Adult development and aging in historical context

Denis Gerstorf, Gizem Hülür, Johanna Drewelies, Sherry L. Willis, K. Warner Schaie, Nilam Ram

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Human functioning and development are shaped by sociocultural contexts and by the historical changes that occur in these contexts. Over the last century, sociocultural changes such as increases in early life education have profoundly reshaped normative developmental sequences. In this article, we first briefly review how history-graded changes have influenced levels of objective performance and subjective evaluations among older adults and conclude that old age in countries such as the United States and Germany is getting younger, both on behavioral measures and in people's own perception. Second, we put these findings in a larger perspective and note some of the "presumed" causes driving historical change. Third, we identify key aspects of change that need to be further described, including history-graded change in (a) the formative role of experiences made across adulthood; (b) within-person trajectories of adult development and aging, including rates of change, patterns of variation, and causal influence; (c) the structure of very old age and the end of life; and (d) what may be expected in the forthcoming decades. We suggest a number of reasons why the rosy picture of historical change obtained for older adults over the last century may not necessarily continue in the future. In a final step, we outline promising methods that might be used to discover and test mechanisms driving history-graded changes, and to inform projection and optimization of functioning and development in future generations of older adults.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)525-539
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Psychologist
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


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