While development continues throughout the lifespan, the stages are not nearly as fixed as those we see in childhood. Developmental psychologists recognize three very general stages of adulthood: early adulthood (the 20s and 30s), middle adulthood (the 30s to 60s), and late adulthood (60s onward).
At around age 18, adolescents enter a phase known as emerging adulthood. These young adults have checked off all of the milestones related to adolescence, but may not yet be ready to fully face the responsibilities of adulthood.
Emerging adulthood is marked by increased independence, decision-making, and responsibility, and is characterized by the exploration of various roles, identities, and ideologies. Many people in emerging adulthood are pursuing higher education, establishing their careers, and forming relationships.
This in-between phase can be quite stressful. Some may feel like they still do not truly know their identity, while others may feel unprepared to take on full independence. Typically, these issues will sort themselves out around the mid-twenties age range, though many individuals may continue to struggle well past that point.
While adults retain much of their physical aptitude throughout their early years, physical ability 💪🏼 begins to wane in middle adulthood. This decline gradually begins in our mid-twenties and continues as we progress.
One of the most notable stages of physical change occurring in middle adulthood is characterized by a decline in fertility. Men eventually experience a decline in sperm count and testosterone level and may begin to experience sexual dysfunction not present in their younger years.
Women will enter a phase known as menopause, the natural end of a woman’s menstrual cycle, at around the age of 50. However, a woman’s sexual fertility wanes even before then. A woman may experience more difficulty conceiving in her mid-thirties than she would in her early twenties. After 35, pregnancy and childbirth come with higher levels of risk. This is due in part to a decrease in the number of eggs that a woman has available, as well as changes in the quality of those eggs.
As individuals progress into late adulthood, the physical decline of the human body becomes more apparent. Muscle tone and strength 💪 diminish. The senses, particularly hearing👂🏾and vision 👀, also diminish. As the body ages, health-related complications may arise more frequently.
Just as physical ability declines in middle and late adulthood, so does mental acuity. While long-term memories (especially those most important to us) tend to remain well into our later years, our short-term memory may decrease.
The good news, however, is that the rate of this downward slope is not set in stone. Unfortunately, it will happen to all of us sooner or later. However, efforts to maintain cardiovascular and muscular strength (lifting weights, stretching, remaining active, etc.) and mental abilities (reading, solving puzzles, etc.) can slow this decline.
Image Courtesy of Harvard Health.
Some examples of the physical changes that may occur during this stage of life include:
Decreased muscle mass and strength
Decreased bone density, which can lead to an increased risk of osteoporosis
Changes in skin, including thinning and drying
Decreased ability to regulate body temperature
Decline in organ function, such as the kidneys and liver
Decreased sensory abilities, including vision and hearing
Here are a few mental changes that may occur as well, as we spoke about:
Decreased memory and cognitive function
Changes in sleep patterns
Changes in mood and emotional well-being
With age comes the ever-present awareness of a social clock 🕒. While teenagers tend to have a sense they will live forever, adults must cope with the knowledge that our years are limited. It is important to note that this social clock is largely based on societal and cultural norms.
In our minds, there are social norms that dictate the age at which certain milestones should occur. For many, having a steady income 💰, getting married 💍, having children 👶, and retiring may coincide with ideal ages.
As the years come and go, many may feel a sense of alarm or gravity over not having accomplished these things or simply at the knowledge that they have already happened. We often refer to this as a mid-life crisis.
As we age, our interests and priorities naturally turn to other things.
Psychologists identify these goals as affiliation and achievement, attachment and productivity, connectedness, and competence. These ideas coincide with Erikson’s ideas of intimacy and productivity (Erikson’s theories are discussed at length later in this section).
Throughout adulthood, we form various commitments. For many, the most important of these are related to love 🥰 (both romantic and non-romantic) and achievement 🏆 (career-related accomplishment and fulfillment). For many adults, as time moves on, happiness comes from seeing these commitments come to fruition.
Parents may feel joy in knowing they have produced a happy and healthy child, while another individual may feel content in knowing she has worked hard to make a living throughout her life. If adults cannot find fulfillment in their actions throughout life, they may feel a sense of despair as they age.
Whether a person is 1 or 101, one thing is true: death is unavoidable. As we age, however, this reality becomes much more, well, real. As humans age, not only are they more likely to face their own imminent death, but they are also more likely to experience the deaths of those closest to them.
Grief is a powerful emotion and can take enormous physical tolls on an individual’s body and mind. Contrary to popular belief, there are no sequential and orderly stages of the grief cycle. Still, there are very common reactions that seem to be experienced universally: anger, longing for the lost loved one, eventual acceptance, etc.
While death is a terrifying prospect, it is important to ponder it and the effect it has on us. It is one of the few guarantees in life and we may learn to better accept it once we are able to face it.
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Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development have been instrumental in understanding social development as a whole, not just in the later years of life. However, unlike Piaget and other theorists, Erikson’s theory accounts for the entire lifespan.
Erikson identified eight stages of psychosocial development, each with its own psychosocial task that must be resolved in order to progress to the next stage. These stages begin in infancy and last until late adulthood. To Erikson, we are never quite finished developing.
Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages are as follows:
(birth to 1 yr.)
Trust vs. Mistrust
If needs are met, infants will develop a sense of basic trust.
(1 to 3 yrs.)
Autonomy vs. shame and doubt
Toddlers will develop the confidence to explore and exercise their own will, or they will doubt their abilities.
(3 to 6 yrs.)
Initiative vs. guilt
Children will learn to initiate tasks on their own or they will feel guilty about their desire for independence
(6 yrs. to puberty)
Competence vs. Inferiority
Children learn to enjoy applying themselves to a task or they will feel inferior
(teens into 20s)
Identity vs. Confusion
Teenagers test roles and work to find a sense of self and identity or they become confused about who they are
Young Adulthood (20s to 40s)
Intimacy vs. Isolation
Young adults develop the capacity to form lasting intimate love or they will feel isolated
Middle Adulthood (40s to 60s)
Generativity vs. Stagnation
People begin to experience a sense of contribution through family and work, or they may feel a lack of purpose
(late 60s and up)
Integrity vs. Despair
Reflecting upon their life, one will feel either satisfaction or despair
Erikson's theory is widely recognized and has had a significant impact on the field of psychology. It provides a framework for understanding how individuals progress through different stages of development and how they may be affected by the challenges they face at each stage.