Adult development was discovered in the late 20th Century by American psychologists. Apparently, men and women change over their lifetime. Novelists have known this for a long time and have been writing about changing life perspectives, values and practices for several centuries. For psychologists, it was a matter of moving beyond the notion that most important development occurs during childhood (the psychoanalytic perspective) or that one’s perspectives, values and practices are primary determined during a lifetime by the environment and events that swirl around oneself (the behavioral perspective).
Stages and Center Stage
The initial lifelong developmental perspective was offered by Erik Erikson, a former actor, who took the notion of “stage” and applied it to predictable development issues that tend to take “center stage” at specific times in life (other issues remaining on stage but less visible). Springboarding from his initial work in the 1950s and 1960s, a large volume of studies and publications have been produced.
The whole notion of adult development gained high public visibility when Gail Sheehy published Passages and when Daniel Levinson and his colleagues offered Seasons of a Man’s Life and later Seasons of a Woman’s Life. The novelists were suddenly joined by psychologist in writing about the adolescent identity crisis, challenges at mid-life, and despair during the senior years of life. As this short list reveals, most of the headlines spoke to the negative side of adult development and change. We have to prepare ourselves for the multiple skirmishes that are going to occur on the battlefield of life.
This is not what Erik Erikson intended. He considered two sides to each development stage. One side led to a more productive mode of life, while the other led to less productive and often destructive modes. Trust is set against mistrust and Hope is the positive outcome. At a second stage, Autonomy struggles with Shame and Douby. A positive outcome concerns Will. At a third stage, initiative is set against Guilt, with a positive outcome being a clearer sense of Purpose.
Moving toward adulthood, one confronts at center stage the tension between Industry and Inferiority. A positive outcome increases a sense of competency. As young adults we struggle with Identity and its opposite (Confusion). Successful work at this stage leads to fidelity. Later, the matter of Intimacy is center stage and is set up against isolation, with Love being the positive outcome. At mid-life, the central theme becomes Generativity, with Stagnation representing the alternative force. A sense of Care becomes the positive outcome. Finally, in later life, Integrity is set up against Despair, with Wisdom being the positive outcome.
It is also important to note that development keeps moving forward in our life even if we have done a lousy job of meeting the issues associated with our current stage. This particular perspective that Erikson offers is often overlooked in the description of lifelong psychological development. It just gets worse as we move along in life: our inability to cope with the challenges of one developmental stage makes it that much more difficult to cope with the challenges of the following stage(s). For some people, the problem begins with the very first Eriksonian stage. They are unable to establish a trusting relationship with significant people in their life (primarily their caretakers) and struggle with issues of trust throughout their life.1K Club