Theories of Adult Development: Levinson, Vaillant & Neugarten

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

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. 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

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  • 0:01 Adult Development
  • 0:34 Levinson's Theory
  • 3:23 Vaillant's Theory
  • 5:14 Neugarten's Theory
  • 6:21 Similarities/Differences
  • 7:38 Lesson Summary
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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.

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