I have always doubted that “adulthood” is one amorphous blob of a stage. How could I be identical to my 30-something kids? Haven’t I moved further along in my development? Aren’t those miles worth something?
Turns out, the answer is yes.
A hundred years ago, children were considered miniature adults. It was only with the arrival of pediatrics that childhood was understood to have distinct and necessary stages. Parents were now able to anticipate the stages, and work better with their kids to help them become max functional adults.
Well, guess what?
Science now tells us that adulthood contains its own developmental stages.
Adult development as a subject for scientific study is a very new field, and the research is intriguing. We’re learning that, just as successful childhood involves developmental tasks like independence and individuation, successful adulthood appears to involve six developmental stages.
In a fascinating book called Aging Well, George E. Vaillant, M.D. and his team studied three groups of men and women over sixty to eighty years to learn how they were developing. The data were analyzed and recorded.
- The stages of adult development.
- The factors that predicted whether a person will age well or badly over a lifetime.
- The coping mechanisms that we develop as adults; these mechanisms are usually beyond the reach of younger people.
This study data is groundbreaking, because it’s gathered over decades. In contrast, our usual way of finding out how to age successfully is to ask very old people how they did it. “I drink a shot of whiskey every day,” says the beaming centenarian, but this isn’t helpful.
Truth is, the elder doesn’t know. Whether due to denial or failure of memory or who knows what, the only way to know the answer is to track a bunch of people over many years, control for variations, and look for commonalities. Which Vaillant did.
By tracking these people from childhood (including observations of their home environment and family life), interviewing people who knew them well, and scrupulously adjusting for bias, researchers unearthed patterns. That information has profound implications for you and me – not just what stages to expect, but what factors predicted a long and happy old age, and what (surprisingly) didn’t.
There’s so much more to this that I’d like to post more in upcoming days, but without further ado, here are the six stages. They typically happen sequentially but may not.
- Identity – a sense of one’s own self separate from family of origin
- Intimacy – the task of living with another person in an interdependent, reciprocal, committed, and contented fashion for a decade or more.
- Career Consolidation – expanding one’s personal identity to assume a social identity within the world of work (this includes homemaking)
- Generativity – demonstrating a capacity to unselfishly guide the next generation (without parenting them; involves giving up control of outcomes) Personal note: Bill and I are here.
- Keeper of the Meaning – similar to Generativity but less related to individuals and more to broader society. Focus is on conserving and preserving “the collective products of mankind – the culture in which one lives and its institutions.” Concern for a social radius extending beyond one’s immediate community.
- Integrity – acceptance of oneself in existence; wisdom of one’s place in the larger scheme of things, of one’s uniqueness, of where one fits in the cosmic order; acceptance of mortality (my words).
As I said, there’s so much more, which I’ll share in upcoming posts. For example, adults tend to develop mature coping mechanisms, which are interesting when you notice yourself engaging in one! And also, there are elements of healthy aging that you may want to focus more on. We’ll continue the discussion next Friday, but for now, I hope this gives you a feeling of comfort about your own development.