As adults, we often assume that our growth and development is over. But if we reflect on what we have learned in the last five, ten, or thirty years, we realise that learning and growth never stop. The Adult Development Chart, below, briefly summarises the general stages of adulthood. These transformations, visible over time, are more subtle than the dramatic changes in children. The timing of these changes, as well as gender roles and cultural expectations, vary widely among cultures.
For young adults, the primary tasks are the gradual acceptance of adult responsibilities, child bearing, and the beginning of careers or work. Though their focuses may differ, both young men and women experience major growth during this period: both aspire to become mature adults able to accept adult responsibilities. In many cultures, people marry at this time of life and the relationship between husband and wife often stimulates much emotional growth, support – and sometimes conflict! There is typically great pressure to assume the accepted roles for men and women within a given cultural setting. Sometimes the assigned roles fit easily, but sometimes they are challenged as gender roles are transformed.
Should women stay in the house and raise children? Should men earn enough income to support the family or should the wife also have a job? When raising children: should girls attend school as boys do? Should girls and boys do the same or different things at home? Should they receive equal amounts of responsibility?
These are difficult questions for young adults to answer. During this period, they discover what is important to them, assess what they learned from their parents, and decide what values and beliefs they would like to pass onto their children.
This is a time of heavy responsibility. Adults in this age group are often caring for children as well as parents and, at times, are financially responsible for both. It is a time of wisdom, when both men and women are able to look at the big picture of life and guide others along the way. Men’s careers are often at their peak during these years, yet family takes on a new importance for many, sometimes with the addition of grandchildren. Women are at different stages depending on their individual path and their society’s customs. Some have pursued careers, some have raised children and now have jobs, while still others are helping the next generation raise their children.
Age is a basis for social differentiation in all societies. While a biological fact, the perception of age is influenced by customs, cultural values and beliefs and is thus socially constructed. In some parts of the world, older persons are treated with special respect, while in others, youth is prized and signs of age have a negative image. Isolation, exclusion and marginalisation of older people are common products of age discrimination, which not only undermines the status of older persons but also threatens overall capacity building and societal development.
Elderly adults face developments and challenges of their own. Their bodies are changing and their physical strength and health is often diminishing. They have much wisdom and experience to share with younger people, but not always the physical strength to chase after them. In times of emergency, studies show that the elderly often demonstrate more emotional resilience than the generation below. Yet grief can become a major focus as friends and relatives begin to die. People of this age must also come to terms with their own inevitable death.
In the traditional extended family, older persons enjoy high prestige as custodians of village lore and morality, and as persons nearest to departed ancestors. As long as they are physically able, they also contribute to productive work in farming and in the household. Within the extended family, they enjoy a sense of belonging, as well as emotional and physical security. Even in the most developed countries, the extended family continues to play an important role, though often at a distance, with good relationships usually maintained between older people and their adult children. The family continues to provide care and supportive services to older persons, especially through daughters and daughters-in-law.
The Life Course of Individuals and Families, United Nations Programme on the Family (1999)