Later Adulthood

On an even less predictable timetable, powerful changes continue after young adulthood, which cumulatively can lead to sophisticated thought and behavior significantly more complex than that of young adulthood. Employers, parents, peers, and others often sense this evolution subjectively, noticing that someone in or after their mid-20s is somehow more "mature," more fully an adult. Elements that are part of this growth include:

New Levels of Abstract Analysis
Researchers measure yet another level of complexity in abstract thought, sometimes called abstract systems, which represents an ability not only to organize abstractions, but to do so self-consciously, and to evaluate ways of doing so. This capacity is important in certain types of fields, such as science, humanities, and law, and sometimes shows up relatively early, in the mid-20s, in those studying these areas.

More Complex Problem-Solving
Also measurable is greater sophistication in analyzing problems that have no right answers, such as moral dilemmas, and to articulate resolutions based on more complex types of thought.

Enhanced Leadership Capacity
Sometimes described as more "self-authoring," people who have evolved beyond young adulthood are able to put themselves on their mental "visor," and to observe the ways in which they play an active role in shaping their values and decisions. Thus, they can create as well as follow rules, conscious that there is a process by which individuals do so. As parents, they can make family rules and maintain boundaries more comfortably.

Greater Capacity for Self-Evaluation
With this enhanced ability to see themselves as actors on the stage of life, they can also evaluate how effectively they do so, and how satisfied they—or their employers, partners, and others—are with their performance and their impact.

Internal Commitments in Work and Relationships
At the same time, they can form commitments to people, work organizations, communities, and families based on a self-awareness of their own role in making choices, rather than following along out of loyalty to the same values. As Robert Kegan has put it, the kinds of "meaning-making" that are characteristic of young adulthood are rather like using automatic shift; those more characteristic of older adults are more like manual shift, where one has more understanding of and influence over the mechanisms behind one's decisions.

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology