Everyday Life in the Third Age

Article excerpt

Psychology has a long tradition of pathologizing life transitions. Middle age has been portrayed as a time of personal crisis (Levinson, Darrow, Kline, Levinson, & McKee, 1978), menopause as shattering of a woman's sense of femininity (Deutsch, 1945), and the empty nest as threatening the stability of marriage (Bart, 1971 ). All these predictions have been shown to be untrue (see, for example, Helson & Wink 1992; Rossi, 2004; Wethington, Kessler, & Pixley, 2004). Until recently, the transition to old age has been similarly depicted as a time of crisis. Even Erik Erikson (1950) who assumed that the transitions to early and middle adulthood proceeded smoothly, took a different view of late adulthood when he emphasized the need for older adults to strive for ego integrity as a way of dealing with concerns over impending mortality. The idea that old age confronts the individual with psychological dangers is explicitly present in Robert Butler's (1963) contention that life review is essential for aging well, with its assumption that remedial work is necessary to attenuate an impending crisis.

In this chapter, I use data from the Institute of Human Development (IHD) longitudinal study to sketch a picture of everyday life in the Third Age. The IHD data promote the view that normative life transitions are rarely a source of personal crisis even though some individuals may find life changes to be psychologically threatening, just as others may view them as an opportunity for self-growth (Helson & Gate, this volume). The original contributions of this chapter primarily lie in bringing together several areas of research to sketch a detailed and nuanced picture of everyday functioning in the Third Age; using longitudinal data to investigate the psychosocial antecedents of positive functioning in late adulthood and to highlight certain continuities and changes in patterns of functioning across the adult life course; and because religion continues to be marginalized in mainstream gerontology, I seek to highlight its relation to psychosocial functioning in the Third Age.


The IHD longitudinal study comprises the Oakland Growth (OGS) and Berkeley Guidance (GS) samples that were merged into a single study in the early 1960s (Block, 1971; Clausen, 1993; Eichorn, 1981). The participants consist of a community sample of Californians, born in the 1920s, whose psychosocial functioning was assessed in adolescence (high school years, 1930s and 1940s; N = 319) and four times during adulthood: 1958 (age 30s; N = 216), 1970 (age 40s; N = 232), 1982 (age 50s/early 60s; N = 233), and 1997-2000 (age late 60s/mid-70s; N = 184). The attrition rate in the study has been very low, with 90% of the available participants taking part in the latest assessment conducted under my direction (Wink & Dillon, 2002).

When I conducted the assessment in late adulthood, the GS members (born in 1928-1929) who constituted two-thirds of the total sample were in their late 60s (average age 69), and the OGS members (born in 19201921)-the remaining one-third (36%) of the sample-were in their mid to late seventies (average age 77). Although the age difference between the two groups of participants is only 8 years, the GS anchors the early phase and the OGS anchors the late phase of the Third Age, thus making the IHD study exceptionally well suited to investigating life in the postretirement period.

Of the participants interviewed in late adulthood, 53% were women and 47% were men. In late middle adulthood (just prior to retirement), 59% of the participants (or their spouses) were upper-middle-class professionals or executives, 19% were lower-middle-class, and 22% were working class. All but six of the participants are White. The majority of the sample (73%) grew up in Protestant families, 16% grew up Catholic, 5% grew up in mixed religious households, and 6% came from nonreligious families. …