Theories Based on Life Transitions
Jung’s belief in a midlife crisis, Erikson’s belief that personality development proceeds in stages, and Loevinger’s notion that cognitive and ego development are mutually interactive laid the foundation for other theorists’ efforts. For many laypeople, the idea that adults go through an orderly sequence of stages that includes both crises and stability reflects their own experience. This is probably why books such as Sheehy’s Passages (1976), Pathfinders (1981), New Passages (1995), and Understanding Men’s Passages (1998) are met with instant acceptance, or why Levinson’s (Levinson et al., 1978) and Vaillant’s works (Vaillant, 1977; Vaillant & Vaillant, 1990) have been applied to everything from basic personality development to understanding how men’s occupational careers change. A universal assumption of these theories is that people go through predictable age-related crises. Some life transition theories (e. g., Levinson’s) also propose that these crises are followed by periods of relative stability. The overall view is that adulthood consists of a series of alternating periods of stability and change.
Compared with the theories we have considered to this point, however, theories based on life transitions are built on shakier ground. For example, some are based on small, highly selective samples (such as men who attended Harvard) or surveys completed by readers of particular magazines. This is in contrast, for example, to the large databases used to test the five-factor model and Loevinger’s theory. These theories are associated with psychometrically sound measures and are well researched. Thus the research methods used in studies of life transitions may not be valid.
An important question about life transition theories is the extent to which they are real and actually occur to everyone. Life transition theories typically present stages as if everyone universally experiences them. Moreover, many have specific ages tied to
specific stages (such as age-30 or age-50 transitions). As we know from cognitive developmental research reviewed in Chapter 7, however, this is a very tenuous assumption. Individual variation is the rule, not the exception. What actually happens may be a combination of expectations and socialization. For example, Dunn and Merriam (1995) examined data from a large, diverse national sample and found that less than 20% of people in their early 30s experienced the age-30 transition (which encompasses the midlife crisis) that forms a cornerstone of Levinson and colleagues’ (1978) theory. The experience of a midlife crisis, discussed next, is an excellent case in point.
In Search of the Midlife Crisis. One of the most important ideas in theories that consider the importance of life transitions (subsequent to periods of stability) is that middle-aged adults experience a personal crisis that results in major changes in how they view themselves. During a midlife crisis, people are supposed to take a good hard look at themselves and, they hope, attain a much better understanding of who they are. Difficult issues such as one’s own mortality and inevitable aging are supposed to be faced. Behavioral changes are supposed to occur;
© Stephen S. T. Bradley / CORBIS
Middle-aged women struggle to reconcile physical aging and self-development.
we even have stereotypic images of the middle-aged male, like Andy, running off with a much younger female as a result of his midlife crisis. In support of this notion, Levinson and his colleagues (1978; Levinson & Levinson, 1996) write that middle-aged men in his study reported intense internal struggles that were much like depression.
However, far more research fails to document the existence and more importantly the universality of a particularly difficult time in midlife. In fact, those who do experience a crisis may be suffering from general problems of psychopathology (Labouvie-Vief & Diehl, 1999; Rosenberg et al., 1999). Baruch (1984) summarizes a series of retrospective interview studies of American women between the ages of 35 and 55. The results showed that women in their 20s were more likely to be uncertain and dissatisfied than were women at midlife. Middle-aged women only rarely mentioned normative developmental milestones such as marriage, childbirth, or menopause as major turning points in their lives. Rather, unexpected events such as divorce and job transfers were more likely to cause crises. Studies extending Levinson’s theory to women have not found strong evidence of a traumatic midlife crisis either (Harris et al., 1986; Reinke et al., 1985; Roberts & Newton, 1987).
The midlife crisis was also missing in data obtained as part of the Berkeley studies of personality traits. Most middle-aged men said that their careers were satisfying (Clausen, 1981), and both men and women appeared more self-confident, insightful, introspective, open, and better equipped to handle stressful situations (Haan, 1985; Haan et al., 1986). Even direct attempts to find the midlife crisis failed. In two studies, Costa and McCrae (1978) could identify only a handful of men who fit the profile, and even then the crisis came anytime between ages 30 and 60. A replication and extension of this work, conducted by Farrell and colleagues (Farrell et al., 1993; Rosenberg, 1991; Rosenberg et al., 1992,
1999) , confirmed the initial results.
Researchers point out that the idea of a midlife crisis became widely accepted as fact because of the mass media (McCrae & Costa, 1990; Sterns & Huyck, 2001). People take it for granted that they will go through a period of intense psychological
turmoil in their 40s. The problem is that there is little hard scientific evidence of it. The data suggest that midlife is no more or no less traumatic for most people than any other period in life. Perhaps the most convincing support for this conclusion comes from research conducted by Farrell and Rosenberg (Rosenberg et al., 1999). These investigators initially set out to prove the existence of a midlife crisis, because they were firm believers in it. After extensive testing and interviewing, however, they emerged as nonbelievers.
However, Labouvie-Vief and Diehl (1999) offer some good evidence for a reorganization of self and values across the adult life span. They suggest that the major dynamic driving such changes may not be age dependent but may follow general cognitive changes. As discussed in Chapter 8, individuals around middle adulthood show the most complex understanding of self, emotions, and motivations. Cognitive complexity also is shown to be the strongest predictor of higher levels of complexity in general. Thus a midlife crisis may be the result of general gains in cognitive complexity from early to middle adulthood (Labouvie-Vief & Diehl, 1999).
Abigail Stewart (1996) found that those well – educated women who reported regrets for adopting a traditional feminine role in life (i. e., they wished they had pursued an education or a career) and subsequently made adjustments in midlife were better off than those who did not make adjustments or had no role regrets at all. Stewart suggests that rather than a midlife crisis, such an adjustment may be more appropriately considered a midlife correction, reevaluating one’s roles and dreams and making the necessary corrections.
Perhaps the best way to view midlife is as a time of both gains and losses (Lachman et al., 1994; Lachman, 2001). That is, the changes people perceive in midlife can be viewed as representing both gains and losses. Competence, ability to handle stress, sense of personal control, purpose in life, and social responsibility are all at their peak, whereas physical abilities, women’s ability to bear children, and physical appearance are examples of changes many view as negative. This gain-loss view emphasizes two things. First, the exact timing of change
is not fixed but occurs over an extended period of time. Second, change can be both positive and negative at the same time. Thus, rather than seeing midlife as a time of crisis, one may want to view it as a period during which several aspects of one’s life acquire new meanings.
Finally, we cannot overlook examining midlife crises from a cross-cultural perspective. Menon and Shweder (1998; Menon, 2001; Sterns & Huyck,
2001) suggest that midlife crisis is a cultural invention. They present anthropological evidence suggesting that the concept of midlife itself is limited to adults studied in the United States. In other cultures, for example, transitions and crises are linked to role relations such as marriage and relocation into the spouse’s family. Major transitions are defined by children’s marriages and mothers-in-law moving into the older adult role of observer (Kakar, 1998; Menon, 2001). Again, this is a good reminder that the cultural context plays an important role in adult development.