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Understanding adult development is an important step in the process of understanding how societies function. This lesson will focus on three theories of adult development proposed by Daniel Levinson, George Vaillant, and Bernice Neugarten.

Adult Development

In the discipline of psychology and sociology, a lot of time is spent exploring child and adolescent development, but we must not forget about the critical development of adults, as well.

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This lesson will identify and explore three theories of adult development that all have a unique perspective and similarities regarding adult development.We will explore:

  • Daniel Levinson’s Seasons of Life Theory
  • George Vaillant’s Adult Tasks Theory
  • Bernice Neugarten’s Social Clock Theory

Levinson’s Theory

Psychologist Daniel Levinson developed a comprehensive theory of adult development, referred to as the Seasons of Life theory, which identified stages and growth that occur well into the adult years.His theory is comprised of sequence-like stages. Each stage is shaped by an event or action that leads into the next stage. The stages are:1. Early Adult Transition (Age 17-22).

This is the stage in which a person leaves adolescence and begins to make choices about adult life. These include choosing to go to college or enter the workforce, choosing to enter a serious relationship, and choosing to leave home.2. Entering the Adult World (Age 22-28). This is the stage in which a person makes more concrete decisions regarding their occupation, friendships, values, and lifestyles.3.

Age 30 Transitions (Age 28-33). In this stage, there are often lifestyle changes that could be mild or more severe. For example, marriage or having children impact one’s lifestyle, and these changes have differing consequences on how a person develops depending on how they embrace the event.4. Settling Down (Age 33-40).

In this stage, one often begins to establish a routine, makes progress on goals for the future, and begins behaving like an adult. People in this stage are often parents or have more responsibilities.5. Mid-Life Transition (Age 40-45). This time period is sometimes one of crisis. A person begins to evaluate his or her life.

Values may change, and how society views these people may change also. Some people make drastic life changes, such as divorce or a career change. At this point, people begin thinking about death and begin to think about leaving a legacy.6. Entering Middle Adulthood (Age 45-50).

In this stage, choices must be made about the future and possibly retirement. People begin to commit to new tasks and continue to think about the legacy they are leaving.7. Late Adulthood (Age 60+). In this stage, one begins to reflect on life and the decisions they have made.Levinson also indicated that each stage consists of two types of periods:

  • The Stable Period, in which a person makes crucial choices in life.

  • The Transitional Period, in which one stage ends and another begins.

Vaillant’s Theory

Psychiatrist George Vaillant spent most of his career researching and charting adult development. His work is based on research of over 800 men and women spanning 60 years.

Vaillant identified six adult life tasks that must be successfully accomplished in order for a person to mature as an adult.The tasks are:1. Developing an Identity. Vaillant explained that an adolescent must establish an identity that allows a separation from parents. This identity is made up of one’s values, passions, and beliefs.2. Development of Intimacy.

This allows a person to have reciprocal relationships with another person. This task involves expanding one’s sense of self to include another person.3. Career Consolidation.

In this task, the person finds a career that is valuable to society and to him or herself. According to Vaillant, a job turns into a career once one has contentment, compensation, competence, and commitment. He notes that such a career could be that of a spouse or stay-at-home parent as well.4.

Generativity. This involves the unselfish will and capacity to give. Generativity means being in a relationship in which one gives up much of the control.

For example, serving as a consultant or mentor to others would help establish generativity.5. Becoming Keeper of the Meaning. This task involves passing on the traditions of the past to the next generation.

6. Achieving Integrity. This task involves achieving a sense of peace and unity with respect to one’s life and to the world itself.

Neugarten’s Theory

The psychologist Bernice Neugarten was one of the first to research and teach adult development. She proposed The Social Clock Theory in which there are age-graded expectations for life events. Being on-time or off-time from these major life events, such as beginning a first job, getting married, or retiring, can profoundly affect self-esteem.

The type of society that a person lives in will also set the expectations for the landmark events. For example, one society may promote early marriage, while another may promote waiting until a career is established to have children or get married. Think about the major landmark events our society promotes. Going to college immediately after high school is one of those societal expectations.Individuals who keep pace with the social clock are more likely to be accepted and engaged with society. Those who either choose to lag behind or choose to ignore the clock completely may be ostracized because they are not fitting in with the established norms of the community.

This could lead to feelings of low self-esteem.


Each of the three theories we discussed view the development of adults as an important area of research.Both Vaillant and Levinson agree that developing quality relationships with others is important for shaping future development. Neugarten emphasizes these types of relationships, too, but says the relationships may look differently and occur at different times according to societal norms.Both Vaillant and Levinson agree that there is a mid-life stage in which conflict, confusion, and turmoil typically occurs.

The successful navigation and resolution of this stage leads to a calmer, more established adult life.Finally, Vaillant’s and Levinson’s theories are both limited in the fact that their research was largely based off interviews with people born in the first few decades of the 20th century. Different types of relationships, the economy, and different family structures make these theories less applicable to today’s society.

The major difference in these three theories deals with how each researcher viewed development. Levinson’s theory proposed a series of sequential stages, while Valliant proposed tasks that act as a cumulative guide for building a satisfying life. Neugarten proposed that the social clock guided development for adults.

Lesson Summary

In summary, this lesson discussed three theories of adult development.Daniel Levinson’s Seasons of Life Theory is comprised of sequence-like stages. These stages occur during two types of periods: the Stable Period, in which crucial life choices are made, and the Transitional Period, in which one stages ends and another begins.George Vaillant identified six adult life tasks that must be successfully accomplished in order for a person to mature as an adult. These tasks involve identity, intimacy, career consolidation, generativity, keeper of the meaning, and integrity.

Vaillant did not agree with Levinson’s theory that development occurs through sequential stages.Bernice Neugarten proposed The Social Clock Theory, in which there are age-graded expectations for life events. Societal expectations determine major life events, and being on-time or off-time from these major life events can profoundly affect self-esteem.

Learning Outcomes

Once you have completed this lesson you should be able to:

  • Explain Levinson’s Seasons of Life Theory
  • Outline Vaillant’s six life tasks needed for adult maturity
  • Discuss Neugarten’s Social Clock Theory
  • Compare and contrast the three theories presented in the lesson

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