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Was Everything Better in the Good Old Days?

A special issue of Psychology and Aging shows that many domains of life have not gotten worse over historical time. In fact, life for older adults is in many ways much better today!

20110222 Rentner in Berlin  002  (Matthias Heyde für HU)

Older people today are no lonelier than their peers in the previous
decades. Photo: M. Heyde/HU Berlin

What is the special issue about?

The special issue examines how historical context can shape adult development and aging. It features multiple independent studies that show, among other findings, how older adults today demonstrate improved levels of functioning and fewer decrements than adults of the same age who were studied several decades ago.

What is the significance of the issue?

These historical changes seem to have been brought about by expanded access to individual resources (e.g., education and health); changes in social life, such as the increased importance of friendships and non-kin; advances in technology; and changes in the zeitgeist and attitudes towards old age. However, it is important to keep in mind that the success story witnessed for older adults in their 60s and 70s may not necessarily generalize to those in midlife (e.g., in their 40s) and in very old age (e.g., those in their 80s and 90s). It’s also important to note that these studies took place in developed nations such as the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands, and may not generalize to less developed countries.

How did this special issue come about?

Research groups from many institutions in the United States, Germany, and other European nations contributed to the special issue. Articles are based on more than 20 long-term longitudinal studies of older adults. The usual analytic approach was to directly compare older adults tested in one historical epoch (e.g., 75-year-olds tested in the early 1990s) with adults of the same age today (e.g., 75-year-olds in the mid-2010s), taking into account relevant background variables such as education, physical health, and social embedding.

Tell us about a few key takeaways.

The articles within the special issue present a variety of findings. For example, one study showed that there is no evidence for the so-called narcissism epidemic, at least among those in their mid-40s and older. To the contrary, middle-aged and older adults today report lower levels of maladaptive forms of narcissism. Similarly, independent studies in the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands consistently report that there is no evidence that today’s generation of older adults are lonelier than adults of the same age were 10 or 20 years ago. One reason for this finding could be that friends play a much greater role in the social integration of older adults today than for those a few decades ago. Another study showed that older adults in the second decade of the 21st century perceive their lives as less externally controlled by others than adults of a similar age did in the 1990s; they continue to believe in their capacity to achieve desirable goals.

About the Guest Editors

Johanna Drewelies is a postdoctoral research fellow at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. Prior she was a fellow at the International Max Planck Research School on the Life Course (LIFE) in Berlin. Her research focuses on lifespan developmental psychology with a focus on differential development across adulthood and old age in different contextual settings (e.g., socio-historical; romantic).

Oliver Huxhold is a senior researcher at the German Centre of Gerontology, Berlin Germany. His scientific background is life span psychology with a specific focus on contextual influences such as social inequality and historical change processes. Much of his work centers on social development in late life. He is a member of the editorial board for Psychology and Aging and Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Science.

Denis Gerstorf is Professor of Psychology at Humboldt University Berlin, Germany. As lifespan scholar, Gerstorf studies the nature of and mechanisms underlying stability and change in psychosocial functioning across the second half of life, and he has a long-standing research portfolio revolving around better understanding how a variety of contexts shape individual (daily) adaptation dynamics and (long-term) development. Gerstorf serves as (Associate/Section) editor for the journals Psychology and Aging, Gerontology, and International Journal of Behavioral Development, he is Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, Adjunct Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA, Research Fellow at the Socio-Economic Panel, and chairperson of the interdisciplinary, multi-institutional Berlin Aging Study-II consortium.