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Thursday, January 6, 2011


Young adults face some formidable developmental tasks. Many people at the beginning of this stage are concerned with launching a career. They may be studying to gain the critical qualifications, or training at the entry level of an organization. Some will not be so lucky. In many countries, youth unemployment rates have been very high during the last century and appear set to continue. Studying, employment and unemployment each presents its stresses. At the same time, young adults tend to be finding their way through the world of romance, which can also lead to stress and anguish. All of this happens alongside changes in relationships with parents, and the increasing expectation that the young person will take responsibility for her own life – including, perhaps, a shift to a new home. It would be an unusual person indeed who proceeded through these developmental tasks without at least occasionally wondering who she is, or who she is becoming, and how she is faring compared to her peers. For most people, facing these issues brings a range of emotional reactions. A stage model for personal development Several different theories have been put forward to account for personal development during early adulthood. From a psychoanalytic perspective, Erikson and Erikson (1997) see the dominant focus of this stage as the development of intimacy – the ability to love and trust another person. Levinson (1978) extended some of Erikson’s ideas, but drew also on social psychological theory to explain the relationship between the developing individual and the demands of society. He emphasized the social role requirements at different life stages, and the interaction between personal growth and relationships. He maintained that all normally developing adults progress through the same stages in the same sequence, and at roughly the same pace. Early adulthood begins with the sub-stage of early adult transition (approximately 17–22 years), in which young people are working towards autonomy from their parents and formulating a ‘Dream’ of what they hope to become in life. The Dream is important because it guides their efforts and choices in both the occupational and personal spheres. Do you have your own Dream, or did you have one during this phase of life, and how does/did it relate to your current occupation and plans? The next sub-stage is the period of entering the adult world (22–28), and is organized around forging a pathway at work and attaining a special personal relationship. This is followed by the ‘age 30’ transition (28–33), in which people undergo a moderate degree of self-questioning – reviewing their Dream, the choices they have made and the problems in their lives. [Dream Levinson’s term for an individual’s vision of his life goals, formed around 17 to 22 years of age and contributing to the motivation for subsequent personal development] The rest of this decade (33–40) is the ‘settling down’ period, when people have usually found their niche in life and are striving to consolidate their professional and domestic roles – hey are basically getting their lives in order. Levinson arrived at his account on the basis of a series of intense individual interviews with a group of American men in mid-life. Although they came from a variety of backgrounds and had a range of careers and family histories, similar patterns appeared to emerge. Although Levinson’s original sample was relatively limited, subsequent work has shown that the model fits many American women reasonably well, too (Levinson, 1996; Roberts & Newton, 1987).

[Erik Erikson (1902–94) was born in Germany. His biological father, a Dane, abandoned Erik’s mother before their child was born. When Erik was aged about three she married the family doctor, who happened to be Jewish. Erik was raised as a Jew, but his ethnicity was mixed – like his biological father, he was blond and blue-eyed. With the rise of Nazism in Europe, Erik moved to Boston, where he adopted the surname Erikson and took up a position at the Harvard Medical School. One of his early and most influential books, Childhood and Society (1950), contains an analysis of Adolph Hitler, wide-ranging discussions of America (including Native Americans) and the framework of his version of psychoanalytic theory. This combination of topics encapsulates his interests in the impact of culture on personality development.]

Intimacy – are you secure, anxious or avoidant?
According to developmental models such as Erikson’s and Levinson’s, young adults are developing a sense of personal identity along with a need for closeness to others. They have also progressed through the biological developments of adolescence, and are now fully matured sexual beings. Not surprisingly, finding and developing relationships with an intimate partner, or series of partners, becomes a priority for many young adults. Interestingly, there are strong similarities in the ways people develop early relationships with caregivers during infancy and intimate adult relationships later on. This would not surprise John Bowlby (1988), who saw the initial attachment relationship as providing the crucial foundation of much later development. Clearly, as adults we form attachments to other people and, just as in infancy, these relationships are intensely emotional. Just as in infancy, our adult attachments motivate us to seek proximity to the person we feel we need, to engage in extensive eye contact, to hold – end, just as in infancy, we tend to become distressed at separation. Some social psychologists (Mickelson, Kessler & Shaver, 1997; Shaver & Clark, 1996) have gone further, to argue that the types of attachments we form as adults can be classified using the framework Ainsworth and others developed to account for infant attachments – namely, ‘secure’, ‘anxious/ ambivalent’ and ‘avoidant’. ‘Securely’ attached lovers find intimate relationships comfortable and rewarding. They trust their partner and feel confident of his or her commitment. ‘Anxious/ambivalent’ lovers experience uncertainty in their relationships. Sometimes, they fret that their partner does not love them enough and might leave, and they may respond to this anxiety by putting pressure on the partner, running the risk of causing the very outcome they fear. ‘Avoidant’ lovers find getting close to others uncomfortable, find it difficult to trust others, and are reluctant to commit themselves fully to a relationship. Shaver and colleagues found that the proportions of adults who fall into these types is very similar to those of infant attachments, with (approximately) 59 per cent secure, 11 per cent anxious/ambivalent and 25 per cent avoidant (Mickelson et al., 1997). Other research indicates that adults who fall into these different categories recall their childhood relationships with their parents in ways that are consistent with these patterns. So, ‘secure’ individuals report relaxed and loving parents, ‘anxious/ ambivalent’ people feel their parents were over-controlling, and the ‘avoidant’ adults reported lower levels of communication and emotional support from their parents (Rothbard & Shaver, 1994). Students make for interesting participants in attachment research, because many are dealing with the issues of finding and maintaining relationships at the time the study takes place. In an Australian study, Feeney, Noller and Patty (1993) investigated the romantic relationships of heterosexual students of different attachment types. They found that the relationships of ‘secure’ individuals tended to be more stable and loving, while those of ‘anxious/ambivalent’ people were less enduring and more numerous. ‘Avoidant’ individuals tended to be more accepting of casual sex, presumably because they are less interested in maintaining commitments to others.

Kramer’s three stages

Kramer (1983, 1989) proposed that people progress through three broad stages: absolutist, relativist and dialectical. [absolutist reasoning that assumes there is always a single, clear answer to a given problem; relativist reasoning in which the individual has become aware that there are often different perspectives on any given issue, and that the ‘correct’ answer may depend on the context; dialectical reasoning in which competing positions are integrated and synthesis achieved]

In early adulthood, many people are in the absolutist phase: they are capable of addressing many problems, but they tend to believe that all problems have a correct answer. For example, a young person might commence university study believing that it will be a matter of learning facts and procedures, that the lecturers know everything and will tell you what is right and wrong. People in the relativist stage have become aware that there are often different perspectives on any given issue, and that the ‘correct’ answer may depend on the context. Students now appreciate that there are many theories and much conflicting evidence – but awareness of the diversity of perspectives can lead them to assume that very little is dependable. So, for example, your lecturer could spring a new theory on you at any time, and could herself be wrong. There is evidence that the undergraduate experience (where one is regularly dealing with conflicting theories and ideas) can facilitate the development of relativist thinking (Benack & Basseches, 1989). If the idea of relativism seems strange at this stage, make a note to return to this chapter towards the end of your degree! Eventually, in the dialectical phase, people become able to integrate competing positions and achieve synthesis. They can understand why there are diverse views, and they can appreciate that the overall progress and contributions of their chosen discipline derives from efforts to resolve its internal contradictions. Basseches (1984) found that this type of reasoning is more characteristic of people studying at higher degree level or of university staff. Although aspects of dialectical reasoning can be found in adults in their 20s and 30s, Kramer’s (1989) research led her to the conclusion that this stage is only fully realized in late adulthood. Measuring intelligence Other approaches to the investigation of intellectual development in adulthood are grounded in the psychometric tradition. By applying standardized IQ tests, researchers have sought to discover whether there are age-related differences in intelligence during adulthood. There are many different ways to measure intelligence. K. Warner Schaie and his colleagues have conducted major longitudinal studies of the evolution of primary mental abilities among several thousand adult Americans (Schaie, 1996, 2000). They focused on five primary abilities:
1. numeric facility
2. verbal recall
3. verbal ability
4. inductive reasoning
5. spatial orientation

For the moment, note the data for early adulthood (up to age 40). As you can see, there are modest gains on most of the tests during the participants’ 20s and 30s. Whether we measure this in terms of performance on the qualitative reasoning tasks favoured by investigators in the post formal thought school, or in terms of more traditional psychometric techniques, it appears that intelligence is still increasing well into adulthood. It seems, therefore, that this important dimension of human development certainly does not cease at the end of adolescence.

[K. Warner Schaie (1928– ) was born in Germany and moved to the US in the 1930s. He is now the Evan Pugh Professor of Human Development and Psychology and Director of the Gerontology Center at the Pennsylvania State University. His doctoral research into cognitive flexibility led to the initiation, in 1956, of the Seattle Longitudinal Study. This large-scale study tracks the mental abilities of people of different age groups every seven years, which enables Schaie and colleagues to chart individual differences in cognitive ageing across the lifespan, examining the influence of health, demographic, personality and environmental factors. The study, which still continues today, has also led to important investigations of family similarity in cognition and cognitive training effects in older adults. The participating families are now being followed into a third generation.]