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Social Changes in Early and Middle Adulthood

15 February, 2016 - 14:35

Perhaps the major marker of adulthood is the ability to create an effective and independent life. Whereas children and adolescents are generally supported by parents, adults must make their own living and must start their own families. Furthermore, the needs of adults are different from those of younger persons.

Although the timing of the major life events that occur in early and middle adulthood vary substantially across individuals, they nevertheless tend to follow a general sequence, known as a social clock. The social clock refers to the culturally preferred “right time” for major life events, such as moving out of the childhood house, getting married, and having children. People who do not appear to be following the social clock (e.g., young adults who still live with their parents, individuals who never marry, and couples who choose not to have children) may be seen as unusual or deviant, and they may be stigmatized by others (DePaulo, 2006; Rook, Catalano, & Dooley, 1989). 1

Although they are doing it later, on average, than they did even 20 or 30 years ago, most people do eventually marry. Marriage is beneficial to the partners, both in terms of mental health and physical health. People who are married report greater life satisfaction than those who are not married and also suffer fewer health problems (Gallagher & Waite, 2001; Liu & Umberson, 2008). 2

Divorce is more common now than it was 50 years ago. In 2003 almost half of marriages in the United States ended in divorce (Bureau of the Census, 2007), 3 although about three quarters of people who divorce will remarry. Most divorces occur for couples in their 20s, because younger people are frequently not mature enough to make good marriage choices or to make marriages last. Marriages are more successful for older adults and for those with more education (Goodwin, Mosher, & Chandra, 2010). 4

Parenthood also involves a major and long-lasting commitment, and one that can cause substantial stress on the parents. The time and finances invested in children create stress, which frequently results in decreased marital satisfaction (Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003). 5 This decline is especially true for women, who bear the larger part of the burden of raising the children and taking care of the house, despite the fact they increasingly also work and have careers.

Despite the challenges of early and middle adulthood, the majority of middle-aged adults are not unhappy. These years are often very satisfying, as families have been established, careers have been entered into, and some percentage of life goals has been realized (Eid & Larsen, 2008). 6


  • It is in early and middle adulthood that muscle strength, reaction time, cardiac output, and sensory abilities begin to decline.
  • One of the key signs of aging in women is the decline in fertility, culminating in menopause, which is marked by the cessation of the menstrual period.
  • The different social stages in adulthood, such as marriage, parenthood, and work, are loosely determined by a social clock, a culturally recognized time for each phase.


  1. Compare your behavior, values, and attitudes regarding marriage and work to the attitudes of your parents and grandparents. In what way are your values similar? In what ways are they different?
  2. Draw a timeline of your own planned or preferred social clock. What factors do you think will make it more or less likely that you will be able to follow the timeline?