In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Life-Span Development

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Research Measurements and Methods
  • Theories
  • Systems and Relationships
  • Neuroscience
  • Personality Development
  • Special Populations
  • Aging
  • Prevention of Late-Life Problems
  • Longevity/Life Extension

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Psychology Life-Span Development
Kathleen Stassen Berger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0079


Life-span development studies human development from the moment of conception to the last breath. The goal is not to describe characteristics of any particular time period but to trace and predict the processes of “dynamic interaction”—how the present connects to a person’s past and future. Life-span science is relatively new, flourishing since about 1970 as a distinct area in psychology, but it has deep roots in developmental research on children and the elderly. The concept that early family experiences affect later life is implicit in a century of child-rearing research, especially from a psychoanalytic or behavioral perspective, and the idea that genes affect all of life, including intelligence and personality, has been central to the biological understanding of human life for decades. Life-span development acknowledges these genetic and early family influences but also holds that culture, cohort, and contexts are powerful. A basic tenet is that change is always possible: people are affected but not determined by their genes and early childhood. Life-span psychology overlaps with many other disciplines, especially anthropology, life-course sociology, intergenerational family studies, and social history. Since life-span development is relatively new as a distinct field within psychology, with major foundations and discoveries in the past few years, current research and theory are particularly valuable. Both interdisciplinary and contemporary articles are often published in the latest issues of thousands of academic journals. Students and scholars who already understand the basic tenets of life-span may wish to jump to the Journals section and go online to seek the abstracts of the most recent issues of these journals, as well as to peruse other journals with life-span development in mind.

General Overviews

Life-span development became prominent when several leaders of the study of child development realized that people keep changing after adolescence. This was not obvious in the first half of the 20th century, and consequently Freud and Piaget described developmental stages that ended at adolescence. Then Erikson, Bronfenbrenner, and a cluster of scholars at annual conferences in West Virginia led by Baltes described human development after age 20 (see Erikson 1963, Bronfenbrenner 1977, and Baltes 1978–1990). Soon books on successful aging were published, notably Baltes and Baltes 1993 and Rowe and Kahn 1998, as a welcome antidote to ageism. Demographic data from the United Nations over the past decades continually verify worldwide increases in the average life span, bringing new attention to the adult years. Lerner 2010 and Fingerman, et al. 2011 are recent edited handbooks of life-span development that include dozens of articles on every aspect of life-span psychology. Either one is recommended as a start for the serious scholar, as they reflect the state of the field in the 21st century.

  • Baltes, Paul, ed. 1978–1990. Life-span development and behavior. 10 vols. New York: Academic Press.

    Baltes edited ten volumes of research on the life span, providing a forum and resources for scholars in the field. As later entries in this overview section make clear, the field has progressed since then, but these volumes are important historical works, and many are still relevant to current concerns.

  • Baltes, Paul, and Margret Baltes, eds. 1993. Successful aging: Perspectives from the behavioral sciences. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Margret and Paul Baltes continued to explore life-span development until their deaths in 1999 and 2006, respectively, building both on two large longitudinal studies in Germany and on concepts and research of many scholars worldwide. This particular book is cited for three reasons: (1) it explains selective optimization with compensation, a perspective that is widely used in current life-span development; (2) many of the articles are relatively accessible; and (3) most of the contributors are from Europe, where life-span psychology has flourished.

  • Bronfenbrenner, Urie. 1977. Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist 32:513–531.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.32.7.513

    Bronfenbrenner electrified the field of developmental psychology when he claimed in this article in this flagship journal of the American Psychological Association that study of human development had “a brave beginning, a sad ending, and an empty middle.” He argued that recognizing the social context of development would remedy that. Thousands of scientists in the past decades have heeded his advice.

  • Erikson, Erik. 1963. Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

    This is Erikson’s classic work, which includes his eight stages of development (three after adolescence) and several descriptions of the power of culture and child-rearing on adult development. Erikson was a prolific writer; many of his later books expand on these themes.

  • Fingerman, Karen L., Cynthia Berg, Jacqui Smith, and Toni C. Antonucci, eds. 2011. Handbook of life-span development. New York: Springer.

    This book, edited by four leading women in life-span research, emphasizes cognition, neuroscience, and social relationships. Sociocultural issues, such as immigration, technology, and fertility, are given special attention.

  • Lerner, Richard M., ed. 2010. The handbook of life-span development. 2 vols. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470880166

    At more than two thousand, this comprehensive two-volume set, dedicated to Paul Baltes, is edited by Richard Lerner, another pillar of the field. Covers every topic of interest to life-span scholars via articles authored by almost a hundred leading researchers. Quality and coherence varies: some reviews are accessible to novices and others are aimed at advanced researchers. Several insightful articles are cited in later sections of this bibliography. The specifics of memory and learning are recognized as crucial in both handbooks, with thirteen chapters in Lerner and six in Fingerman, et al. 2011.

  • Rowe, John W., and Robert Kahn. 1998. Successful aging: How the lifestyle choices you make now—more than heredity—determine your health and vitality. New York: Pantheon.

    Contends that people age successfully if they make the right choices throughout their lives and stay active and social after age 60. Some life-span scholars believe this sets an unfairly high standard, not allowing for the variability and inevitable slowdowns of age. After a career as a geriatric M.D. and academic, Rowe became head of a successful medical insurance company, a fact that some think tarnishes his credibility and others think adds to it.

  • United Nations. Social Indicators.

    Reports demographic data that is of great interest to life-span development. Lists the proportion of people over age 60 and under age 15 in every nation, which makes it clear why the study of human development currently emphasizes the life-span perspective. For example, 9 percent of the world’s people are over age 60, but several European nations have more than 20 percent of the population that old, and the rate is 31 percent in Japan. Increases are projected everywhere, as baby boomers age and birthrate decreases.

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