Thursday, March 1, 2012

Adulthood Is Hard

Elliot Jaques came up with the term "midlife crisis" in the 1950s I think. The developmental theorists I have studied called it the most productive period of adult life, but it is also the most challenging. Statistically, the evidence shows that not a lot of people have the dramatic overturn of their lives that "midlife crisis" denotes.
According to Erik Erikson, Daniel Levinson, Lawrence Kohlberg, and James Fowler, the period from about 35 or 40 to 60 or 65 marks the time when people see some evidence of their success. Their children are growing up, moving out, and becoming independent. Their job or profession has proved their skill. Their marriage and home are solid and a source of security.
By this time they may have met and resolved some challenges. Many people find a second marriage by this time, perhaps resolving to do it better this time around. Some people have made changes in careers by the age of 40 and hope to have time to experience success in the new field. A change in location may offer a new start with a shift new set of friends and new opportunities.
Even for people who don't have these dramatic changes, some new appreciation of the place they find themselves at this time produces a sense of security and promise. They may shift their focus or establish a new personal goal. This stage in Erikson's theory is called Generativity vs. Stagnation. People often want to share what they have learned. They may seek to mentor yourger members of their profession or their sport.  According to Erikson, failure in this stage brings stagnation.  I like to teach people to make bread or build kites or write poetry. The most difficult thing is to find someone willing to learn the skills they want to teach.
James Fowler estimates that many people never achieve the stage he calls Conjunctive Faith. For those who do, the work is demanding. They have learned that some dreams are impossible. Maybe in the effort to teach someone else, they can extend their reach to achieve goals they did not master personally. There is a certain satisfaction in coming to terms with the hopes they never achieved. We might call it the paradox of sacrifice. Giving up the ideas and claiming the reality brings closure or at least resolution.
I think all the stages are places we revisit after we have "gone through them." We can revise our thoughts and attitudes and clean up our act. We still have places where we need to grow up.

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