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Developmental Tasks

Adulthood And Old Age

The concept of developmental tasks describes development as a lifelong process. Thus, it is also an early and significant contributor to the emerging field of lifelong human development (e.g., life-span psychology and life-course sociology; Setterstery, 1999).

In young adulthood, developmental tasks are mainly located in family, work, and social life. Family-related developmental tasks are described as finding a mate, learning to live with a marriage partner, having and rearing children, and managing the family home. A developmental task that takes an enormous amount of time of young adults relates to the achievement of an occupational career. Family and work-related tasks may represent a potential conflict, given that individuals' time and energy are limited resources. Thus, young adults may postpone one task in order to secure the achievement of another. With respect to their social life, young adults are also confronted with establishing new friendships outside of the marriage and assuming responsibility in the larger community.

During midlife, people reach the peak of their control over the environment around them and their personal development. In addition, social responsibilities are maximized. Midlife is also a period during which people confront the onset of physiological changes (Lachman, 2001). Developmental tasks during midlife relate to, for example, achieving adult responsibilities, maintaining a standard of living, assisting children with the transition into adulthood, and adjusting to the physiological changes of middle age (e.g., menopause).

Old age has often been characterized as a period of loss and decline. However, development in any period of life consists of both gains and losses, although the gain-loss ratio becomes increasingly negative with advancing age (Heckhausen, Dixon, and Baltes, 1989; Baltes, 1987). A central developmental task that characterizes the transition into old age is adjustment to retirement. The period after retirement has to be filled with new projects, but is characterized by few valid cultural guidelines. Adaptation to retirement involves both potential gains (e.g., self-actualization) and losses (e.g., loss of self-esteem). The achievement of this task may be obstructed by the management of another task, living on a reduced income after retirement.

In addition, older adults are generally challenged to create a positive sense of their lives as a whole. The feeling that life has had order and meaning results in happiness (cf. ego-integrity; Erikson, 1986). Older adults also have to adjust to decreasing physical strength and health. The prevalence of chronic and acute diseases increases in old age. Thus, older adults may be confronted with life situations that are characterized by not being in perfect health, serious illness, and dependency on other people. Moreover, older adults may become caregivers to their spouses (e.g., Schulz and Beach, 1999). Some older adults have to adjust to the death of their spouses. This task arises more frequently for women than for man. After they have lived with a spouse for many decades, widowhood may force older people to adjust to loneliness, moving to a smaller place, and learning about business matters.

Other potential gains in old age relate to the task of meeting social and civic obligations. For example, older people might accumulate knowledge about life (Baltes and Staudings, 2000), and thus may contribute to the development of younger people and the society. The development of a large part of the population into old age is a historically recent phenomenon of modern societies. Thus, advancements in the understanding of the aging process may lead to identifying further developmental tasks associated with gains and purposeful lives for older adults.



BALTES, P. B. "Theoretical Propositions of Life-Span Developmental Psychology: On the Dynamics Between Growth and Decline." Developmental Psychology 23 (1987): 611–626.

ERIKSON, E. H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968.

HAVIGHURST, R. J. Developmental Tasks and Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

HAVIGHURST, R. J. Human Development and Education. New York: Longmans, Green, 1953.

HECKHAUSEN, J.; DIXON, R. A.; and BALTES, P. P. "Gains and Losses in Development Throughout Adulthood as Perceived by Different Adult Age Groups." Developmental Psychology 25 (1989): 109–121.

NEUGARTEN, B. L.; MOORE, J. W.; and LOWE, J. C. "Age Norms, Age Constraints, and Adult Socialization." American Journal of Sociology 70 (1965): 710–717.

SCHULZ, R., and BEACH, S. "Caregiving as a Risk Factor for Mortality: The Caregiver Health Effects Study." Journal of the American Medical Association 282 (1999): 2215–2219.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1Developmental Tasks - Childhood And Adolescence, Adulthood And Old Age