“Stages of Adult Development” are a Myth

Adult humans differ from one another in their individual inheritance, their personal biology, their specific life experiences, their unique perceptions, and their highly idiosyncratic interpretations of the world. Why, therefore, would anyone expect these diversely individualized beings, sovereign, willful, and living among tremendously varied circumstances, to somehow change (develop or progress) in lockstep, as a unified monolith, rather than as highly independent creatures each progressing, or not, at their own pace, in their own personalized way.

Not surprisingly, longitudinal studies (such as those chronicled by Dr. George Vaillant and others) show much more diversity than consistency among older adults — even among those of similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Any attempt to conveniently catalog changes in adulthood by defining and naming a stage or phase of adult development is fraught with so many caveats, exceptions, and exemptions as to render the schema largely impractical to irrelevant. This accounts, in part, for the lack of consistency in the findings for any researcher who has seriously looked at this question of adult developmental stages.

It is hard to ascertain and verify that which is not there.


Why Humans Live Past the Age of Reproduction

As the body of human knowledge grew over the ages, and as the social and cultural life of our species became more complex, the value of older adults increased as well.

This is why natural selection has favored a relatively long human life span despite the fact that the female reproductive potential typically ends in the late forties.

Clearly, when it comes to human beings, the capacities to teach, to transmit wisdom and skills, and to serve as a repository for the culture are just as important as the capacity to reproduce. The complexity of today’s global society and the variety of skills required to master those complexities only amplify the importance of the older adults among us.

~ Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D.

Living a life “eminently worthwhile”

Those among the old-old who love life are not exceptions––they are just healthy. …[ They ] seem constantly to be reinventing their lives. They surprise us even as they surprise themselves. In moments of sorrow, loss, and defeat many still convince us that they find their lives eminently worthwhile. They do not flinch from acknowledging how hard life is but they also never lose sight of why one might want to keep on living it.

–– George Vaillant
Aging Well, p. 5