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Social Development in Adulthood

Deciding whether an individual is an adult is not simply a matter of achieving a certain age, or of physical and intellectual maturity. Adulthood is typically defined in terms of social roles as well. In many cultures, an individual is regarded as an adult when he or she is able to take on responsibilities that are associated with that status: completing education, obtaining full-time employment, living independently, marrying, or becoming a parent (Hogan & Astone, 1986). However, as society has changed over the past century, so too have the typical experiences of adults and the social guidelines as to what signals adult status:

  • People are spending more time in the educational system, taking a longer time to complete their education.

  • Instead of getting married and having children in their teens or early twenties, men and women are on average waiting longer to begin their families.

  • Increasing numbers of people are choosing to remain single and/or childless.

  • More women are working outside the home, and more men are becoming involved in taking care of children in the home.

  • Older children are more likely to return to live with their parents.


Many young adults find their attention focused on the difficulties of finding romantic partners and committing to long-term relationships. Erikson (1982) describes the social development of young adults as a choice between intimacy and isolation: Either we learn to share our lives with others, or our fear of commitment causes us to remain locked in social and emotional isolation.

Marriage remains an important landmark in adult life, and a transition into a significant adult role. Currently, 56% of adults in the United States are married and living with their spouses. In the United States, the median age at which individuals get married for the first time has been rising over the past 25 years. Men tend to get married at around age 27, while women typically get married at age 25 (United States Board of the Census, 1998).

Satisfaction with a marriage tends to vary over the course of the relationship: Couples report the greatest happiness in the early years of the marriage, with a gradual decline to a low point perhaps ten years later, followed by a "rebound" to higher levels of satisfaction afterward (Berry & Williams, 1987). It has been pointed out that lower levels of marital satisfaction tend to correspond to the years in which young children are raised in the home, with the least satisfaction reported during the period when children are typically entering adolescence (Carstensen and others, 1996). However, before we blame the decline in happiness on the pressures of childrearing, it should be noted that childless couples also experience a similar loss of satisfaction at about the same point in their relationships (Clements & Marksman, 1996). These variations in happiness may be a common phenomenon in long-term relationships.

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