Do We All Go Through the Same Discrete Life Stages? Or Are Identity Development and Aging More Idiosyncratic Than That?

the same individual shown as growing up through various life stages
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

While everyone’s a little different, and individuals can be very individual in nature (thus, the name), culturally there does seem to be a common belief that a life can be broken up into segments, life stages, if you will.

There are a ton of jokes about midlife crisis, angsty teenage years, etc.

And personality and identity theorists have made many attempts to come up with a standard progression to describe these shifts.

One classic model is Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.

Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

In Erikson’s model, there are eight stages, each revolving around an existential crisis (for example, trust vs. mistrust) and virtue (for example, hope). Here they are, in order:

Crisis Virtue Age
Trust vs. Mistrust Hope 0 to 1-1/2
Autonomy vs. Shame Will 1-1/2 to 3
Initiative vs. Guilt Purpose 3 to 5
Industry vs. Inferiority Competency 5 to 12
Identity vs. Role Confusion Fidelity 12 to 18
Intimacy vs. Isolation Love 18 to 40
Generativity vs. Stagnation Care 40 to 65
Ego Integrity vs. Despair Wisdom 65+

Joan Erikson would later go on to add a ninth stage to address one’s 80’s and 90s, when she herself was 93. Erikson stated that in the ninth stage a person confronts all of the previous eight stages once again — except this time they happen all at the same time.

Criticisms and Controversies Surrounding This Model

Critics of this model note that one major limitation is that Erikson’s research primarily focused on European American males. As such, it doesn’t account for how being part of other demographics can impact development and when a life stage occurs, whether due to cultural differences or economic challenges.

It’s also hotly debated among personality theorists whether or not the model should be considered strictly sequential and only occurring during the ages specified. Or whether a person can bounce back and forth between life stages.

Still others think the very notion of universal life stages is a real stretch. But it’s a pervasive idea in popular culture.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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