Stages of Life

Some theorists disagree with the idea of stability in adulthood. Instead, they see a series of stages. One such theorist is Daniel Levinson of the Yale School of Medicine. Levinson's work on stages of adult life provided the basis for Gail Sheehy's popular book Passages and the phrase "mid-life crisis." Levinson (1986) saw life as a sequence of eras.

How does Levinson view the 17-22 year old stage?

Preadulthood in Levinson's view "extends from conception to roughly age 22." Starting around age 17, the adolescent becomes more independent, moving into a stage Levinson calls early adult transition (ages 17 to 22) that is the "infancy of a new era."

Why is "early adulthood" such a mixed bag?

Early adulthood from about 17 to 45 is the era of "greatest energy and abundance and greatest contradiction and stress." It is the most productive time of a person's life, during which one carves one's niche in the adult world. The satisfactions can be rich, but the stresses can be "crushing." "We incur heavy financial obligations when our earning power is still relatively low," notes Levinson. Important choices about marriage, family, and work are made before the person necessarily has enough maturity to choose wisely.

What is the "midlife transition"?

Midlife transition from age 40 to 45 is the source of the popular "midlife crisis" concept. A person feels more in a race with time, sometimes frustrated by a failure to attain youthful goals. The individual must either grow as an individual, becoming more "reflective and judicious," or risk settling into "trivial and stagnant" patterns.

These stages are followed by middle adulthood (age 40 to 60) and late adulthood (65 on) linked by an intermediate stage: late adulthood transition (60 to 65). Each of Levinson's "eras" is conceived as a stable state, connected to the preceding era by an unstable transitional stage, so it is the pattern of saltation and stasis or punctuated equilibrium again.

Sheehy's follow-up to Passages, titled Pathfinders, breaks away from the Levinson model to take a different tack, emphasizing dramatic and unpredicted changes in adult life, rather than predictable stages. Sheehy sought examples of adults who took risks and made dramatic changes in their lives.

Thus Delia Barnes, a tired, burned-out housewife of 28, enters a seminary, fights a bitter battle within her church to become an ordained minister, and emerges in her mid-40s as an energetic preacher and family life educator who can say, 'I feel at last a firm sense of my identity.' (Rubin, 1981b)

How many people do make major changes in adulthood?

Such dramatic life changes are easily obscured by data that shows stability in the majority of people. After all, if 80% of adults make no large-scale changes in personality for their entire adult lives, that still means 20%—1 out of 5—do make major changes. Maybe that is a large number instead of a small number. It depends on your perspective.

Chapter 11 (Personality) includes another lifespan stage theory, that of Erik Erikson. Coming out of a European and modified Freudian perspective, Erikson's system resembles Levinson's in positing a series of stable states punctuated by challenges. Erikson called the challenges crises.

How does Erikson's system resemble Levinson's?

Erikson does not divide adulthood into as many different stages as Levinson. Erikson sees adulthood between the ages of 25 and 64 as one stage in which the challenge is generativity versus stagnation. It is the question of whether one produces something good for society or falls into stagnant activity in adulthood. This sounds much like the issue Levinson described in connection with "midlife crisis." For Erikson, there is one last stage between age 65 and death in which the challenge is maintaining integrity and existential identity rather than despair, in the face of physical disintegration.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey