1. Systems of Influences on Individual Development
‘Developmental tasks’ and ‘critical life events’ represent concepts that are crucial to the framework of life-span developmental psychology, which views development as underlying, at least, three systems of influences, namely age-graded, non-normative, and history-graded (Baltes 1979). Age-grading refers to the extent to which the life span is structured and organized in time by age. Developmental psychologists have given attention to the age-relatedness of major transitions, as is represented by the concept of developmental tasks. Sociologists consider the life course as shaped by various social systems that channel people into positions and obligations according to age criteria.
In contrast, the system of non-normative influences on development is related to the concept of critical life events. These events are defined as clearly nonage-related, to occur with lower probability (as is true for many history-graded events), and to happen only to few people. Accordingly, these events are highly unpredictable, happening more or less ‘by chance,’ and occurring beyond the individual’s control. Not surprisingly, they have been equated with ‘the stress of life’ threatening an individual’s physical and psychological well-being, hence, were primarily the focus of clinical psychologists or epidemiologists.
Finally, history-graded events are defined as confronting large portions of the population at a given point in time, irrespective of peoples’ ages or life-circumstances. Of particular interest is their differential impact depending on when within the life span they occur, although such a truly developmental perspective has rarely been adopted (for an exception see Elder 1998). Only recently the radical socio-historical changes associated with Germany’s reunification have gained similar interest in terms of how they affect developmental trajectories in different age or birth cohorts (see Heckhausen 1999).
2. Developmental Tasks
Havighurst (1952) was one of the first to describe age-normative transitions by introducing the concept of developmental tasks, a particular class of challenges to individual development that arise at or about a certain period of time in the life span. Developmental tasks are seen to be jointly produced by the processes of biological maturation, the demands, constraints, and opportunities provided by the social environment, as well as the desires, aspirations, and strivings that characterize each individual’s personality. These tasks as being age-normative has a twofold, although often not satisfactorily differentiated meaning. First, the concept refers to the statistical norm indicating that within a given age span a particular transition is (statistically) normal. Second, it also has a prescriptive connotation, indicating that at a given age individuals are expected to and have to manage certain transitions. Evidently, due to its focus on (statistical) age-normativity, the traditional concept of developmental tasks cannot account for the overwhelmingly high variability that characterizes developmental processes particularly in adulthood. The life course is age-graded, but members of a birth cohort do not always move through it in concert according to the social roles they occupy. Some people do not experience certain transitions (e.g., parenthood), and those who do experience these transitions vary in the timing of events. In fact, the loose coupling between transitions and their age-related timing is highly reflective of individuals as producers of their own development, as is nowadays highlighted within action-orientated models of development (Brandtstadter 1998). Nevertheless, the concept has inspired the idea of age-gradedness of the life span, and developmental tasks have gained renewed interest as they are represented in individuals’ normative (i.e., prescriptive) conceptions about (their own) development. These developmental conceptions set the stage for developmental prospects and goals to be attained within particular age spans (’on time’) in a twofold way.
They guide social perception as age-related stereotypes (Filipp and Mayer 1999), and they inform the individual about the ‘optimal’ timing of investments in their development. In this latter sense, they represent nothing else than a mental image of one’s own development that guides decisions and actions. Obviously, the self-regulatory power of the developing individual can be integrated into that theoretical perspective by conceiving of developmental tasks as organizers of developmental regulation (Heckhausen 1999).
Developmental tasks, moreover, share some common meaning with other traditional concepts. As is well known, Erikson (1959) proposed eight successive stages made up by a sequence of age-normative challenges. In addition, he focused on the disequilibrium associated with the normative shift of one developmental stage into another. At each of these stages, individuals are forced to manage the conflict between contradicting forces, for example, between generativity vs. stagnation (or self-absorption) in middle adulthood and between ego integrity vs. despair in old age. Similarly to the successful mastery of developmental tasks, resolution of these crises is seen to be a prerequisite of further growth; if this cannot be accomplished, various forms of psychological dysfunction may result.
Some theorists have incorporated elements of Erikson’s approach into their conceptions of adult development, e.g., in addressing generativity as the developmental task of middle adulthood (e.g., Bradley 1997). At that time, individuals are seen to become ’senior members’ of their worlds and to be responsible also for the development of the next generation of young adults. Yet, studies have provided mixed results on timing issues (McAdams and de St Aubin 1992, Peterson and Klohnen 1995). In addition, generativity has been conceived in terms of agency and communion, the latter representing the more mature form which is manifested through openness and union with others and in which life interest is invested in the next generation. Agentic generativity, in contrast, exists if a creation transferred to them is simply a monument to the self, i.e., is associated with self-protection and self-absorption. Snarey (1993) has postulated that generat-ivity is composed of three semihierarchical substages, namely biological, parental, and societal. According to his findings, having been an actively involved father at the age of 30 was linked to the expression of broad generative concerns at midlife. Marital satisfaction proved to be the strongest predictor of fathers’ parental and societal generativity, underscoring that successful mastery of the preceding developmental task (intimacy vs. isolation) does in fact contribute to successful mastery of later developmental tasks.
3. Critical Life Events
Within the tradition of life-event research, the issue of what constitutes critical life events and of how their impact should be measured has been discussed extensively (see Filipp 1992). Various suggestions have been made, ranging from the disruptiveness or amount of change in people’s lives apart from its meaning or direction up to multidimensional conceptions of what makes life experiences particularly critical ones. In general, critical refers to the fact that these types of events may be equated with turning points in the individual life span that result in one of three developmental outcomes: psychological growth, return to the precrisis level of functioning (as is stressed in homeostatic models), or psychological and/or physical dysfunctioning. Such a notion is widely acknowledged by crisis models of development, according to which transitions imply both danger and opportunity for growth. The same holds true for critical life events, as is inherent in the etymological origin of the word ‘crisis’ itself.
One of the most substantial contributions of a developmental perspective on ‘the stress of life’ was that the meaning of critical life events varies also according to their normative timetable. For instance, work place instability has different meanings across various ages, i.e., being more common before the age of 30, but being experienced rarely after the age of 50 and, thus, being more stressful in later years. Thus, life events may be considered ‘critical’ because they violate normative conceptions of an expected life span, e.g., death of spouse during middle rather than late adulthood. As deviations from the expected life course, off-time events can set in motion a series of off-time sequences. Due to their lack of normativity and affective quality, they evoke extremely strong reactions, provide the individual with a sense of undesirable uniqueness, and foster them to dramatically alter their conceptions of a ‘good life.’ In addition, critical life events are seen to interfere with the successful mastery of developmental tasks and the attainment of goals, people have set for themselves. Consequently, they bring about the necessity to disengage from commitments and to replace them with new options and goals—coping tasks that are particularly painful to accomplish (Filipp 1998). Furthermore, people normally are not ‘taught’ how to deal effectively with loss and crisis. Neither are they taught respective lessons at school, nor do they usually learn from models how to cope with critical life events. And even when such models were available, people rather prefer to look at the sunnier sides of life. According to the widely held belief in one’s invulnerability and unrealistic optimism (Taylor and Brown 1994), people usually do not consider critical events as one of the possible realities they have to confront in their lives. In that respect, one could borrow a term from cognitive psychology to conceive of critical life experiences as ‘weakly scripted situations,’ for which ways of acting (let aside behavioral routines) are not readily at hand. Some life events that accompany middle and old age are, at least partially, embedded into culturally shaped ways of responding (e.g., public rituals), often facilitating the coping process. Other events, like the initial diagnosis of cancer, represent existential plights and are seen to cause behavioral disorganization and fruitless attempts to find meaning in one’s fate. In addition, almost all types of these events imply a threat to fundamental beliefs about the self (e.g., as being powerful or lovable) and the necessity to alter the self-system. Consistent with predictions of identity interruption theory (Burke 1996), one can assume that many ways of coping (like ruminative thinking, search for meaning) are ultimately related to and in the service of reconstructing the self-system. From that point of view, critical life events hardly allow for the notion of an individual that proactively regulates their development. Rather, they often put individuals in a purely reactive role for a long time, before they regain a secure basis for setting personal goals again.
In sum, both concepts, developmental tasks as represented in normative conceptions of development, as well as critical life events, have enriched our insight into the dynamics of life-span development. They focused our attention on road maps for human lives and regular life paths, on the one hand, and on the developmental plasticity during critical turning points within the life span, on the other. Nevertheless, a differential perspective needs to be adopted in order to account for the tremendous variability in developmental trajectories. For example, much of this work has been conducted with respect to male development in middle adulthood. Nevertheless, evidence of different developmental pathways for men and women in a variety of life domains is growing now, at least with regard to later adulthood (Smith and Baltes 1998), and this evidence definitely needs extension to the middle years. In addition, individual strategies to cope with life challenges and demands need to be taken into consideration.