here or move out of town?”

Three or four generations ago, the two couples would not have had this conversation. In 1900, about 70 percent of American men age 65 and over were in the labor force. By 1970, however, the figure had dropped to 27 percent, and in the early twenty-first century it declined to 16 percent (U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ). Because of government-sponsored retirement benefits (begun in the United States in 1935), retirement is no longer a privilege reserved for the wealthy. The federal government pays Social Security to the majority of the aged, and others are covered by employer-based private pension plans.

As the trend just noted suggests, the average age of retirement has declined over the past several decades. Currently, it is age 63 in the United States and hovers between 60 and 63 in other Western nations (U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ). The recent recession led to an increase in the number of Americans at risk for being unable to sustain their preretirement standard of living after leaving the workforce. Consequently, a survey of a large, nationally representative sample of baby boomers revealed that the majority expect to delay retirement (Jones,  2012 ). But current estimates indicate that most will need to work just a few extra years to be financially ready to retire (Munnell et al.,  2012 ). For the healthy, active, long-lived baby-boom generation, up to one-fourth of their lives may lie ahead after they leave their jobs.

Applying What We Know : Ingredients of Effective retirement Planning

Issue Description
Finances Ideally, financial planning for retirement should start with the first paycheck; at a minimum, it should begin 10 to 15 years before retirement.
Fitness Starting a fitness program in middle age is important because good health is crucial for well-being in retirement.
Role adjustment Retirement is harder for people who strongly identify with their work role. Preparing for a radical role adjustment reduces stress.
Where to live The pros and cons of moving should be considered carefully because where one lives affects access to health care, friends, family, recreation, entertainment, and part-time employment.
Leisure and volunteer activities A retiree typically gains an additional 50 hours per week of free time. Careful planning of what to do with that time has a major impact on psychological well-being.
Health insurance Finding out about government-sponsored health insurance options helps protect quality of life after retirement.
Legal affairs The preretirement period is an excellent time to finalize a will and begin estate planning.

Retirement is a lengthy, complex process that begins as soon as the middle-aged person first thinks about it (Kim & Moen,  2002b ). Planning is important because retirement leads to a loss of two important work-related rewards—income and status—and to a change in many other aspects of life. Like other life transitions, retirement can be stressful.

Nearly half of middle-aged people engage in no concrete retirement planning, yet research consistently shows that clarifying goals for the future and acquiring financial-planning knowledge result in better retirement savings, adjustment, and satisfaction (Hershey et al.,  2007 ; Jacobs-Lawson, Hershey, & Neukam,  2004 ).


Contact the human resources division of a company or institution in your community, and inquire about the retirement planning services it offers. How comprehensive are those services, and what percentage of its recent retirees made use of them?•

Applying What We Know above lists the variety of issues addressed in a typical retirement preparation program. Financial planning is especially vital in the United States where (unlike Western European nations) the federal government does not offer a pension system that guarantees an adequate standard of living (see  page 68  in  Chapter 2 ). Hence, U.S. retirees’ income typically drops by 50 percent. But although more people engage in financial planning than in other forms of preparation, even those who attend financial education programs often fail to look closely at their financial well-being and to make wise decisions (Keller & Lusardi,  2012 ). Many could benefit from an expert’s financial analysis and counsel.

Retirement leads to ways of spending time that are largely guided by one’s interests rather than one’s obligations. Individuals who have not thought carefully about how to fill this time may find their sense of purpose in life seriously threatened. Research reveals that planning for an active life has an even greater impact on happiness after retirement than financial planning. Participation in activities promotes many factors essential for psychological well-being, including a structured time schedule, social contact, and self-esteem (Schlossberg,  2004 ). Carefully considering whether or not to relocate at retirement is related to an active life, since it affects access to health care, friends, family, recreation, entertainment, and part-time work.

Devin retired at age 62, George at age 66. Though several years younger, Trisha and Anya—like many married women—coordinated their retirements with those of their husbands. In contrast, Jewel—in good health but without an intimate partner to share her life—kept her consulting business going until age 75. Tim took early retirement and moved to be near Elena, where he devoted himself to public service—tutoring second graders in a public school, transporting inner-city children to museums, and coaching after-school and weekend youth sports. For Tim, retirement offered a new opportunity to give generously to his community.

Unfortunately, less well-educated people with lower lifetime earnings are least likely to attend retirement preparation programs—yet they stand to benefit the most. And compared with men, women do less planning for retirement, instead relying on their husband’s preparations. This gender gap seems to be narrowing, however, as women increasingly contribute to family income (Adams & Rau,  2011 ). Employers must take extra steps to encourage lower-paid workers and women to participate in planning activities. In addition, enhancing retirement adjustment among the economically disadvantaged depends on access to better vocational training, jobs, and health care at early ages. Clearly, a lifetime of opportunities and experiences affects the transition to retirement. In  Chapter 18 , we will consider the decision to retire and retirement adjustment in greater detail.


REVIEW What factors contribute to the rise in job satisfaction with age?

CONNECT Supervisors sometimes assign the more routine tasks to older workers, believing that they can no longer handle complex assignments. Cite evidence from this and the previous chapter indicating that this assumption is incorrect.

APPLY An executive wonders how his large corporation can foster advancement of women and ethnic minorities to upper management positions. What strategies would you recommend?

image28 SUMMARY

Erikson’s Theory: Generativity versus Stagnation ( p. 532 )

According to Erikson, how does personality change in middle age?

· ● Generativity expands as middle-aged adults face Erikson’s psychological conflict of generativity versus stagnation. Personal desires and cultural demands jointly shape adults’ generative activities.

· ● Highly generative people, who contribute to society through parenthood, other family relationships, the workplace, and volunteer endeavors, appear especially well-adjusted. Stagnation occurs when people become self-centered and self-indulgent in midlife.

Other Theories of Psychosocial Development in Midlife ( p. 535 )

· Describe Levinson’s and Vaillant’s views of psychosocial development in middle adulthood, and discuss similarities and differences between men and women.

· ● According to Levinson, middle-aged adults confront four developmental tasks, each requiring them to reconcile two opposing tendencies within the self: young–old, destruction–creation, masculinity–femininity, and engagement–separateness.

· ● Middle-aged men show greater acceptance of “feminine” traits of nurturance and caring, while women are more open to “masculine” characteristics of autonomy and assertiveness. Men and successful career-oriented women may reduce their concern with ambition and achievement, but women who have devoted themselves to child rearing or an unfulfilling job often seek rewarding work or community engagement.

· ● Vaillant found that adults in their late forties and fifties become guardians of their culture, seeking to “pass the torch” to later generations.

Does the term midlife crisis reflect most people’s experience of middle adulthood, and is middle adulthood accurately characterized as a stage?

· ● Most people respond to midlife with changes that are better described as “turning points” than as a crisis. Only a minority experience a midlife crisis characterized by intense self-doubt and stress that lead to drastic life alterations.

· ● Some midlife changes are adaptations to life events that are less age-graded than in the past. Most middle-aged adults also report troubling moments that prompt new understandings and goals, but debate persists over whether these psychosocial changes are stagelike.

Stability and Change in Self-Concept and Personality ( p. 538 )

· Describe changes in self-concept, personality, and gender identity in middle adulthood.

· ● Middle-aged individuals maintain self-esteem and stay motivated by revising their possible selves, which become fewer in number as well as more modest and concrete as people adjust their hopes and fears to their life circumstances.

· ● Midlife typically brings enhanced psychological well-being, through greater self-acceptance, autonomy, and environmental mastery. Factors contributing to well-being, however, vary widely among cohorts and cultures.

· ● Daily stressors plateau in early to mid-adulthood, and then decline as work and family responsibilities ease. Midlife gains in emotional stability and confidence in handling life’s problems lead to increased effectiveness in coping with stressors.

· ● Both men and women become more androgynous in middle adulthood. Biological explanations, such as parental imperative theory, are controversial. A combination of social roles and life conditions is more likely responsible. image29

· Discuss stability and change in the “big five” personality traits in adulthood.

· ● Among the “big five” personality traits, agreeableness and conscientiousness increase into middle age, while neuroticism declines, and extroversion and openness to experience do not change or decrease slightly. Individual differences are large and highly stable: Although adults change in overall organization and integration of personality, they do so on a foundation of basic, enduring dispositions.

Relationships at Midlife ( p. 543 )

· Describe the middle adulthood phase of the family life cycle.

· ● “Launching children and moving on” is the midlife phase of the family life cycle. Adults must adapt to many entries and exits of family members as their children launch–return–relaunch, marry, and produce grandchildren, and as their own parents age and die.

· ● When divorce occurs, middle-aged adults seem to adapt more easily than younger people. For women, midlife marital breakup often severely reduces standard of living, contributing to the feminization of poverty.

· ● Most middle-aged parents adjust well to launching adult children, especially if positive parent–child relationships are sustained, but adult children who are “off-time” in development can prompt parental strain. As children marry, middle-aged parents, especially mothers, often become kinkeepers.

· ● Grandparents’ contact and closeness with grandchildren depend on proximity, number of grandchild sets, sex of grandparent and grandchild, and in-law relationships. In low-income families and in some ethnic groups, grandparents provide essential financial and child-care assistance. When serious family problems exist, grandparents may become primary caregivers in skipped-generation families. image30

· ● Middle-aged adults reassess their relationships with aging parents, often becoming more appreciative. Mother–daughter relationships tend to be closer than other parent–child ties. The more positive the history of the parent–child tie and the greater the need for assistance, the more help exchanged.

· ● Middle-aged adults, often caught between caring for aging parents, assisting young-adult children and grandchildren, and meeting work and community responsibilities, are called the sandwich generation. The burden of caring for ill or frail parents falls most heavily on adult daughters, though the sex difference declines in later middle age.

· ● Parental caregiving has emotional and health consequences, especially in cultures and subcultures where adult children feel a particularly strong obligation to provide care. Social support is highly effective in reducing caregiver stress and helping adult children derive benefits from caregiving.

Describe midlife sibling relationships and friendships.

· ● Sibling contact and support decline from early to middle adulthood, probably because of the demands of diverse roles. But many middle-aged siblings feel closer, often in response to major life events. Sister–sister ties are typically closest in industrialized nations. In nonindustrialized societies, strong brother–sister attachments may be basic to family functioning.

· ● In midlife, friendships become fewer, more selective, and more deeply valued. Men continue to be less expressive with their friends than women, who have more close friendships. Viewing a spouse as a best friend can contribute greatly to marital happiness.

Vocational Life ( p. 553 )

· Discuss job satisfaction and career development in middle adulthood, with special attention to sex differences and experiences of ethnic minorities.

· ● Vocational readjustments are common as middle-aged people seek to increase the personal meaning and self-direction of their work lives. Certain aspects of job performance improve. Job satisfaction increases at all occupational levels, more so for men than for women.

· ● Burnout is a serious occupational hazard, especially for those in helping professions. It can be prevented by ensuring reasonable workloads, limiting hours of stressful work, providing workers with social support, and enlisting employees’ participation in designing higher-quality work environments.

· ● Both personal and workplace characteristics influence the extent to which older workers engage in career development. In companies with a more favorable age climate, mature employees report greater self-efficacy and commitment to the organization.

· ● Women and ethnic minorities face a glass ceiling because of limited access to management training and prejudice against women who demonstrate strong leadership qualities. Many women further their careers by leaving the corporate world, often to start their own businesses.

Discuss career change and unemployment in middle adulthood.

· ● Midlife career change typically involves leaving one line of work for a related one. Radical career change often signals a personal crisis. Among blue-collar workers, midlife career shifts are seldom freely chosen. image31

· ● Unemployment is especially difficult for middle-aged adults, who constitute the majority of workers affected by corporate downsizing and layoffs. Counseling can help them find alternative, gratifying work roles, but these rarely match their previous status and pay.

Discuss the importance of planning for retirement.

· ● Retirement brings major life changes, including loss of income and status and an increase in free time. Besides financial planning, planning for an active life is vital, with a strong impact on happiness after retirement. Low-paid workers and women need extra encouragement to participate in retirement planning.

Important Terms and Concepts

“big five” personality traits ( p. 542 )

burnout ( p. 554 )

feminization of poverty ( p. 544 )

generativity versus stagnation ( p. 532 )

glass ceiling ( p. 555 )

kinkeeper ( p. 545 )

midlife crisis ( p. 536 )

parental imperative theory ( p. 540 )

possible selves ( p. 538 )

sandwich generation ( p. 549 )

skipped-generation family ( p. 548 )

image32 milestones Development in Middle Adulthood


40–50 years


· ■ Accommodative ability of the lens of the eye, ability to see in dim light, and color discrimination decline; sensitivity to glare increases. ( 502  503 )

· ■ Hearing loss at high frequencies occurs. ( 503 )

· ■ Hair grays and thins. ( 502 )

· ■ Lines on the face become more pronounced; skin loses elasticity and begins to sag. ( 503 )

· ■ Weight gain continues, accompanied by a rise in fatty deposits in the torso, while fat beneath the skin declines. ( 504 )

· ■ Loss of lean body mass (muscle and bone) occurs. ( 504 )

· ■ In women, production of estrogen drops, leading to shortening and irregularity of the menstrual cycle. ( 504 image34

· ■ In men, quantity of semen and sperm declines. ( 507 )

· ■ Intensity of sexual response declines, but frequency of sexual activity drops only slightly. ( 509 )

· ■ Rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease increase. ( 509  513 )


· ■ Consciousness of aging increases. (502, 535)

· ■ Crystallized intelligence increases; fluid intelligence declines. ( 518  519 )

· ■ Speed of processing declines, but adults can compensate through experience and practice. ( 520  521 image35

· ■ Ability to attend selectively and to adapt attention—switching from one task to another—declines, but adults can compensate through experience and practice. ( 521 )

· ■ Amount of information retained in working memory declines, in part because of reduced use of memory strategies. ( 522 )

· ■ Retrieving information from long-term memory becomes more difficult. ( 522 )

· ■ General factual knowledge, procedural knowledge, knowledge related to one’s occupation, and metacognitive knowledge remain unchanged or may increase. ( 522  523 image36

· ■ Practical problem solving and expertise increase. ( 524 )

· ■ Creativity may become more deliberately thoughtful, emphasize integrating ideas, and shift from self-expression to more altruistic goals. ( 524  525 image37

· ■ If occupation offers challenge and autonomy, may show gains in cognitive flexibility. ( 525  526 )


· ■ Generativity increases. ( 532  533 )

· ■ Focus shifts toward personally meaningful living. ( 535 image38

· ■ Possible selves become fewer in number and more modest and concrete. ( 538 )

· ■ Self-acceptance, autonomy, and environmental mastery increase. ( 538  539 )

· ■ Strategies for coping with stressors become more effective. ( 539 )

· ■ Gender identity becomes more androgynous;

“masculine” traits increase in women, “feminine” traits in men. (535, 540–542)

· ■ Agreeableness and conscientiousness increase, while neuroticism declines. ( 542 )

· ■ May launch children. ( 544  545 )

· ■ May become a kinkeeper, especially if a mother. ( 545 )

· ■ May become a parent-in-law and a grandparent. ( 545  547 )

· ■ Becomes more appreciative of parents’ strengths and generosity; quality of relationships with parents increase. ( 547 )

· ■ May care for a parent with a disability or chronic illness. ( 549  551 )

· ■ Siblings may feel closer. ( 552 image39

· ■ Number of friends generally declines. ( 552 )

· ■ Intrinsic job satisfaction—happiness with one’s work—typically increases. ( 553  554 image40

50–65 years


· ■ Lens of the eye loses its capacity to adjust to objects at varying distances entirely. ( 502 )

· ■ Hearing loss gradually extends to all frequencies but remains greatest for high frequencies. ( 503 )

· ■ Skin continues to wrinkle and sag, “age spots” increase, and blood vessels in the skin become more visible. ( 503 )

· ■ In women, menopause occurs; as estrogen declines further, genitals are less easily stimulated, and the vagina lubricates more slowly during arousal. ( 504 )

· ■ In men, inability to attain an erection when desired becomes more common. ( 507 )

· ■ Loss of bone mass continues; rates of osteoporosis rise. (504, 512–513)

· ■ Collapse of disks in the spinal column causes height to drop by as much as 1 inch. ( 504 )

· ■ Rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease continue to increase. ( 509  513 image41


· ■ Cognitive changes previously listed continue. image42


· ■ Emotional and social changes previously listed continue. image43

· ■ Parent-to-child help-giving declines, and child-to-parent support and practical assistance increase. ( 548  549 image44

· ■ May retire. ( 556  557 )

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