Psychological Development Across the Lifespan

Middle Adulthood (40–60)

What impact does mortality play in middle adulthood?

A critical aspect of psychological development in midlife involves a change in the relationship with death. As several theorists have noted, in adolescence and early adulthood, mortality is often theoretical at best. Adolescents are known for their illusions of immortality, resulting at times in a reckless disregard for danger. In early adulthood, death is recognized in the abstract. While young adults do not believe they are immortal, neither does death feel entirely real.

In middle adulthood, death becomes much more real. Many people of the prior generation die: parents, aunts and uncles, older friends and colleagues, and the parents of friends. Some people of the adult’s own generation die as well. In the context of these direct encounters with mortality, death can no longer remain an abstraction.

In some people, the confrontation with mortality in midlife can lead to panic and a frantic denial of aging and death. More optimally, it can lead to greater perspective of what really matters in life and a realignment of priorities. Of note, this discussion applies to people in modern Western societies, who remain largely shielded from death prior to midlife. In societies where early death is more prevalent, however, it is likely that mortality is experienced quite differently.


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