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Adults: Overview

Abstract and Keywords

Various models and theories of adult development exist but they are more assumptions about development than theories. The most popular age and stage theories have lost favor to contextual theories that put more emphasis on interaction with the environment. It has also become recognized that adults are a diverse group and do not follow universal stages of development. The usefulness of chronological age is also questionable as it does not tell us much about any particular person. Instead, we have to know their concerns and the events they are dealing with, and their dreams and aspirations.

Keywords: age and stage theory, contextual model, diversity, ecological system theory, life-span theory, life-course perspective, mechanistic model, organismic model, plasticity, universality

This overview addresses various models and other differences in theories of adult development, selected challenges faced by adults, trends and directions in the field of adult development, and implications for social work.

Demographics

In the 20–100 years and older age range, the number of African Americans is 262,360; American Indian, Alaska Native 190,700; Asian, 844,800; Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islanders 338,000; Hispanic, 247,990; and White, 200,940,000. This adds up to a total of 389,325,000 adults counted in the 2000 census. The number of immigrants was 275,270 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005a). The median age (half are younger and half older) in the United States was 35.3 years in 2000. This is the highest median age ever recorded and reflects the aging of the baby boomers. Almost one of five Americans will be 65 years by 2030. Those aged 85 and older are the fastest growing age group (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005b). These demographics have increased the interest in and the scholarship on adult development.

Differences Among Theories of Adult Development

The current theories of adult development vary by model and other dimensions. The models include the following:

Organismic Model. Persons are viewed as active with an internal impetus for development. Development follows a genetic blueprint and its own timetable. Age and stage theories follow this model.

Mechanistic Model. Persons are viewed as passive in regard to environmental influence. They react to their environment and their experiences. Because each person's experience is unique, there is no preset blueprint for development. Instead, behavior is thought to be learned.

Contextual Model. Persons are viewed as developing from an interaction of their biological and genetic nature, the environment, and a particular historical period. This model integrates the other two models and is now more influential than the other two models by themselves (Lemme, 2006).

Another dimension on which the theories differ is universality versus diversity. Universality implies that all adults develop in the same way, in the same sequences, and at the same rates. Diversity implies that persons develop differently and in different sequences. Theories also differ along the dimensions of developmental progress and developmental change. Developmental progress assumes a goal or endpoint toward which one moves. Developmental change does not assume any endpoint, goal, improvement, or growth. Theories also differ in whether they use stages (usually linked to chronological ages) or not (Bee & Bjorklund, 2004).

Related Theory

Several categories of related theory on adults exist. They include the traditional age and stage theories and the more contextual theories. Some age and stage theories are mechanistic as they consider the influence of the environment on adult development to varying degrees. However, most of these theories are organismic and attribute development to an innate, genetic blueprint. They also assume universality in that everyone experiences the same events or challenges at about the same time.

Freud and Jung

Contemporary age and stage theory evolved from Freud's (1920) psychoanalytic theory, although he did not propose adult stages. Adulthood represented a reenactment of early childhood experiences. In contrast, Jung (1933) concentrated mainly on the second half of life. Age 40 is a particularly important turning point with the beginning of individuation or becoming more of oneself. Inner conflicts are also resolved between the polar opposites of masculine versus feminine, creation versus destruction, youth versus age, and separation versus attachment.

Erikson

Erikson (1950) proposed stages of psychosocial development that continued over the life span. His work is organismic because there is a built-in ground plan of development and his stages are universal and hierarchical. It is also contextual as it addresses the interaction between persons and society.

According to Erikson, persons progress through eight stages. The first five stages cover infancy through adolescence while the last three stages cover young adulthood through older adulthood. In each stage, one confronts a psychosocial crisis. The crisis is resolved in an adaptive or maladaptive way. Maladaptive resolution results in unfinished work and unresolved conflict so that it is more difficult to resolve the next stage. In an adaptive resolution, one develops a basic strength or virtue. Even if an adaptive result, however, the crises are never permanently resolved. The same issues will come up again and either adaptive or maladaptive outcomes can result.

Erikson's work is viewed as providing the strongest momentum for the field of adult development. Because of this the three adult stages are identified here:

Intimacy Versus Isolation (young adulthood, 20s–30s). For positive resolution, one must develop the capacity to share with and care about others, without fear of losing one's identity. The virtue is love. The alternative is to be alone or experience isolation (Erikson, 1950).

Generativity Versus Self-Absorption and Stagnation (middle adulthood, 40–65). Growing awareness of mortality leads to generativity or concern about future generations and the legacy one will leave behind. The virtue is care. Usually, the legacy involves nurturing, teaching, leading, or in some other way promoting the next generation. The alternative is to remain focused on one's own needs and wants or being self-absorbed. This results in stagnation.

Integrity Versus Despair (late adulthood to death). Integrity results when one looks back over one's life and evaluates it as satisfying and meaningful. The alternative is despair or evaluating one's life as unsatisfying, having great regrets, and feeling that there is no time to change anything.

Erikson's theory is appealing because of its coverage of the full life span. But its limitations include a lack of specificity in the stages and lack of applicability to women and other cultures. For example, women may not experience a separate stage of intimacy, as it is prevalent in all stages for women (Gilligan, 1982). And studies of generativity have shown that it may come and go during the life span and in different forms (Kotre, 1984; Stewart & Vanderwater, 1998). The theory also relies on clinical observations versus empirical data. However, others have started to test this theory. One study by Whitbourne, Zuschlag, Elliot, and Waterman (1992) found support for the theory, although the developmental sequence and timetable may be much more variable across persons.

Havighurst

Havighurst (1953) proposed an alternative stage theory of life span development. His theory was based on developmental tasks that are major accomplishments required of a person at a particular point in life. Examples of tasks include selecting a mate during early adulthood, adjusting to aging parents during middle age, and adjusting to retirement and reduced income during later life.

Levinson

During the 1970s, three new books on adult development were published (Gould, 1978; Levinson, 1978; Valliant, 1977). Daniel Levinson's book has been the most influential. It was based on a sample of 40 men but a subsequent book on women was published posthumously in 1996. The males studied were between ages 35 and 45. Data collection came from extensive biographical interviewing that included 10–20 hr per subject over a 2–3-month period. A follow-up interview occurred 2 years later.

Levinson described the life span as having a sequence of eras lasting about 25 years. They include childhood and adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, and late adulthood. Alternating stable and transitional periods occur throughout life. Stable periods usually last from 5 to 7 years, 10 at the most. Transitional periods last about 5 years and occur within and between eras. Transitions from one era to another are called cross-era transitions and represent major turning points.

Within each era, stages begin with a novice stage and end with a culminating stage. Key choices are made about the kind of life one wants to live during an era. One sets priorities and pursues goals compatible with them. But eventually the choices come into question and this sets up a transitional period. One reassesses the choices, reaffirms some choices, explores options, and pursues new possibilities. Often a sense of separation and loss accompanies the ending of an old period but excitement over possibilities and potential occurs as a new period begins. Each step along the way has its own content to contend with. For example, the midlife transition contains issues such as awareness of mortality or not realizing one's dream for one's life. Questions arise such as “What have I done with my life?” or “What do I want for myself and others?”

Levinson noted that the life structure was the key concept in his study. It represents the underlying pattern or design of one's life at a given time. It entails choices and commitments and the social roles and activities that go along with them. The major central elements of the life structure are marriage, family, and work.

Levinson's work, although influential, has been controversial. The samples were small and interviews have potential bias and are difficult to replicate. Although he found age-related periods in the basic framework, there was considerable diversity in specific life events. Levinson also put emphasis on the midlife transition as one of turmoil, but empirical evidence of this phenomenon is mixed.

Another issue of the Levinson's first study is the sample of only men. In the later publication on women and other studies using his approach, women were found to go through the same sequences of eras and periods at the same ages as did the men. But women formed different life structures as their opportunities and constraints were different. Also the lives of both the men and the women reflected a particular sociohistorical period.

Other theories have no age and stages. In addition, some put much more emphasis on the effects of the environment and historical period.

Loevinger

Loevinger (1976) proposed a theory of ego development. One can progress in ego development over time but she did not talk in terms of stages. Instead her theory proposes milestones or markers along a continuum in the areas of interpersonal relations, moral judgment, and conceptual complexity. There is also not a strong link to ages as persons can be anywhere along the continuum at any age. The rate of movement also varies widely. The milestones are as follows:

Impulsive, or being egocentric. This is representative of children. If it persists into adolescence and beyond at worst it could be psychopathic.

Self-protective, or being opportunistic and manipulative. This is also characteristic of children. In adolescence or adulthood, it is manifested as exploitation of or taking advantage of others.

Conformist, or having respect for rules. One is cooperative and loyal and thinks in terms of stereotypes and clichés.

Self-aware, or beginning to develop an inner life. Thinks that exceptions to simple rules are allowable.

Conscientious, or having self-evaluated standards. One is self-critical and responsible.

Individualistic, or having a broad view of life as a whole. Thinks in terms of psychological causes, and considers one's own developmental process.

Autonomous, or seeing the multifaceted nature of the world. Life is complex and does not have simple answers or even one best answer. One sees one's own life in a social context.

Integrated, or combining the vital concerns of one's life with those of the wider society. Has fully worked out one's identity.

Few persons move beyond the self-aware stage.

Valliant

Valliant (1977, 1993) also proposed developmental progress without stages. He was interested in knowing how adults adapt psychologically to challenges they face. He studied adaptation in the form of defense mechanisms. This was Freud's concept for normal, unconscious strategies used to deal with anxiety. What Valliant added was that some defense mechanisms are more mature than others. Those considered more mature include the following: anticipation (experiencing emotions prior to events and developing realistic alternative responses or solutions), affiliation (seeking others for help or support, not blaming others for one's problems), altruism (meeting the needs of others; gratification from others' responses), self-assertion (expressing feelings or thoughts without being manipulative or coercive), self-observation (reflecting on one's thoughts, feelings, motivations, and behavior, and responding appropriately), sublimation (refocusing potentially maladaptive feelings or impulses into socially acceptable behavior), and suppression (intentionally not thinking about disturbing problems, wishes, feelings, or experiences).

According to Valliant (1977), one copes best with mature defense mechanisms and will be more successful in one's personal and professional life. The progression to using mature defense mechanisms is gradual, and as Loevinger's theory states, not everyone reaches the more mature levels.

Bronfenbrenner

The ecological system theory developed by Bronfenbrenner (1979) is gaining in prominence because of its contextualism and its view that persons are active constructors of reality. Reality as perceived by persons is real in its consequences. Bronfenbrenner also proposed that a human being is a complex system of biological, emotional, cognitive, and social elements. Persons also experience reciprocal relationships with present and past environments.

The environment is conceptualized as a group of four nested structures. Each structure is contained within the next and is a part of the whole. The person is in the center of the group of structures. The four structures include the microsystem, which is the innermost part of the environment. It involves direct interactions with people and objects and has three main elements: activities, roles, and relationships. The mesosystem includes interactions beyond the microsystem. An example is the relationships between home and job and the effects they have on each other. It is the interaction between microsystems that is important instead of another layer of environment. Because the mesosystem is a system of microsystems, the mesosystem expands when one takes on a new role or enters the settings associated with it. It is reduced when roles are ended. Shifts in roles and situations are called egological transitions and occur throughout the life span. The exosystem includes settings that we do not directly participate in, although they act in and influence microsystems. For example, a company can make a decision at a board meeting to downsize the company. Employees not on the board had nothing to do with this decision, yet it may affect their work, home life, income, and style of life. The macrosystem entails the widely shared beliefs and values that determine how social groups are organized. Public policy also operates at the macrosystem level as it reflects the beliefs and values of a society. Public policy can maintain or change the environment and thereby the behavior. The macrosystem is also influenced by the sociohistorical context and so it is fluid and evolving. There can, however, be a structural lag when the macrosystem and its social institutions do not keep up with changes in individual lives. An example is the increasing length of the life span and the lack of meaningful roles and other opportunities available to older adults.

Life-Span Theory

Another increasingly influential theory is the life-span developmental perspective because it relates to constancy and change over the live span. This theory, developed by Baltes (1987), does not apply formal stages to adult life because of the variability in adult lives. Instead of shared stages, adults adapt to unique constellations of life experiences.

Life stage theory promotes six beliefs as a way to think about development:

  1. 1. Development is a lifelong process. No time of life is more prominent than others as at any time new possibilities may emerge.

  2. 2. Development includes both gains and losses. Gains and losses happen at any time in the life span.

  3. 3. Development is multidimentional, multidirectional, and multicausal. Development occurs across many areas, including physical, social, emotional, and cognitive. Each area is related but also independent. They follow their own pattern or trajectory and timetable. Therefore, change can occur in many areas, can proceed in different directions, and is caused by many different factors.

  4. 4. Development is plastic. Plasticity suggests that development is modifiable because of life conditions and experiences. What are not known are the conditions under which plasticity occurs, the degree to which it can occur, or the constraints on its occurrence.

  5. 5. Development happens in historical, cultural, and social contexts. All aspects of development are affected by these conditions over one's life span. Baltes (1979) added three categories of conditions that influence development: (a) normative age-graded or predictable, universally experienced events such as puberty and menopause; (b) normative history-graded or events that occur in a particular historical period such as wars, terror attacks, September 11, 2001, or technological advances; (c) nonnormative events or unique experiences that are not predictable and do not happen to everyone.

  6. 6. Development is a multidisciplinary field. Contributions to the study of development are being made in many different fields of study.

Life-Course Theory

The last theory discussed here is life-course theory developed by Elder (1998). It also looks at the interaction among social structures, culture, biological components, and psychological components. Role is one of the key concepts. Role conflict can occur when one attempts to fulfill the demands of two or more roles simultaneously. This conflict occurs when two or more roles are partially or wholly incompatible logistically or psychologically. Role strain occurs when one's qualities or skills are a poor match for the demands of a role.

Other key concepts in life-course theory include life trajectory, life transitions, and turning point. Life trajectory is the long-term view of change over the course of a person's life. Life transitions are the short-term view such as the change from being single to being married. Any transition can also become a turning point if the transition results in substantive changes. The impact of a transition may also depend on timing such as becoming a parent at age 40 or becoming a parent while trying to get promoted at one's job. An additional factor is the length of time between two transitions.

Elder identified four principles of life-course theory: (a) Principle of historical times and places or the fact that one's life course is shaped by one's historical times and place; (b) Principle of timing or the developmental impact of a transition depends on when it occurs in one's life; (c) Principle of linked lives or the interdependence of lives and the expression of social and historical influences through this network of shared relationships; (d) Principle of constructionism or persons construct their own lives through the choices they make and actions they take within the constraints and opportunities of historical and social circumstances.

All the theories of adult development have limitations. None of them have been well tested or even qualify in a formal sense as theories. They are metatheories or assumptions about development. Some are based on small and unrepresentative samples. And the samples were only from Western culture and were primarily White and middle-class.

Most developmental theories are in the age and stage category. And they do not address one's environment or the interaction between one's development and the environment. They indicate universal progression and do not suggest the variability among adults due to their environment and life situations such as role changes. Only the contextual theory by Bronfenbrenner addresses the environment. Life span theory also addresses the need to look at multiple levels that influence development. The theories of Bronfenbrenner, Loevinger, and Valliant do not use the age and stage approach. Only Loevinger did empirical research on her theory. Some theories such as the one developed by Erikson have been examined empirically by others. Some theories developed from samples only on men, including those by Valliant and Levinson (although a theory about women was developed by his wife and published after his death). In social work the most used theories are probably those by Freud and Erikson. But these theories, although useful on some levels, do not reflect interest in a clients' environment and life situations and their influence on development. It is important, therefore, to make additional use of theories that emphasize the environment and life situations. We cannot fully understand an adult's life by just looking at the psychological level.

Selected Life Challenges

The current emphasis on nonstage views of adult development was evident in several of the theories discussed. Issues, events, or processes that apply across adult life are now the predominant focus in the adult development literature. As not all the possible topics can be addressed here, a general view of several processes that are particularly challenging will be briefly discussed here. They include differences in cognitive abilities, physical changes, health and diseases, and life satisfaction. Much more about these and other topics related to adult development is available in current adult textbooks and journal articles.

Cognitive Abilities

This discussion focuses on intelligence, although it is not easy to define. One modern definition of intelligence is the mental activity used to successfully adapt to one's environment. This has been called successful intelligence (Sternberg, 2004), practical intelligence, or competence (Birren, 1985). Intelligence is also increasingly described in contextual terms because different environments call for different responses.

A major question about intelligence is, what happens to it over time? A decrementalist view of intellectual development has been prominent. It predicts universal, inevitable, and pervasive decline. But this view has been challenged. The early studies, which were cross-sectional, covered up the variation among adults. Later longitudinal studies found that for many persons cognitive development remains stable or even improves. Some persons in their 70s outperform some persons in their 30s. And, most older adults fall well within the normal range of intellectual performance until their 80s (Schaie, 1996). Some new cognitive abilities may emerge in adulthood (Perlmutter, 1988). Other abilities such as pragmatic intelligence tend to increase over time. This involves application of knowledge to solve problems and adapt to different environments (Baltes, 1987). But, individual differences have been found among adults. For some of them, intelligence does decline either slowly or rapidly.

The challenge is, how to avoid decline in intelligence? Among the key factors preventing decline is exposing oneself to stimulation through environmental and occupational complexity. Complex environments have a beneficial effect whereas simple environments have a detrimental effect (Schooler, 1990). Complex environments challenge one with more diverse stimuli and more complicated and ill-defined problems and thus require more decisions. Simple environments do not demand high cognitive effort and result in lower cognitive development or decline (Lemme, 2006). Another strong factor enhancing cognitive functioning is mental flexibility or the capacity to use a variety of approaches and perspectives resulting in alternative solutions to cognitive problems (Schooler, 1990).

Physical Changes

The challenge here is to not believe the myths of aging such as all changes as we age are attributable to biological aging and we cannot control any of them. Aging is not a purely biological process. Genetic influence on aging may be as low as 30% (Rowe & Kahn, 1998) so that we may have much more control over aging and health than we used to think through lifestyle and environment. Primary aging is genetically programmed, but secondary aging results from extrinsic factors such as poor diet, smoking, or too much exposure to sunlight. Persons experience complex and reciprocal interactions with various layers of the environment, which results in enormous diversity in how they age. This diversity increases as persons get older.

The conclusion here is that the number of programmed inevitable and decremental aging changes is probably much less than previously believed. And age-related decrements are hardly noticeable until they reach a certain threshold level. This may happen quite late in life or under conditions of extreme stress.

Health and Diseases

The peak of health for most persons happens in young adulthood, but most adults are in good health and experience few limitations or disabilities (Older Americans, 2012). Still, health and mobility does decline with age, especially after the age of 80. Chronic conditions increase in frequency after the age of 65. These conditions may be treatable but are not curable.

Most (two-thirds) Americans will die from heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, or accidents. Six of ten will die from heart disease, cancer, and stroke (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2004). Of these diseases, most Americans will die from coronary heart disease (CHD), or heart attack. CHD accounts for about two-thirds of cardiovascular disease, which also includes hypertension (or high blood pressure), cerebrovascular accidents (strokes), and rheumatic heart disease (American Heart Association, 1995).

Significant gender differences have been prevalent with CHD. Its signs show up 10–20 years later in women than in men. Before menopause, estrogen seems to lower the risk of CHD in women, but when estrogen production dramatically drops following menopause the risk increases (American Heart Association, 1998). Women are also twice as likely to die of a heart attack within the first few weeks as are men, and more women (44%) than men (27%) die within a year following a heart attack (American Heart Association, 1997). This situation reflects how the environment impacts persons. The death rate probably results from later diagnosis for women and so the disease is more advanced before it is recognized. Cardiac signs in women are ignored, misinterpreted, or minimized (Healy, 1991). The death rate for African American women from CHD is 35.3% higher than for other women (American Heart Association, 1997). Women may also not receive as aggressive treatment or surgical management of their heart conditions as men receive (Young & Kahana, 1994). On the other hand, the accepted interventions for men are often inadequate or ineffective when used with women (Ayanian & Epstein, 1991).

Years of exclusive focus on men's health left women disadvantaged regarding the development of effective preventive strategies, diagnostic tools, and interventions (Sherman, 1993). The challenge here is external; the medical profession has responsibility to change this situation. Fortunately for women, this change has begun to happen. Attention to the cardiovascular health of women has increased. Under federal mandate, research in this area cannot proceed (without good cause) unless women and ethnic minority women and men are included (Marshall, 1994). Ethnic minorities generally experience more health problems than do Whites, and the problems develop earlier in life, are more severe, and more often fatal (American Heart Association, 1997). Attention is also now given to the bias in diagnosis and treatment of women (Holm & Penckofer, 1995). Advances are also being made in breast cancer because of pressure from women's groups. It has moved to the forefront of attention because of efforts of the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Public Health Services Task Force on Women's Health Issues, the formation of the Office of Research on Women's Health, and the development of the NIH Women's Health Research Agenda (Woods, 1995). These various circumstances are an example of when action at the macro level and social and medical policy levels is required to change the situation at the micro level. We will see the effects on persons with CHD and other diseases (in this case women and ethnic minorities). See the Web sites of the American Cancer Society (http://www.cancer.org/docroot/STT/content/STT_1x_Cancer_Facts__Figures_2006.asp) and the American Heart Society (http://www.heart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=1200026) to keep up with rates of illness, deaths, and other information.

Behavioral factors are also critical here as in everything else about adult development. Preventive behaviors, including regular physical exercise, eliminating smoking, adequate calcium intake, eliminating overweight, and good nutrition, may help hold off health problems. The 2007 Web site of the American Heart Association (http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/GettingHealthy_UCM_001078_SubHomePage.jsp) has many useful suggestions for a healthy lifestyle, including diet, weight, exercise, and control of cholesterol.

Happiness and Life Satisfaction

Most Americans are happy or evaluate their lives as positive and say that they are satisfied with their lives. Men and women are equally likely to describe themselves as happy and satisfied with their lives. No time in life is happiest and most satisfying; overall subjective well-being does not decline as we get older (Pinquart & Sorensen, 2000).

Among variables that may affect happiness is income, as those with higher income are on average happier. But if everyone in one's comparison group has a similar income, life satisfaction or happiness does not increase (Bee & Bjorklund, 2004). Temperament also plays a role in life satisfaction. Those higher in extraversion and lower on neuroticism describe themselves as happier (McCrae & Costa, 2003).

The most potent variable affecting life satisfaction is happiness with one's marriage and family relationships. As much as 15–20% of the variation of happiness is attributable to this variable (Campbell, 1981). Having a sense of personal control or being in charge of one's life and responsible for one's own decisions are also related to greater levels of happiness (Diener, 1984). The challenge is to generate and maintain happy social networks and a sense of control in one's life.

Health is also a potent variable as it is most highly correlated to life satisfaction, subjective well-being, and morale (Larson, 1978). But it seems to be perception of health that matters most. For example, perception of one's own health is a better predictor of life satisfaction than a doctor's objective report. Although current “good health” is not the same as what one viewed as “good health” when one was younger. In terms of one's relationships, perceived adequacy of one's social interactions is most strongly related to happiness instead of absolute quantity (Bee & Bjorklund, 2004; Brandtstadter & Greve, 1994). The challenge here is to think positively about our health and the relationships we have.

Trends and Directions

The age and stage theories have lost support in the field of adult development. It is moving away from the idea that all adults develop in the same way and in the same sequence. These theories are appealing because they imply order in adult development, but adults seem not to follow an orderly plan. They also suggest a norm of development. So if some persons do not meet the norm, do we conclude that they are not normal? Also, the boundaries of life stages are fuzzy and fluid in terms of when one enters and leaves. When one thinks that some adults are in a certain life stage, they may tell you they are in another stage. For example, many older persons may say that they are in midlife because they are mobile, active, and do not feel old. Chronological age does not help us understand the subjective life of an adult.

Each era calls for different skills and qualities. So what predicts success at one era may not predict it at other eras. Also, we are affected by how we start out in life and by the choices we make as we go along and our ability to learn from experiences we face. Success may have more to do with one's resources and opportunities, what one does with them, the choices one makes, and what one learns and applies to one's life (Valliant & Valliant, 1990). We also have to know the sociohistorical context of persons' lives as well as what is going on at multiple levels in their lives and their influences.

Implications for Social Work

Adult development is a field social workers must follow closely because the ongoing research can significantly change the knowledge. For example, we now know that persons have much more control over health and aging than we used to think. There is also the probability of maintaining and even advancing intelligence. These are exciting areas in the adult development field because the current findings are radically different from what they used to be. But these findings also tell us that adults have to take an active role in maintenance of their intelligence and health. We do not have control over everything but there often seems to be a payoff from proactive and preventive behaviors.

Another major change with implications for social work is the greater importance put on life events and current issues. What are persons concerned with? What is at the foreground of their lives? Are they getting married or getting divorced? What are their aspirations and life dreams and how are they progressing toward them? This kind of information is of greater import than chronological age, which gives us little information about any adult. And we have to keep in mind that issues are never fully resolved; they reemerge at different times. Issues now in the background may come to the foreground at some later time.

As suggested earlier, adults are diverse and so theories that suggest universal development often do not fit. The theories that are not in the age and stage category fit better. Although all the theories have limitations, the nonstage approaches are far more practical and realistic to use with clients as there are many diverse pathways through adulthood. Several important implications for practice with adult clients include the following:

  1. 1. We have to know the multiple levels of their lives. Theories such as the ecological systems theory by Bronfenbrenner can help in this assessment.

  2. 2. The age and stage theories can provide understandings of certain levels such as the psychological, but they are seriously limited in their typical view that development follows a universal and smooth progression, and there is no attention given to the environment and life situations.

  3. 3. We will get far more information about adult clients through asking what they are currently dealing with in their lives than being concerned with their chronological age, which rarely predicts anything useful.

  4. 4. As suggested by life course theory, we can also understand better what our adult clients are experiencing by examining their life transitions and turning points.

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                                                                                            Further Reading

                                                                                            Levinson, D. J. (1996). The seasons of a woman's life. New York: Knopf.Find this resource: