Life stages are changing — we need new terms and new ideas to describe how adults develop and grow

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(THE CONVERSATION) What image comes to mind when you think of someone in their twenties?

Can you imagine an adult stressed by the weight of many new family and professional responsibilities?

Or do you imagine someone brimming with hope and undeveloped potential, even more a child than an adult, struggling to define a life and earning little or no money but still managing to find occasional joy? Perhaps your soundtrack here is Taylor Swift’s radiant “22”: “We are happy, free, confused and alone all at once. It’s miserable and magical.

And when you think of someone in their sixties?

Do you envision someone – or perhaps a happy couple – enjoying life, living well, still vigorous but now more free than before from daily work and family duties?

Or do you see someone who is bent over after a life of burdens, his health diminished, now dragging himself to no particular destination? Here, the soundtrack could be the sad Beatles song “When I’m 64”: “Will you still need me?” Will you feed me again? When I’m 64?

The whole arc of adult development has changed in recent decades, in ways that our psychological theories are still catching up with. In the 21st century, does it still make sense to refer to “young adulthood,” “midlife,” and “late adulthood,” as psychologists have done for so long? If not, what are the most accurate concepts?

Most of my career as a developmental psychologist has been spent answering these questions. My emerging adulthood theory recognizes that the lives of young adults have changed significantly since the 1960s. As the father of 22-year-old twins, I am very aware of their journey through the new stage of life on I have been researching and writing for so long. As a 64-year-old man, I also pay attention to how the 60s have changed from what they were.

A longer-than-ever journey to adulthood

In my research over the past two decades, I have discovered that people between the ages of 19 and 29 are neither fully adults nor in “extended adolescence” – as this period of life was perceived during the 20th century. By the start of the 21st century, these years had become a time of gradual and often erratic progress towards more established adult life.

I’ve invited scholars from around the world to contribute to a special issue of American Psychologist, one of the top psychology journals, on the theme “Rethinking Adult Development: New Ideas for New Times”. The recently published findings are a wonderfully diverse set of papers that go a long way to reconceptualizing what adult development looks like today and where it could be headed.

Most of the authors were developmental psychologists. About half were Americans and the other half were Europeans, although Shinobu Kitayama and his colleagues offered a refreshing and different Asian cultural perspective.

Here are some important points:

– The 30 to 45 years old are now “the rush hour of life”. Today, people all over the world are waiting longer than ever to get married and have children, and most only have one or two. But couples usually have the double challenge of trying to advance in their careers while taking on the intense responsibilities of caring for young children. Women have many more opportunities for education and work than they had in 1960, which is welcome but also presents new challenges and constraints.

In their contribution to the special issue, Clare Mehta and colleagues propose the term “established adulthood” to distinguish these years as the most intense and demanding years of adult life, characterized by the “crisis of career and care when obligations are high in work and family roles.

– In the forties – between 45 and 60 – the difficult years of caring for young children decrease. Adults reach their peak occupational income and status in their late 40s and 50s. But life can get complicated, as new responsibilities can arise with grandchildren and with aging parents who need more help.

Overall, as Frank Infurna and his colleagues detail in their contribution, mental health declines in midlife. Reports of depression and anxiety are increasing. Seeking professional help for mental health issues peaks in life.

In addition, midlife well-being, health, and life expectancy have declined dramatically in the United States since 2000, especially among working-class adults who have been left behind by the economy. information and technology. This led to an epidemic of “desperate deaths” by suicide, opioid overdoses or alcoholism.

– End-of-life adults, aged 60 to 75, are thriving like never before. Although life past 60 has traditionally been seen as a time of inevitable decline, the reality of it has become markedly different – ​​and better – in recent decades.

Life expectancy at birth is higher than it has ever been in the world, and adults are smarter and healthier for longer than ever. Denis Gerstorf and his colleagues show how these positive trends have occurred in many countries over the past century through improvements in education, nutrition and health care.

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Physical health issues come with age for most people, but more people than ever before are staying healthy well into their 60s and early 70s by maintaining healthy diets and exercise practices. . One of the exciting recent discoveries highlighted in Ursula Staudinger’s article is that regular exercise promotes mental health as well as physical well-being, helping to maintain mental acuity and prevent illness. Alzheimers.

Satisfaction with life also seems to increase later in life, as we gain new freedom to choose the type of work we do – or to stop working altogether and spend more time with it. the people who are dearest to us. According to Phillip Ackerman and Ruth Kanfer, more people are working in their late 60s and early 60s than ever before, but they have more freedom to choose how they do it, whether it’s working on time partial, start a small business or try something they’ve always wanted to do.

The new arc of adulthood requires new concepts and ideas

In my decades of writing about emerging adulthood, I’ve learned that how people think about the stages of human development matters. Thought shapes expectations and how experiences are interpreted. Many compelling and exciting new findings about adult development highlight the importance of rethinking past theories, assumptions, and stereotypes about the course of adult life.

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