There is research evidence that, on average, mental well-being increases after the age of 50 and self-esteem is at its peak around the age of 60. It has become an interesting question whether people in their sixties actually live a more satisfying and healthier life than the traditional theories of developmental psychology suggest, writes Research Director Katja Kokko from the University of Jyväskylä.

Most people at the age of 60 are nowadays engaged in working life, are physically fit and have a psychologically satisfying life.

Traditional theories of developmental psychology describe this life stage, which begins around the age of 60, as the transition to late adulthood or its anticipation. The theories, some of which originate from the 1950s, associate this transition with various negative developments, however, such as deteriorating health, losses in different domains of life, and decreased well-being.

In addition, people over 60 are often referred to as a burden and as too old for working life.

Theories that look at the course of life more broadly have for their part assumed that development progresses in a normative manner through certain stages and that each stage is characterised by a specific developmental task.

The views described above may be outdated, even harmful, and they ignore the potential offered by the growth and development as well as the flourishing and various social roles of people over 60.

A new, as yet unnamed stage of life?

Along with higher average life expectancy, more diverse life courses, and an increasing number of studies exploring positive functioning, the question arises whether update the existing theories and views of developmental psychology on late adulthood should be updated.

Could it be that there is now a new life stage approximately in the age range from 60 to 80, which still lacks a specific name?

There is indirect empirical evidence for the need to update the theories. Such evidence can be found from observations both from abroad and from the Gerontology Research Center (GEREC). International research shows, for example, that psychological well-being increases after the age of 50, self-esteem is, on average, at its peak around the age of 60, and the general developmental trend of personality traits is such that emotional stability, conscientiousness, and agreeableness increase along with age.

In 2023, GEREC researchers have published analyses showing that this kind of favourable psychological development is characteristic of this time, in particular, as depressive symptoms are more infrequent among current 75–80-year-olds than among people of the same age thirty years ago .

Longitudinal research challenges life stage theories

Another recent finding worth mentioning here comes from the longitudinal study entitled the Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Personality and Social Development and relates to generativity. In this study, the same people have been followed thus far from the age of 8 up to the age of 61.

In the 1950s, Erikson introduced his theory of psychosocial stages, which is well known in developmental psychology. In this theory, each developmental stage was characterised by a specific developmental task, of which Erikson associated generativity with late adulthood, referring to the will and ability to guide the next generation. For this to pertain particularly to late adulthood, it could be assumed to increase around or after the age of 60.

However, the findings show that this kind of generativity is not more typical in people at this age than in the same people at the age of 42 or 50. There is wide individual variation in development as regards the extent of care and concern for the next generation.

In general, there is reason to reconsider the stage theories that stress the significance of normative timing of certain life events and developmental tasks.

In the light of analyses based on our longitudinal data, the timing of life events in adulthood – such as graduation and settling into working and family life – has no connection to subsequent mental well-being. In other words, it makes no difference whether the life events take place earlier or later than what is typical of the age cohort or within the so-called normative period.

The well-being of people over 60 forms in many ways

One could assume that these findings are generalisable to people over 60, so that there is increasing variation among them in terms of different life events, such as retirement and becoming a grandparent, as well as for health status and functional capacity.

This variation suggests that well-being is also constructed more individually than before.

These observations provide a good starting point for the development of a new theory, but the systematic development of such a theory calls for, alongside content-wise issues, also considerable efforts related to the study design and methods.

To be able to argue that people over 60 have higher well-being and greater functional capacity than the traditional theories of developmental psychology have presumed, we should also conceptualise and operationalise in a measurable form what factors would describe the psychological flourishing of people over 60.

Katja Kokko

The author holds the title of docent in psychology and works as research director at the Gerontology Research Center GEREC in the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä. GEREC is a joint centre for aging research of the universities of Jyväskylä and Tampere. The author is one of the chairs of the School of well-being, JYU.well.

Get latest articles from The University of Jyväskylä’s stakeholder magazine into your email. You can cancel your subscription at any time.