People’s beliefs about the appropriate characteristics for men and women reflect shared cultural beliefs and stereotypes of “masculinity” and “femininity” (Best & Williams, 1993; Huyck, 1999; Sinnott & Shifren, 2001). Across a wide age range in U. S. soci­ety, women are traditionally described as weaker, with lower self-esteem, less active, more concerned

with affiliation, and more nurturing and deferential. Men are regarded as stronger, more active, and higher in autonomy, risk taking, achievement, and aggression (Huyck, 1999; Robinson et al., 2002). Collectively, such descriptions help form one’s gender-role identity.

In addition, some gender stereotypes are also sensitive to age (Gutmann, 1994). Old men are seen as less stereotypically masculine or warrior-like than are younger men and more as powerful elderly men striving for peace. Old women are noted for their greater assertiveness and control than are younger women; stereotypes include matriarchs overseeing extended families and dangerous witches who use power malevolently. Some cultures view older adults as genderless, having lost the need for differentiated gender-role identity after they concluded their child-rearing duties (Gailey, 1987).

As we know, the five-factor model makes a strong case for the stability of personality traits through adulthood. In contrast, we have seen that people’s priorities and personal concerns change during adulthood. Does stability or change describe what happens to the gender-role identity of the man and woman in the photograph?

Beginning with Jung (1933), several researchers and theorists argue for a “crossover effect” of

What happens to the gender identity of the man and the woman in the photograph as they age?

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gender identity during middle age. As we noted earlier, Jung (1933) proposed that in adolescence women initially suppress their masculine aspects and men initially suppress their feminine aspects. Each discovers these suppressed aspects and devel­ops them in midlife, with the goal of achieving a balance between one’s masculine and feminine characteristics. For example, during midlife women may place increased emphasis on achievement and accomplishment, and men may place more empha­sis on familial and nurturant concerns (Parker & Aldwin, 1997).

Overall, the data on actual changes in people’s gender-role identity are mixed. Some studies find a tendency for middle-aged and older adults to endorse similar self-descriptions concerning gender – role identity. For example, data from the Berkeley studies document a move toward greater similar­ity between older men and older women. Haan (1985; Haan et al., 1986) and Livson (1981) found that both men and women described themselves as more nurturant, intimate, and tender with increasing age, trends that are related to generativity. Gutmann

(1987) , Sinnott (1986), and Turner (1982) reported similar findings. Huyck (1996) finds evidence of androgyny, or acceptance of the most adaptive aspects of both the traditional masculine and feminine roles, in midlife. Other studies show decreasing endorse­ment of traditional feminine traits in both men and women, but stable endorsements of masculine traits (Parker & Aldwin, 1997). Collectively, the data indi­cate that men and women are most different in their gender-role identities in late adolescence and young adulthood but become increasingly similar in midlife and old age (Huyck, 1999).

Longitudinal data on individual gender-role development are largely lacking. What evidence is available suggests that a majority (54%) of people remain in the same gender-role category over a 10-year period (Hyde et al., 1991). However, this still means that a substantial number of people change. As Hyde and coworkers (1991) note, how­ever, we currently have no way of predicting who will change and who will not.

Increasing similarity in self-descriptions does not guarantee increased similarity in the way men and women behave. For example, older men often indicate a greater willingness to develop close rela­tionships, but few actually have the skills to do so (Turner, 1982). Thus the change may be more internal than behavioral (Parker & Aldwin, 1997; Troll & Bengtson, 1982). Moreover, much of the change may be due to the failing health of elderly men. Because older wives tend to be healthier than their husbands, the balance of power may of neces­sity shift to wives, and men may be forced to accept a more dependent role.

Does gender-role identity converge with increas­ing age? It is still debatable. The lack of consistent behavioral evidence and the statistically small dif­ferences in some of the self-assessment data lead some authors to argue that no changes in personal­ity occur (e. g., McCrae & Costa, 1994). In contrast, others see the convergence in self-assessments as evidence that older men and women transcend ste­reotypes to become essentially gender free (Sinnott, 1986; Sinnott & Shifren, 2001). Still others view any change in self-assessment, no matter how small, as at least personally relevant (Gutmann, 1987).

It will be interesting to see whether the trend toward similarity continues over the next few genera­tions. Changes in how younger men and women view themselves as a result of women’s new roles in society may shift the trend downward in age or may make it disappear altogether. As noted in Chapter 1, gender is one way that societies stratify themselves. Whether changes in self-report have any bearing on true behav­ioral change is something that only time will tell.

Conclusions about Narratives, Identity, and the Self

We have seen that to fully understand a person, we must consider how the individual integrates his or her life into a coherent structure. The life- narrative approach provides a way to learn how people accomplish this integration. The theoreti­cal frameworks developed by McAdams and by Whitbourne offer excellent avenues for research.


One of the most promising new areas of inquiry, possible selves, is already providing major insights into how people construct future elements of their life stories.

When combined with the data from the dis­positional trait and personal concerns literatures, research findings on identity and the self provide the capstone knowledge needed to understand what people are like. The complexity of personality is clear from this discussion; perhaps that is why it takes a lifetime to complete.

Concept Checks

1. What is a life story as defined in McAdams’s theory?

2. What connection is there between Whitbourne’s theory of identity and Piaget’s theory of cognitive development?

3. What are possible selves?

4. How does religiosity factor into identity?

5. How does gender-role identity develop in adulthood?

6. Does the sense of identity and self change in adulthood?

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