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The 8 life stages and what we can learn from each one

August 31, 2022 - 19 min read


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What are the stages of life?

The 8 stages of life

Other theories about the stages of life

How to navigate and thrive through the 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 lifetimes, we experience drastic changes and big milestones. 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 practitioners in developmental psychology have created theories to help 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, most people will share common interests, actions, and behaviors.

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 in years of age.

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.

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. 

While there are many theories, the important thing to remember is that we are all individual humans with unique experiences. The stages of life framework is simply meant to be a lens through which to see our lives.


The 8 stages of life

We’ll dive into more frameworks for the life stages soon, but let’s first discuss Erik Erikson’s popularized theory of psychosocial development.

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

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

His theory of psychosocial development emphasizes social interactions. He argues that a person’s social contexts and experiences determine their personality.

Conflict is also central to the 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 then bring about the individual’s transition into the next stage.

So according to Erik Erikson’s theory, what are the stages of life? His hypothesis covers eight particular life stages as follows: 

  • Infancy
  • Toddlerhood
  • Preschool years
  • Early school years
  • Adolescence
  • Young adulthood
  • Middle adulthood
  • Late adulthood

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.

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) and the conflict of trust vs. mistrust.

If they are well taken care of, the infant 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 characteristic 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 these young children are 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 evolving 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.

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. Typically, people in this stage are building the social, professional, and financial foundations they’ll need for the rest of their lives. 

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 midlife 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.

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 life for older adults. The virtue of this stage is wisdom.


Other theories about the stages of life

Erik Erickson’s theory isn’t the only one out there — for years, philosophers, psychologists, and academics have debated the number of life stages and when they occur. To get a better perspective on all the stages of life and how this framework can help you, let’s take a look at some of the other theories. 

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.

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.

How to navigate and thrive through the stages of life

Although we can describe the human life cycle in clear-cut stages, we continually and gradually change from day to day. 

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.

To navigate and thrive through these stages of life, you need to prepare yourself to take the lessons of one stage into the next. That way, you can keep growing into a happier, better version of yourself as you progress through the stages of life. 

Here are a few ways you can do that: 

These practices will help your maturity increase as your age does. That’s good for both you and your loved ones — with more maturity comes more respect for yourself and others, more compassion, and more self-awareness

Progressing through the stages of life can be challenging, but it’s exciting because it gives us the opportunity to become our authentic selves. If you can learn how to navigate through the waves of change, you’ll be grateful for all the chances life gives you to grow.


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 August 31, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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