Ministry Resources

Transitions in Adulthood

Author: David Martz

Knowledge about adult transitions is useful in proactively coping with personal changes in life. It also helps educators design programs that are sensitive to adult needs. Some learning experts believe adult learners are prompted to pursue higher education because of transitions, cycles, and episodes in life. This article will discuss these and other factors in aging.

Research on Adult Development

Adults change as they age. Some adults experience transitions in an orderly progression while others change when they are motivated by self-fulfillment goals. The aging experience is unique to each individual. Thorndike found that adults have an age learning curve that peaks at 22 and declines at the rate of about one percent a year up to age 50. Another more recent study reported that conceptual thinking actually increases with age.

Theory of Adult Development

Many adults turn to education because of crises and unanticipated events in their lives, careers, and personal roles or relationships. Adults tend to go through unique stages of development that include crises. Bible colleges often admit adult students who have lost spouses or who have recently experienced personal trauma in their lives. These crises and events may signal a direction towards seeking significance, promotion, or achievement in life. Developmental and life cycle theories on aging have been developed by educators. Developmental theories focus on sequential growth and changes in adults while life cycle theories focus on time factors and tasks unique to aging.

Stages of Adult Development

Life Cycles

Adults pass through life roles in the four cycles of initiation, adaptation, reassessment, and reconciliation as follows.

1. Initiation implies the time commitment in a life’s role.
2. Adaptation is the stage in which adults assimilate and adjust to expectations and the requirements of their life’s role.
3. Reassessment occurs when adults examine the expectations and tasks of a particular role. During this stage, they seek personal relevance and meaning (or significance).
4. Reconciliation is a time when adults reflect on all aspects of a life role.

Research by Levinson (1978) revealed adult development is a cycle of alternating equilibrium and disequilibrium. He said that adult males go through three periods. First, an early adult transition occurs during the 20’s and is characterized by a desire for a career, family, and competence. Second, mid-life transition, which occurs in the early 40’s, and is characterized by questions about accomplishing life’s goals and plans for the later years. Third, the late adult transition that focuses on preparation for retirement, physical decline, and death. It is important not to generalize adult learners, which could lead to stereotyping. Adult learning facilitators should understand that adult transitions, cycles, and episodes in life can influence learning.

Life Transitions

Life transitions in adults are about changing paradigms. A paradigm is the way people perceive, understand, and interpret the world around them. Paradigm shifts occur when things are seen from new points of view, attitudes, and or behaviors. Adults continually experience transitions, or paradigms, that consist of a disorientation and reorientation process that marks turning points in personal growth. The conscience processes involved in transitions, i.e., making judgments, decision-making, and relationship building are related to moral growth and maturity. These developmental processes could result in adults’ readiness and motivation to learn. Adult transitions could be divided according to situation, self, supports, and strategies.

These categories usually factor in individual strengths and weaknesses, and resources and deficits. Some, but not all experts believe transitions are sequential or orderly. An understanding of specific adult crises, events, or episodes may be more useful for learning facilitators than knowledge of general adult cycles, phases, or transitions.

Life Episodes

Humanist adult educators are concerned with real-life events that either bring about or are the result of changes in adults. Life episodes, or events, are benchmarks in the human life cycle that give shape and direction to the various aspects of a person’s life. Triggering events often cause adults to make changes in existing life roles, or to engage in new life roles. These events can motivate adults to seek out new learning experiences.

Adult life events fall into two categories individual and cultural. Individual events define a person’s personal life while cultural events are societal and historical in that they shape a person’s context, i.e., wars, catastrophes, or political changes. Opinions about adult episodes vary according to environmental, societal, and cross-cultural factors. Because much of the current information on adult episodes (and transitions and cycles) is based on data from the industrial countries, cultural factors such as poverty, urbanization, literacy, freedom, social and religious mores, and politics may also be significant factors when understanding the impact of life episodes on learning.

Characteristics of Adult Development

Adult development is often studied from the perspectives of physical aging, psychological changes, and sociological factors. Other perspectives include spiritual, intellectual, and emotional maturity. In order to grasp a holistic picture of adult development, the impact of physical aging, psychological and intellectual change, and socio-cultural factors, including spiritual and religious influences, should be considered by learning facilitators.

Physical Aging

Chronological age is becoming a poorer predictor of the way people live. It is no longer a valid means for determining a person’s economic status, health, or lifestyle. While generalizations about adult learning and age dominate literature on adult transitions, a few pro-active learning theorists use a chronological approach to identify potential problems at various age intervals and how to grow through them.

There are four key factors related to the age and intelligence controversy in adult development (a) the definition of age or aging, (b) the definition of intelligence, (c) types of tests utilized for measuring intelligence and (d) research methodology. It is difficult to articulate a clear definition for the concepts of age or aging because of the influences of socio-cultural factors, longer life spans, and improved health,. Chronological scales of age are an indicator of potential adult changes, but they do not provide a basis for assumptions about intelligence, ability, or motivation.

Psychological Change

Adulthood can be described as biological, social, psychological, and existential age. Psychological change can be divided according to intellectual, cognitive, and personal development and is believed by experts to be caused by internal factors and interaction with the environment. Andragogy is based on the assumption that learning should result in growing self-realization of one’s potential. Self-actualization, (Maslow suggests self-autonomy) is a common motivator for adult learning. Personal development can occur in the areas of morality, ego, character, faith, or in one’s personality. Psychological changes in adults should be studied holistically, in context with the adult’s unique learning environment, culture, and values.

Intellectual Development

Intelligence is simply the ability to learn. It consists of multiple factors, i.e., values, IQ, behavior, beliefs, physical health, and does not peak early in life. Adults cannot be generalized; they address and solve life events and dilemmas at different rates and times. Intellectual growth in adults appears to be highly task-specific, individualistic, and value or principle-based. As adults age, the information stored in their brains increases. This increase requires extensive encoding and decoding processes of information. A lack of immediate or specific recall does not always signal intellectual decline, but an intellectual search for information or experience that has to be retrieved from a vast amount of memory. Image the difference between finding one book in a library of 100 volumes and one book in a library of 100,000 volumes.

Facilitating Adult Transitions

The essence of effective facilitation is not in the approach but in the relationship between the facilitator and the learner. It requires mutual respect, collaboration, trust, support, openness, authenticity, feedback, pleasure, and humane treatment. Knox suggests six techniques for helping adults learn (a) emphasize and optimize their abilities, (b) clarify learning structures, (c) make learning a memorable encounter (make if fun), (d) pace learning at their level, (e) vary learning resources, and (f) provide feedback. Adults especially appreciate frequent feedback on their progress. It is also important to help adults learn how to facilitate their own learning experiences, generative their own rewards, and assess their own progress. This is the goal of self-directed learning.

Self-direction is the key element in andragogy or adult education. Some of the benefits of self-directed learning are identified as follows

  1. Students derive the maximum benefit from resources rather than a presentation and commentary of selected sections of resources.
  2. Students become aware of their potential to learn by taking charge of their learning
  3. Students should become aware of cognitive, social, affective, and other factors that inhibit learning.
  4. Students develop adaptive learning strategies and attitudes

An action plan may be useful for helping individual adult learners. The issue of when and how to help adult students is important because self-direction is often more of a collaborative effort than an individual exercise. The writer has observed that adults often want an accountability structure that is well-defined and non-obtrusive. A suggested plan could include a determination of the learner’s degree of choice about change, a determination about where (and how) to intervene, and a choice of intervention strategies.


Adult transitions involve change, paradigms, decision making, and problem-solving. Adult learning facilitators should be sensitive to transitions, cycles, and events that influence adult learners. Some changes in adulthood may impede or limit learning while others may motivate adults towards new interests. Because of the nature of adult change, it is easy for adults to become passive or reactive to change processes. Covey proposes that a pro-active attitude is the most basic habit of highly effective people; it causes people to be responsible for their own decisions (and learning). This doesn’t negate cooperation or collaboration with other adults or a learning facilitator, in fact, most adults prefer help when going through life transitions, cycles, and events. The learning facilitator can supply support through encouragement, compassion, and feedback without entering into decision making or problem-solving roles. Learning facilitators could become more effective educators by pro-actively assessing their own personal adult transitions and learning strategies before helping other adults.


1] Merriam & Caffarella (1991). Learning in adulthood A comprehensive guide. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass, pp. 96, 97.

2] Knowles, M. (1990). The adult learner A neglected species. (4th ed.). Houston, TX Gulf, pp. 151, 155.

3] Lawler, P. (1991). The keys to adult learning Theory and practical strategies. Philadelphia, PA Research for Better Schools, p. 23.

4] Hughes, J. A., & Graham, S. W. (Spring, 1990). Adult life roles A new approach to adult development. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, p. 1.

5] Ibid, p. 3.

6] Lawler, p. 25

7] Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people Powerful lessons in personal change. New York, NY fireside, pp. 28-30.

8] Bridges in Merriam & Cafarella, p. 108.

9] Lawler, pp. 26, 27.

10]Schlossberg in Merriam & Caffarella, p. 109.

11] Personal communication, August 19, 1997). Dr. Linda Howard, Nova Southeastern University.

12] Hultsch & Plemons in Merriam & Caffarella, p. 107.

13] Knox, A. B. (1977). Adult development and learning. San Francisco, CA Jossey Bass, p. 3.

14] Merriam & Cafarella, p. 107.

15] Merriam & Cafarella, p. 97.

16] Neugarten in Hughes & Graham, p. 2.

17] Knowles, pp. 143-145.

18] Botwinick in Merriam & Cafarella, p. 152.

19] Troll in Merriam, S. B. & Cunningham, P. M. (eds). (1989). Handbook of adult and continuing education. San Francisco, CA Jossey Bass, p. 184.

20] Merriam, S. B. (Ed.). (1993). An update on adult learning theory. San Francisco, CA, p. 21.

21] Merriam & Cafarella, p. 141.

22] Hughes & Graham, p. 8

23] Merriam (1993), p. 19.

24] Knox, pp. 442-443.

25] Merriam & Cunningham, p. 191.

26] Beckhard & Harris in Rothwell, W. J., Sullivan, R. & McLean, G. N. (1995). Practicing organization development A guide for consultants. San Diego, CA Pfeiffer, p. 173.

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