How to learn from each stage of life and make the most of it

January 18, 2022 - 17 min read

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What are the stages of life?

How the different stages of life impact us

Theories about the stages of life

8 stages of life

If someone asked you what stage of your life you are in, what would you say?

Many of us think of the stages of life as simply childhood and adulthood. But can our lives really be summed up into two basic categories?

Throughout our lifetime, we experience drastic change. From the day we are born, we are constantly learning, growing, and developing.

As complex beings, it is difficult to summarize human development into clear-cut stages. But many developmentalists have created theories to understand our intellectual and cognitive development better.

These theories give us a better idea of how we move through different life goals at different times.

Let’s explore the various stages of life and why understanding them can help your personal development.

What are the stages of life?

The stages of life are the different phases that all individuals pass through in a regular lifetime. During each stage, there are interests, actions, and behaviors that are common for most people.

When we talk about the concept of life stages, three distinct phases come to mind: childhood, adulthood, and old age. 

However, there is a greater degree of nuance to the life cycle of a human. We are all unique individuals that feel, think, and experience different things as we grow older.

A dramatic lifestyle change often characterizes the transition to a different stage of life. People often say that someone is entering a new stage of life when they move out of their home, graduate, retire, or have children.

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But how many stages of life are there? Well, that depends on who you ask.

Some developmentalists break up the human life span into nine stages. Others think twelve is a more suitable number

In some of these theories, the first stage is prenatal development. So in the eyes of some psychologists, the life cycle begins before birth.

Although we can describe the human life cycle in clear-cut stages, we continually and gradually change from day to day. Let’s take a look at how these changes impact us.

How the different stages of life impact us

When you are young, you might have some grandiose idea of where you see yourself in ten years. Plenty of kids dream of being superheroes or the president. But with time, these hopes and dreams will likely transform into a more grounded and specific vision.

As you grow into yourself, you cultivate a set of values, interests, and aspirations. Naturally, the personal goals of an eight-year-old will be very different from those of a forty-year-old.

Different life experiences help you grow and learn, and your outlook on the world changes. As your age increases, so does your level of maturity.

With more maturity comes a level of respect, compassion, and self-awareness. The relationship you have with yourself changes.

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Similarly, your relationships with your family, friends, and partners evolve. 

As children, we are largely dependent on our parents. They play an essential role in our mental, physical, and emotional development. Later in life, we rely on our friends and partners to provide social and emotional support.

Your stage of life is not always directly dependent upon your age. But it does impact your sense of self. For example, teenagers tend to experience frustrating confusion and internal conflict. They want to be treated like adults, but a lot of their behavior remains childlike.

Your ideas around education and your career path also depend on which stage of life you are in. As a child, school is the norm. You wake up, go to school, and spend the day learning and socializing.

When you are a young adult, studying further is an investment in your future career. Around this stage, your career starts to inform your major life decisions.

During adulthood, your career becomes an integral part of your life. If you are fortunate enough, you spend the majority of your day doing work that is also your passion.

Then comes retirement, what once seemed like a lifetime away. Your career that was a focal point of your life comes to an end.

Theories about the stages of life

Philosophers, psychologists, and academics have debated the number of life stages and when they occur. Let’s look at a few of these theories and their approach to the stages of life.

Erik Erikson’s psychosocial developmental theory

Erik Erikson is a renowned American-German psychologist from the twentieth century. He specialized in the study of the ego. He used psychoanalytical tools to both investigate and present his theories.

Erikson is famously responsible for developing the concepts of identity crisis and psychosocial development.

As we’ll discuss later, he established eight stages of life. He believes that these stages unfold together with personal development.

Erikson’s theory emphasizes social interactions. He argues that a person’s social contexts and experiences determine their personality.

Conflict is central to the psychosocial developmental theory. In each stage of life, Erikson proposes a conflict. Each conflict is a turning point where a person faces a struggle to achieve a psychological quality. These conflicts bring about the individual’s transition into the next stage.

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development

While Erikson proposes eight stages of life, Jean Piaget proposes only four. His theory looks at the nature of intelligence. He believes that the way children acquire knowledge determines the progression of mental development.

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These stages are:

  1. sensorimotor (birth to two years old)
  2. preoperational (ages two to seven)
  3. concrete operational (ages seven to eleven)
  4. formal operational (twelve years and older)

Piaget emphasizes the importance of curiosity in cognitive development.

Daniel Levinson’s Seasons of Life Theory

Unlike Piaget’s theory, which ends in the adolescent stage of life, Levinson looks at an individual’s entire life. He emphasizes the development that happens as an adult.

The Seasons of Life Theory consists of sequence-like stages. These stages occur during two types of periods. The Stable Period is when we make crucial life choices. The Transitional Period is when one stage ends and another begins.

The major shortcoming of this theory is that the research relates solely to men’s experiences. Levinson chose to interview only biological men.

Klaus Riegel’s Dimension of Development

Riegel’s theory doesn’t map a uniform process of development. Instead, his theory highlights the unpredictable nature of life.

Riegel proposes that personal development happens because of external and internal changes you experience in your adult life.

He outlines four interrelated internal and external dimensions of development:

  • The internal psychological level includes emotional intelligence and mental capacity. 
  • The internal physical dimension describes physical and sexual maturity.
  • The external cultural-sociological dimension refers to the expectations and opportunities of society. 
  • The external environmental dimension includes the political, physical, and economic context in which an individual lives.

8 stages of life

1. Infancy

Infancy begins when an individual is born and continues until they are eighteen months old. This time is largely characterized by the infant’s relationship with their caregiver(s).

If they are well taken care of, the child comes to trust their parent or guardian. If they are neglected, they will likely project this mistrust onto relationships during the other stages of their life.

Although individuals of all ages struggle with trust issues, it is a characterizing feature of this first stage of life.

The virtue of the infancy stage is hope. If an individual is adequately cared for as an infant and finds themselves in a challenging situation later in life, they are more inclined to believe that someone will come to their aid.

2. Toddlerhood

This early childhood stage spans from eighteen months to three years old. At this age, toddlers are beginning to learn independently. If a toddler’s sense of independence and self-confidence are encouraged, it nurtures their autonomy.

But if a toddler is scolded or mocked for their curiosity, they may develop feelings of shame, self-doubt, and guilt. These insecurities could inhibit their personal growth because confidence is vital to evolve as a human being. Hence, the primary conflict is autonomy vs. shame and doubt.

The virtue of the toddler stage is will. A sense of will is a product of the child’s growing confidence in their physical and cognitive capacity.

3. Preschool years

The preschool years range from ages three to five. At this age, the primary conflict is between initiative and guilt. As with toddlerhood, this is a symptom of their attempts to learn independently and become more fully formed as human beings.

If a child’s caregiver encourages them to do things on their own, they grow to become individuals who take initiative and have a purpose in life. If their caregivers criticize and demotivate them, they develop guilt.

Unlike earlier stages, interactions with other children of roughly the same age facilitate most of the development here.

4. Early school years

During the early school years, children are between the ages of five and twelve. They experience a tension between industry and inferiority.

At this stage in life, a child becomes increasingly self-aware. This self-actualization involves social and emotional development.

There is also a focus on cognitive development — you learn to read and write in this stage.

Accomplishment and praise will make a child at this stage industrious. But a lack of recognition results in feelings of failure and inferiority. If a child feels validated and supported in their endeavors, they will develop the virtue of competence.

5. Adolescence

This stage of life is famously turbulent. Between the ages of twelve and eighteen, most individuals will experience a crisis of identity. This period is forward-looking as teenagers consider their future and invest in social connections.

More than anything, the typical teenager wants to be accepted by their peers.

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A teenager will explore the different types of roles that they can occupy as an adult. It is a period of all-consuming self-discovery, and this journey can be very confusing.

The virtue of adolescence is fidelity. A healthy support network will help a teenager to develop the ability to form relationships despite potential differences.

6. Young adulthood

Young adulthood happens between the ages of eighteen and forty. The primary conflict of early adulthood is intimacy vs. isolation. This tension is based on the presence or absence of intimate personal relationships. The type of development is primarily social.

If a young adult avoids intimacy because they are afraid of failure, disappointment, or commitment, they are likely to feel isolated and alone. Young adults may experience things like a quarter-life crisis. Yet they may also start to learn from their failures

However, if they establish a solid social network, they will feel connected to – and hopefully understood by – the world around them. The virtue of this stage is an increased capacity for love.

7. Middle adulthood

According to Erikson, middle adulthood starts at forty and ends at sixty-five. The primary conflict during this stage is the tug-of-war between generativity and stagnation. Generativity is an adult’s choice to pass on what they have learned to younger generations.

If an adult in this stage is unhappy or resentful about their life, they may choose to stew in their discontent and avoid contributing to society. If they decide to be a positive and productive member of their community, they will develop the virtue of care.

8. Late adulthood

The eighth and final stage of life is late adulthood. This stage refers to any individual who is older than sixty-five years old.

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Late adulthood is a time of deep reflection and introspection. If you are proud of the life that you have led, then you should feel a sense of peace. If, however, you are haunted by regrets and failures, you will likely experience despair and resentment.

According to Erikson, either ego-integrity or ego-despair characterizes the end of your life. The virtue of this stage is wisdom.

Understand the stages of life for personal growth

Life is a journey of self-discovery. Throughout, you’ll find learning opportunities for becoming a better friend, partner, and family member.

The growth and change we experience throughout our lives go beyond the physical realm. We have self-conscious, self-reflective, and social capabilities that we can develop.

By understanding the stages of life and what each phase entails, you can develop your self-awareness. And with self-awareness, you can live your life with purpose and intention.

While there may be bumps along the road, the challenges we are faced with are opportunities to grow. Personal growth is not necessarily easy, but it is rewarding.

If you’re looking to invest in your personal growth and are seeking professional and structured guidance, contact BetterUp today.

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Published January 18, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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