During the process of differentiation and identity formation, the adolescent is often caught between the family and the peer group. We might think of the family and the peer group as being alternative gravitational forces around which teenagers are orbiting satellites. Young children orbit quite closely around their family, but the orbit becomes wider and wider as the children grow older. As they approach their teenage years, they are increasingly drawn by the alternative gravitational pull of their peer group. As the pull from the peer group intensifies, they sometimes retreat from the family and reorient themselves around the peer group. Parents know quite well when this has happened because their teens usually give more weight to the opinions of their peers than to those of their parents.
The generation gap can be understood as the result of the identity crisis faced by most adolescents. An important aspect of identity development for teens and young adults is technology. As teens communicate more and more online via social media such as Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, social pressure, almost instantaneous feedback, and pictures and video form the context for identity. We can see distinct changes in the ways in which personal pictures reflect increasing confidence, scope (through sharing), intimacy, and intentionality (Yang and Brown 2016). Social media’s role in teen and emerging-adult identity formation is both a positive in that geographical distance is overcome and also a negative, as feedback can be very harsh and overwhelming. Research has identified a strong connection between social media use and depressive symptoms (Nesi and Prinstein 2015). The increasing role of social media has added a dimension to adolescence that many parents are unable to understand. When a teen can receive a million likes and severely negative feedback in the span of a few minutes in his or her own bedroom, caregivers can be at a loss to understand the sometimes-positive and sometimes-negative effects of social media on the teen.
Midlife Adults continue to pass through individual stages of development throughout their lifetimes. One of the most widely recognized stages is the onset of midlife, used to describe the feeling of not being able to keep up with the
vast changes of the postmodern world. The rapidity of social and technological changes tends to shock each new generation. Personal adaptations can reach crisis proportions when we are not prepared for the future.
Technology has had a profound effect on adults in the workforce. Younger workers tend to adopt technology based on their perceptions of how the technology will assist them in accomplishing their tasks. Older workers rely on workplace social norms and the subjective experience of exerting control over the use of the technology (Morris and Venkatesh 2000). Adults in the labor force are especially vulnerable when they realize that the jobs they are trained to do and have been doing for most of their adult lives are becoming obsolete due to the introduction of new technology that boosts productivity. Automobile workers quite understandably experience a crisis when they realize that robots can do much of their work. A similar anxiety plagues managers and other people in the business world. They fear being overtaken by younger, better-trained college graduates, especially in the computer age.
Midlife transition may also be a crisis for people who begin to realize that they will not reach the lofty goals they set years before, goals that represent self-esteem. Erik Erikson (1980, 1997) describes the longest period of one’s development as the generativity versus stagnation stage. As individuals begin to reflect on their contributions, they invest in caring for their current relationships and work-related developments. Individuals in this stage develop and cultivate the life they have been creating thus far—at work and at home. That is, individuals experience generativity by enhancing their relationships with family and further cultivating or growing the tasks and projects they have built. Care, as the resulting virtue of this stage, emphasizes the commitment and concern one has in establishing and developing what has been generated. Capps (2008, 126) explains: “Generativity involves an expansion of one’s personal interests and emotional attachments to include that which has been generated (conceived, originated, produced, etc.) while stagnation suggests either that nothing has been generated or that, once generated, nothing is being done to insure its survival, growth, or development.” This means that individuals make or renew commitments to the investments they have made, whether it be to work, family, friends, or the community. This is known as stewardship from the Christian perspective. Individuals experiencing generativity express care
for their contributions to the world. Generativity is achieved when individuals exercise stewardship over their creations.
On the negative side of generativity versus stagnation, individuals experience depletion or emptiness over the lack of meaningful contributions at work and home. In an extreme case, this could result in burnout, but usually individuals begin to lose the sense that work is meaningful and they become increasingly lethargic (Frederick, Dunbar, and Thai 2018). Still others who have worked long, hard hours at their jobs reach midlife only to realize that they have spent little time with their children, who are now nearly grown, and have had little actual influence over them. Some of these hardworking people find that when they do want to relax with their families, they are unable to do so. The crisis in this case is that one has become a slave to work and career.
In his study of career-oriented men, Daniel Levinson (1978) has identified four polarities of midlife transition:
1. Youth/Age. Many men in midlife occupy a marginal status: they feel past their youth but are not ready to join the rocking-chair set. They attempt to appear young by the way they dress or to improve their physique by running or lifting weights.
2. Destruction/Creation. Having experienced conflict on the job and being battle scarred and hurt by others, men in midlife may resort to the same tactics. They are aware of the death of friends their age, but at the same time they have a strong desire to be creative as they enter what often proves to be the most productive years of life.
3. Masculinity/Femininity. Concern over a physically sagging body is coupled with a desire to become more nurturing.
4. Attachment/Separateness. A continued need for bonding with others is balanced by a need to prove that one can get by alone.
Levinson believes that although these polarities exist throughout the entire life cycle, they are accentuated during transition periods. Men who have dealt with these polarities throughout their lives, having met minor crises on a regular basis, do not experience the midlife transition as a crisis period. By contrast, men who have not dealt with them are candidates for a major midlife crisis.
Although much of this is also true of women, Levinson (1996) suggests an important gender difference. For women, midlife transition is less pronounced than for men. This is especially true for women not employed outside the home. Women employed outside the home engage in gender splitting, simultaneously holding dichotomous identities. Four common types of gender splitting are domestic/public, homemaker/provider, women’s work/men’s work, and femininity/masculinity in individual psyche. Most of these splits in identity involve women wanting to uphold a traditional view of marriage while also holding an nontraditional view that allows for more independence and equality with men when participating in the public world.
For the woman whose only role has been mother and wife, midlife may be traumatic for other reasons. She may feel her role is being phased out—her maturing children have less need of her, and her husband may no longer appreciate what she is doing in the home. For the woman whose whole identity and self-esteem are based on being a supermother and a superwife, this can be a devastating blow.
Parent-Adolescent Relationships Having considered the stressful aspects of adolescence and midlife, we are now in a position to consider the interaction between them. To begin with, it should be noted that a family with adolescents is likely to have a double inferiority complex when parent and teen have an insecure identity. This will have an enormous impact on the parent-adolescent relationship.
While the major task during this stage of development concerns identity formation, the following relationship tasks are needed (McGoldrick, Garcia Petro, and Carter 2016):
1. Shifting parent-child relationships to permit adolescents to move into and out of the family system. In other words, adolescents spend more and more time outside the parents’ sphere of influence. As a result, adolescents begin to create new relationship and authority networks that may contradict the parents. Parents and adolescents need to negotiate and communicate about these relationship networks that extend outside the family of origin.
2. Refocusing on midlife marital and career issues 3. Beginning the shift toward caring for the older generation
As adolescents gain competence, they expect more and more freedom and responsibility. The family system needs to accommodate the teen entering and exiting the family and engaging with the community as a peer. Further, the teen’s growing competence and autonomy allow for parents to reengage as spouses rather than just as coparents. Finally, there is an increasing shift on the part of the parents to care for their own parents. Parents who are confident in themselves do well in making these transitions.