Before concluding this discussion of social development during our adult years, we’ll briefly describe one theory that considers the changes and transitions we experience during our adult lives, the controversial theory proposed by Levinson (1986). Because it is a stage theory. However, Levinson’s theory deals in part with aspects of social development, so it makes sense to consider it here.
Let’s begin with a crucial aspect of Levinson’s theory—a concept he terms the life structure. This term refers to the underlying patterns of a person’s life at a particular time, an evolving cognitive framework reflecting an individual’s views about the nature and meaning of his or her life.
Work and family are usually central to the life structure, but it may include other components as well—for example, a person’s racial or ethnic background, or important external events that provide a backdrop for life, such as an economic boom or depression. According to Levinson, individuals have different life structures at different times during their adult years and move from one to another through transition periods lasting about five years.
Levinson divides our adult years into four major eras, each separated from the next by a transition period. As you can see, the first transition occurs between the pre-adult eras, the time before we are adults, and early adulthood. Taking place between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, this transition involves establishing one’s independence, both financial and emotional. It is marked by such events as establishing a separate residence and learning to live on one’s own.
Once this first transition is complete, individuals enter early adulthood. Two key components of their life structure at this time are what Levinson terms the dream and the mentor. The dream is a vision of future accomplishments, what the person hopes to achieve in the years ahead. Mentors are older and more experienced individuals who help guide young adults. Both the dream and the mentor play an important part in our early adult years.
At about age thirty, Levinson suggests, many people experience what he terms the age thirty transition. At this time individuals realize that they are nearing the point of no return. If they remain in their present life course, they will soon have too much invested to change. Faced with this fact, they reexamine their initial choices and either make specific changes or conclude that they have indeed chosen the best course.
Now, after the relative calm of the closing years of early adulthood, individuals move into another potentially turbulent transitional period—the midlife transition. For most people this occurs somewhere between the ages of forty and forty-five. It is a time when many people must come to terms for the first time with their own mortality. Up until this period, most people view themselves as “still young.” After age forty, however, many come to view themselves as the older generation.
Levinson’s findings suggest that for many persons this realization leads to a period of emotional turmoil. They take stock of where they have been the success of their past choices, and the possibility of reaching their youthful dreams. This leads to the formation of a new life structure, one that takes account of the individual’s new position in life and may involve new elements such as a change in career direction, divorce, or a redefinition of one’s relationship with one’s spouse.
Many persons experience another period of transition between ages fifty and fifty-five, a transition in which they consider modifying their life structure once again, for example, by adopting a new role in their career or by coming to view themselves as a grandparent as well as a parent. However, this transition is often less dramatic than one that occurs somewhere between the ages of sixty and sixty-five. This late-adult transition marks the close of the middle years and the start of late adulthood.
During this transition, individuals must come to terms with their impending retirement and the major life changes it will bring. As they move through this period of readjustment, their life structure shifts to include these changes. For example, they may come to see themselves as persons whose working career is over or almost over, and who will now have much more leisure time to pursue hobbies and other interests.
In several respects Levinson’s picture of social development during our adult years seems to match our com-nonsense ideas about this process. Relatively long periods of stability are punctuated by shorter, turbulent periods in which we come to terms with changes in our goals, status, and outlook.
However, it’s important to note that Levinson based his theory primarily on extensive interviews with only forty participants; all men, all living in the United States, and all ages thirty-five to forty-five. Critics argue that this is too small and too restricted a sample on which to base such a sweeping framework.
In addition, and perhaps even more important, it is uncertain whether Levinson’s suggestions apply to women as well as men. Women in many societies face a different set of issues and problems as they age. For instance, they, more than men, have the responsibility of caring for their elderly parents, also, if they have remained at home to concentrate on child rearing during at least a portion of their lives, women may experience greater changes than men do when their youngest child sets out to establish an independent life.
To deal with the issue of gender, Levinson conducted further research on a sample of forty-five women ages thirty-five to forty-five. Some were homemakers, others had academic careers, and a third group had careers in the business world. Levinson reported that the women in his sample went through the same sequence of eras and periods, and at roughly the same ages, as men. However, he did find differences between men and women in several respects.
For example, during the midlife transition, many women who had chosen the traditional role of homemaker expressed strong regrets about their choice and had what he described as a “rock-bottom” experience in which they questioned whether the sacrifices they had made for their marriages and families were justified.
This finding has been further explored by Stewart and Van dewater (1999) in a longitudinal study of women at two ages- thirty-six and forty-seven. When they were thirty-six, the women were asked whether they had any regrets about having chosen to marry and become homemakers rather than pursue a career and whether they wished to make a change.
When they were forty-seven, the same women were asked these questions again, and were also asked to indicate whether they had made a career-relevant change entered a new career, taken courses, and so on. In addition, the women provided information on their physical and psychological well-being.
The researchers found that many of the women in the study expressed regret over their earlier choice to become a homemaker, and many stated the desire to change their lives and careers.
Further, those who expressed regret and a desire to change and then actually made changes in their lives reported higher physical and psychological adjustment than those who also expressed regrets but had not made such changes. These findings suggest that as Levinson proposed, many women review their lives in midlife and both seek and make important changes, especially if they regret their earlier lifestyle choices.
What, then, can we conclude about Levinson’s theory? That some findings offer support for his conclusion that “There is … a single human life cycle through which all our lives evolve”, but that we must take careful note of gender, race, and socioeconomic factors that may strongly affect various aspects of this cycle.