David Levinson's Seasons of A Man's Life
In May of 1977, Daniel Levinson constructed a model of the seasons of
a man's life. His developmental theory consists of universal stages or phases
that extends from the infancy state to the elderly state. Most development
theories, such as Freud's psychosexual development theory
or Piaget's cognitive
development theory, end in the adolescent stage of life. Levinson's stage
theory is important because it goes beyond most theories assuming that
development continues throughout adult life
Levinson based his model on biographical interviews of 40 American men.
These 40 men were between 35 to 45 years in age and they worked as either
biology professors, novelists, business executives or industrial laborers. The
biographical interviews lasted one or two hours and ranged from six to ten
interviews for each subject. The questions asked focused on the subject's life
accounts in their post adolescent years. The interviews focused on topics such
as the men's background (education, religion, political beliefs
) and major
events or turning points in their lives.
Levinson's concept of life structure (the men's socio-cultural world,
their participation in their world and various aspects of themselves) is the
major component in Levinson's theory. The life structure for each person
evolves through the developmental stages as people's age.
Two key concepts in Levinson's model are the stable period and the
transitional period in a person's development. The stable period is the time
when a person makes crucial choices in life, builds a life structure around the
choices and seeks goals within the structure. The transitional period is the
end of a person's stage and the beginning of a new stage.
Levinson's model contains five main stages. They are the pre-adulthood
stage (age 0 - 22), the early adulthood stage (age 17 - 45), the middle adult
stage (age 40 - 65), the late adulthood stage (age 60 - 85) and the late late
adult stage (age 80 plus). Levinson states "the shift from one era to the next
is a massive development step and require transitional period of several
years."(Levinson, 1977) This would explain why there is an overlap in each of
Levinson's first adult stage in his model is called the Early Adult
Transition Period. This phase is similar to Erikson's psychological theory in
that both concern the young adult's identity crisis or role confusion. It is
during this phase that the young adult first gains independence (financial or
otherwise) and leaves the home. This is a transitional stage because it marks
the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood.
The second stage would be a stable period because it marks the time
where the adult must pick a role, establish goals and build a life structure.
This stage provides the young adult with any roles and choices for their future.
Levinson believes that it is during this time that the young person dreams of
his future success in a career, family life and status. Levinson also believes
that the presence of a mentor or older teacher is a great influence in guiding
the person through the obstacles in their career paths.
The third stage, which can be divided into two parts, is called the Age
30 transition. The first part of this phase deals with when the young adult
reflects on their career and past successes and also plans for future success
and status in their career as well as making plans in starting a family and
settling down. In Levinson's own words, the Age 30 transition "provides an
opportunity to work on the flaws and limitations of the first adult life
structure and to create the basis for a new and more satisfactory structure with
which to complete the era of early adulthood." (Levinson, 1977) This Age 30
transition parallels Erikson's autonomy versus shame and doubt stage which
Erikson applies to toddlers. The second part of the Age 30 transition period is
the settling down stage. It is in this stage that the person feels a need to
establish a role in society, whether in their career or their family life, which
ever is the most central part of their life structure.
The fourth phase of Levinson's model is called Becoming One's Own Man or
BOOM phase. In this stage, the man feels constrained by the authority figures
in their world. The individual wants more independence, authority and to be
true to their own voice. With this larger amount of authority, there comes a
greater amount of responsibility and burden. This is also a time of conflict as
the person struggles with the notion of becoming an established adult and
leaving behind the flaws of the early adult they once were. Levinson uses the
phrase "breaking out" to describe the adult's radical change in life structure.
The conflict in this stage is the beginning of the major transitional period in
life called the mid-life transition.
In the Mid-life transition, which Levinson believes to last from age 40
to 45, the adult faces a crucial point in their development. Much soul
searching and reflecting is done during this phase. The adults question their
past life structures and accomplishments and reevaluate their goals. There are
very few adults, according to Levinson, that find this mid-life stage difficult.
The painful process of the mid-life transition stage results in a drastically
different life structure with new goals within it. Even if an adult chooses not
to change their life structure, they must still reappraise their life and
recommit themselves on different terms to their old choices. This troubling
transitional phase does, according to Levinson, have beneficial results.
Levinson believes that "the life structure that emerges in the middle 40s varies
greatly in its satisfactoriness?"(Levinson, 1977). Levinson also states that
for some, the outcome of this transition provides the person with fulfillment
and a b etter direction.
Levinson's model emphasizes that development of life structures is a
continuous life process. In the stages which follow the mid-life transition are
not focused on, but Levinson does state that the mid-life transition is not the
last opportunity for growth and change. He believes there are later
transitional periods in late adulthood as well. He states that "as long as life
continues, no period marks the end of the opportunities, and the burdens of
further development." (McAdams and Levinson, 1977)
Levinson's model is called the season's of a mans life. This wording
alone predicts the gender bias found in his theory. His theory was based on
biographical material solely from men. This blatant bias would certainly affect
the model's applicability towards women.
" It is surprising that Levinson's model, established in 1978, would contain
such an outright bias considering the time period. Some obvious faults in his
theory as it relates to women are the differences in men's and women's career
and family goals. the men who were interviewed for Levinson's study would have
been raised in the 1950s and 60s. Women and men who grew up during this time
were gender typed to a much greater extent than the males and females are today.
These big differences would indicate different education, goals, values and
statuses. It is very unlikely that Levinson's theory would apply to a woman's
development considering the different roles, goals and life structures between
these men and women. Perhaps, with a amore equal treatment of men and women
today, Levinson's model of the season', of the life of man would be more
applicable to both sexes.
However, even with the majority of women who join the work force today,
the lives of these women still differ drastically with the men of the labor
force and a universal model of development for men and women would still await
further research as Levinson stated.
This is not to say that women do not enter a development stage pattern
that Levinson proposes because research has shown that women do enter these
phases, however, at different times than men and also the effects of these
transitions affect women differently than men. It would be unlikely for a
woman's life to develop parallel to a man's life because the choices, obstacles
and goals men and women face , differ drastically from one another. For example,
when entering the adult world, many women ( during the 50s and 60s ) were not
faced with the many different opportunities and roles which faced men. For many
women, even those who were educated and worked, family was the major
responsibility and their main role was the mother. Even in today's society,
with equal opportunity and career mothers, a woman's career is interrupted with
pregnancy and the first months of motherhood (many choose to take years off from
work to raise their children (Orstein and Isabella, 1990) ). The fact remains,
although women have established themselves in the work force as equals to men and are
able to have both families and careers, women's lives are different than men's.
These differences mean that the phases of life development, according to
Levinson's model, will differ with men and women. The age 30 transition, for
example, may occur for women at a somewhat later age than for men because
women's are described taking a slow burn to the top. ( This is not to say
women's careers are less successful, but rather take a longer time to reach
success. This is probably due to the interruption of pregnancy and motherhood.
(Orstein and Isabella, 1990) ) The differences between the lives and
development patterns between men and women and how this affects Levinson's model
will be examined further, but first here's a look at some recent research
regarding women's current goals, changes and life structures.
The Divorce rate in North America has never been higher. One would
think that the effects of divorce would be most devastating to a woman whose
main goals relate to her family and marriage. A recent study by Krisanne Bursik
(1991) researches the ego development for women after marital separation or
divorce. Bursik found that "divorce demands personal reorganization and
adjustment to new roles and life-styles." (Bursik, 1991) She also found that
women who find divorce to be more disequilibrating, experienced the most change
in ego development. Barsik's study involved a longitudinal research of 104
women who lived in the greater Boston area. The women reported their feelings
of disequilibrium after their divorce or separation. A year later, their ego
development scores were compared with their scores from the previous year.
Contrary to what one may think about the effects of divorce on women, this study
shows that for many women a painful time in life can produce strong, positive
changes in t heir personal growth (Bursik, 1991) I feel that for many women, a
divorce or marital separation is in some way equivalent to Levinson's mid-life
transition which he applied to men.
Another study, by Paul Wink and Ravenna Helson (1993), focuses on the
personality change in women after pregnancy and motherhood, compared to the
change in their husbands. The women in this study were all educated and
graduating from college in the late 50s. It is a linear study including ages 21,
27, 43 and 52.
The husbands of these women were also evaluated at the same time
intervals. the first period studied was early parental time. All of the women
had a t least one child and only a few continued in pursuing a professional
career. The second period studied was post parental and in this stage, more
than 70% of the women were now in the labor force. The results showed that at
the time of early parental stage, the women were less goal oriented, more
facilitative in their interpersonal relationships and in more need of emotional
support from others. The men were all full time employed in this stage.
The next stage, the post parental time, almost all of the women were
working in the paid labor force at least part time while 35% of their partners
had retired or were planning on retiring within years. At this stage, the men
were no longer the goal oriented ones and the women were no longer the most
facilitative in interpersonal relations. They now had higher levels of self-
confidence than their partners. The women's goals no longer focused on their
marriage, but now included their concern with their own assertiveness and their
ability to make money (Wink and Helson, 1993). I feel that this later career
development is comparable to Levinson's entering the adult world stage in that
the women (though much later in age) now face with many more choices in roles
and career direction. The women who enter this phase are beginning a new way of
living and also changing their existing life structure. The women and their
male partner are not living in the same development stage and this is because
thei r lives are so different.
A study by Ravena Helson and Brent Roberts (1992) suggests that the
personality of a woman's husband was a significant factor in predicting the work
history of that woman. Their research focused on the graduates of the Mills
college for women (classes of 1958 and 1960) and their total sample consisted of
63 women and their husbands. A longitudinal analysis was conducted to conclude
whether a woman's college goals, their husbands personality and the duration of
their marriage affected the woman's choice to work in the paid work force or as
a volunteer. They found that a husband's personality was the main influence on
a woman choosing volunteer work. Also interesting was that the duration of
marriage was a factor that influenced the women's amount of paid work (Helson
and Roberts, 1992). This research verifies that women's choices are not as
broad and unlimiting as a young man who enters Levinson's "Entering the Adult
World" phase. A woman's role and choices were much more predetermined and nar
row andthis fact alone offers evidence that North American women lead different
lives that North American men at the time Levinson's model originated.
Yet another example of the difference between men and women's lives
(especially during the 50s, 60s, and 70s) is career choices and development of
women's careers. Ornstein and Isabella (1990) found that women find success in
their careers at a later time in their lives than men do. Their study consisted
of a sample of 422 women who had reached the top level of management in their
telecommunications firm. The research was conducted in a questionnaire method.
Their research showed that women develop in distinctive patterns, according to
Levinson's model, however, their research indicates that the stages for women do
not parallel those of men. They believe that the reason for this is because of
the differences found between men and women in their career stages. Ornstein
and Isabella explain that women's careers are often interrupted because of
pregnancy and motherhood. They also explain the differences in career stages as
a result of the different socialization experiences for men and women.
Men are taught that their working career must continue throughout their
lifetime and that their sense of identity is the result of their career
achievement. Women, however, are raised with conflicting messages, for example,
the heavy task of balancing both career and motherhood. The researchers
concluded from their study that women at different ages have different goals and
values regarding their careers (this is keeping with Levinson's age related
model). However, though the ages between women do correspond, the age group of
women does not compare to that of men for the reason that many of the women's
careers do not develop at the same pace as men's (Ornstein and Isabella, 1990).
Job stress and the differences of stress concerning men and women were
the topics of the next study by Rosalind C. Barnett et al. (1993). In this
article, research supports the conclusion that there is no gender difference
regarding psychological distress (career related). The sample, for this study,
consisted of 300 dual-earner couples, all of which were full time employed, well
educated and lived in Massachusetts. Their evidence supports the theory that
career women endure in their career (Barnett et al., 1993). While the previous
articles established that women develop their careers at a different pace than
men, this article confirms that career women do encounter the same burdens of
the work force that inflict men. This would lead one to assume that women also
face the "Becoming ones own man" stage that Levinson believes men encounter.
(The BOOM phase suggested that men become unsatisfied in the lack of dependence
and constraint they feel in their careers.)
Apart from career stages, women also differ in their Mid-life Transition
phase compared to men. In the article by Paul Wink and Ravenna Helson (1993),
they believe that mid-life transitions ?, of their work become more humanistic
in their approach to life and for women to become more career oriented and focus
on personal achievement (Wink and Helson, 1993). This difference in the mid-
life phase is most likely attributed to the different pace of development
concerning careers and personal growth.
This look at the recent studies concerning women and their different
life structures, roles and choices, compared to men, offers a better
understanding of the inapplicability of Levinson's model of development stages
Levinson's first stage in adulthood development is the "Early Adult
transition" period. This transition is from the end of adolescence to the
beginning of adulthood. It is most likely that men and women enter this stage
at approximately the same time.
The next stage, called "Entering the Adult World" is, on the other hand,
different for men and women. As stated in the previously mentioned research
many women, educated and career oriented or not (mostly in the 50s, 60s, and
70s), were not offered the broad number of choices that a man at the same age
was offered. Women who joined the work force were expected to quit their jobs
when they became married or pregnant. Even today, though we have come so far in
equal opportunity for men and women, there are still differences between men and
women's roles and responsibilities. The women who were raised more in
traditional ways, however, reached the stage where more opportunities were was
presented to them, at a much later age than their husbands. This stage for
these women came after their husbands retired or planned to retire. Levinson's
stage model does relate to these women because they do eventually reach the
stage in which they choose a career role and focus on their own personal
achievement (and not just the achievement of their children or their spouse).
It is now time for the women to focus on their abilities in their career and for
the men to focus on their personal interests.
The above studies showed that the men who enter retirement become more
humanistic in their approaches towards their lives. In more modern times, women
may enter their career of choice and still become a wife and mother. While
their husbands do share in the work concerning the household and child rearing
responsibilities, it is the women whose career is put on hold during the last
months of pregnancy and the first months of motherhood. Many mothers take much
more time off from their careers than the few months of maternal leave that is
offered to them. Though women have made great strides in balancing both
motherhood and career, it is obviously a challenging task and one that differs
from their husband's. For these women, their career may take a "slow burn" to
the top. In other words, these working mothers do eventually reach the top
ladder rung of success in their field, but because of the interruption in their
rise to the top due to child raising, their success is usually slower than their
In regard to Levinson's model of development, the "Becoming One's Own
Man" (or woman) stage may take longer to reach for women than for men. This
would also mean that the "Age 30 Transition," which involves dissatisfaction
with their careers and their lack of seniority, may affect women longer, and
later than men.
The studies mentioned earlier indicate that there are different stages
of career development for men and women. Levinson's development model is an
age-related model, however, he does relate the ages of the men to the stages of
their career that they should currently be in. Levinson's model is not
applicable to women in this regard, because women's ages and their careers do
not equal men's age and their place in their career. If there must be a
universal model for human mid-life development, it must include this factor in
The final difference that will be discussed about the development for
men and women in Levinson's model is the "Mid-Life Transition". While it has
been established that this phase is equally troubling for both men and women, it
has also been shown that women choose different possibilities in dealing with
this transition period. For many women, the beginning of the 40s is also the
time when their children are grown up and leave the nest. For these women,
opportunities and choices, in the work field, present themselves. However, men
are well into their careers and in several years will consider retirement. This
obvious difference in their career development is also an indicator of future
differences to come as the men and women enter the later part of adulthood.
Though Levinson does not offer much detail in the further course of adult
development in the later stages of life, he does state that transitions and
changes in life structures continue throughout a person's life.
The before mentioned studies have shown that for women who have just
entered the work force at an older age, their focus will be on their personal
achievements in their career field. This is a transition for women who have
worked at home for the majority of their early adult years. For the men, on the
other hand, their transition is to focus on their marriage, children and
personal interests. The following years in these stages, for both men and women,
will be on different levels of development for the woman and her husband
Levinson's development model is based on research strictly from men.
This bias in his sample illustrates the shortcomings his model contains when
related to women. For Levinson to think that a model based on the development
patterns of a man can apply to a woman would be to assume that the lives of men
and women are the same. Research shows that this is not the case. There is a
great deal of differences in the lives of women, compared to men, including
career and family goals and the options offered to men and women. While the
difference in education and careers are most obvious in the lives of women who
were raised in the 40s and 50s, it is still a current issue for the more modern
woman. Levinson's age-related development model is based on the stages of a
man's career and since men and women develop their careers at a different pace,
women's development stages do not coincide with Levinson's model.
In sum, a developmental model, if it is to apply to both genders must
include the difference between man and women and the contrasts between their
career development. There is still an embarrassing lack of research on women's
development. Further studies must develop in order to assess how much different
men and women, in present modern day, really are in regard to their careers. A
common trend occurring among married couples, is to postpone having children
until the woman's career has evolved (early 30s). Research into this pattern of
later motherhood will prove necessary in order to understand the similarities
and dissimilarities of the careers of men to women. The contrast in careers for
men and women is an important place to start in developing a model of
development for people because career development and the life structure, goal
and personal development, are closely. I guess when Levinson decided to name
his study "The Mid-Life Transition: A Period in Adult Psychosocial Development",
he really should have called it "The Mid-Life Transition: A Period in Men's
Psychosocial Development" to avoid any misinterpretations.
Barnett, Rosalind C. et al . "Gender and the Relationship Between Job
Experiences and Psychological Distress: A Study of Dual-Earner Couples"" Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology 5, vol. 64 1993, 793-803
Bursik, Krisanne. "An Adaptation to Divorce and Ego Development in Adult Women"
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2, vol. 60 1991, 300-306
Helson, Ravenna and Brent Roberts. "The Personality of Young Adult Couples and
Wives' Work Patterns" Journal of Personality 3, vol. 60 Sept. 1992, 575-595
Levinson, Daniel J. "The Mid-LIfe Transition: A Period in Adult Psychosocial
Development." Psychiatry, vol. 40 May 1977, 99-112
Ornstein, Suzyn and Lynn Isabella. "Age vs. Stage Models of Career Attitudes of
Women: A Partial Replication and Extension." Journal of Vocational Behavior, vol.
36 1990, 1-19
Wink, Paul and Ravenna Helson. "Personality Change in Women and Their Partners"
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