Psychosocial Stages of Adulthood

Beyond adolescence, Erikson also identified three psychosocial stages of adulthood: early adulthood, middle age, and old age. The first, roughly the period of one's twenties and thirties, begins with the person's moving out from under the insulating protection of the adolescent psychosocial moratorium. One's choices (of marriage, career, family) cease to be "as if'; they are now profoundly real commitments with long-term impact. Making such commitments is not only a momentary event (such as saying "I do") but requires devoting oneself to living an ongoing and open-ended history. This new situation inaugurates the next psychosocial development, which Erik-son names the crisis of intimacy versus isolation. Intimacy here has a broader range than its connotation of sexual relations: It encompasses the capacity to relate to another with fullness and mutuality. To be fully open with and to another person entails obvious risks—of being misunderstood or rejected—but with it comes the enormous gain of true love. To experience the closeness, sharing, and valuing of the other without boundaries is the hallmark of an infinite relationship (infinite, that is, not necessarily in duration but in depth). The relationship with a loved other is the evident psychosocial context of this growth. If it does not occur, then the early adult will come to experience instead a deep sense of isolation and loneliness. This consequence can accrue either through the failure to enter into a relationship or through the failure, within a relationship, to achieve intimacy. Some of the most terrible afflictions of isolation at this stage are within those marriages so lacking in intimacy that the couple are essentially isolated even though living together.

Beginning around age forty, a further stage of adult psychosocial development begins: middle age. The situation has once again changed. People are no longer merely starting out on their adulthood but have by now achieved a place in the adult world. Typically, if they are going to have a family, they have got it by now; if a career, they are well launched by now. Indeed, middle age, the period from forty to sixty-five, marks the attainment of the height of a person's worldly powers and responsibilities. Whatever worldly mountain one is going to climb in this lifetime, it is during middle age that one gets as high up it as one will go. The arrival at this new position opens the door to the next stage of development. Now the psychosocial growth will involve one's social relations with the next generation, centered on the issue of generativity versus stagnation. The long plateau of middle age offers the opportunity to become helpful to those who follow along that upward climb. These are, most immediately, one's own children but also include the next generation in the community, on the job, in the profession, in the whole human family. The middle-aged adult is in the position of being the teacher, the mentor, the instituter, the creator, the producer—the generator. Having arrived at the peak of one's own mountain, one no longer need be so concerned about placating someone else and so is able now fully to be oneself. To be an original, the middle-aged adult can also originate in the truest sense: to give of oneself to those who, following along behind, need that help. In this way, the person grows the specific ego-strength of care: an extending of oneself to others in an asymmetric way, giving without expectation of an equal return, precisely because one can. The failure to grow in this way results in stagnation—the disillusioned boredom of a life going nowhere. Some middle-aged adults, trying futilely to ward off this gnawing feeling of stagnation, hide behind desperate efforts of self-absorption, what Erikson called "treating oneself as one's one and only child."

By the late sixties, a variety of changes mark the onset of the final stage of psychosocial development: old age. Retirement, becoming a grandparent, declining health, and even the increasingly frequent death of one's own age-mates precipitate a new issue into the forefront: one's own mortality. While people at every age know they are mortal, this knowledge has no particular impact on one's life when one is younger because it is then so easily overlooked. In contrast, by old age, this knowledge of one's mortality is now woven into the very fabric of one's everyday life in a way that it can no longer be evaded by imagining it postponed until some distant, abstract future.

American society tends to avoid really confronting one's being-towards-death. Some psychologists have gone so far as to say that death has replaced sex as the primary cultural taboo, hidden in hospital rooms and code words ("passed on," "put to sleep," "expired"). Fearing death, people find it very hard to grow old. If one is not available to the growth opportunities of this stage, one is likely to sink instead into despair—a feeling of regret over a life not lived. Often even one's despair cannot be faced and is then hidden beneath feelings of disgust and bitterness: a self-contempt turned outward against the world.

Erikson points out that this final stage of life offers the opportunity for the ultimate growth of the ego. To embrace one's mortality fully allows one to stand open-eyed at the edge of one's life, a perspective from which it becomes possible to really see one's life as a whole. One can then see, and own, one's life as one's own responsibility, admitting of no substitutes. It is this holistic vision of one's life that Erikson calls integrity: the full integration of the personality. It is in this vision that people can actually realize that their own lives are also integrated with life as a whole, in a seamless web of interconnections. Thus, the ego finally finds its ultimate, transpersonal home within the whole of being. It is this perspective that opens the door to wisdom, the final growth.

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Conquering Fear In The 21th Century

Conquering Fear In The 21th Century

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