The Value of Adult Development

by Steven Kessler

There is a whole field of study called Adult Development, which specializes in studying the psycho-social development of adults. It's less well known than the field of Child Development, but it seems much more useful for understanding what is going on these days in our world and our country.

Focusing only on most people and using the simplest terms, it describes two main stages of adult psycho-social development, which I'm going to call simply Earlier and Later.

In the Earlier Stage:

  • The guiding principles are power and competition, expressed as "Might makes Right"
  • Rivals compete and win by any means possible, expressed as "All's fair in love and war."  This is also common in nature and termed The Law of the Jungle.
  • A strongman rules by force until he is overthrown by another strongman
    - historical examples include: kings, dictators, strongmen, warlords
  • Social order is maintained by force, violence and threats of violence, including bullying, beatings, insults, humiliation, shaming, theft, lies, etc.
  • Deceit and lies are used as needed to prevail
  • Violence, bullying, and cruelty are celebrated as signs of strength
  • Bold, blatant lying is used to demonstrate your power
  • The law & police protect the wealthy and powerful, but do not constrain them
  • The law & police constrain the poor and powerless, but do not protect them
  • On the individual level, disputes are settled by force and violence (guns, gangs, fist fights), and justified as Vigilante Justice and "It's every man for himself."
  • Women and children have little power, and may be treated as mere property.


In the Later Stage:

  • The guiding principles are truth, equality, cooperation, justice, and the Rule of Law
  • Rivals compete on a level playing field, according to rules enforced by referees
    - examples include: sports, politics, spelling bees, etc.
  • The population governs itself via regular, fair elections
    - unpopular officials and governments are voted out and replaced
    - officeholders who lose elections publicly concede and congratulate the winner
  • Social order is maintained by laws which apply equally to everyone, expressed as "No one is above the Law"
  • Social norms are enforced by social approval and disapproval
    - bullying is seen as a sign of weakness and insecurity
    - bullying, beatings, lies, and theft are widely condemned
  • The law & police protect everyone and constrain everyone
  • On the individual level, disputes are settled via the law (lawsuits, restraining orders, etc.) and enforced by the police, who apply force and violence according to the law.
  • Women are legally equals and children are legally recognized.

Here in the US, about 40% of people are in the earlier stage and about 60% are in the later stage. Worldwide, those numbers are reversed, with about 60% of people in the earlier stage and about 40% in the later stage. Seeing those numbers has explained to me a lot of the strife that I see in the world.

Let's also think about how a child experiences the world while growing up. If the child is surrounded by adults who are in the earlier developmental stage, the child sees that power wins every dispute, and that playground bullies turn into strongmen and rulers. That child is likely to believe in the earlier developmental stage permanently. Conversely, if the child grows up surrounded by adults who are in the later developmental stage, the child sees that playground bullies are called out and controlled by the authorities, and that child learns to trust the authorities and use the rules to settle disputes.

You may also notice that, since physical strength is frequently the enforcer of dominance, males can usually dominate females, especially in individual confrontations. I think this gives us a window into the origins and persistence of patriarchy across the world.

Looking through this lens at the political situation here in the US right now, I can see why about 40% of the voters admire Donald Trump and celebrate his bullying as a sign of strength. A person who believes that power should rule will admire whatever they perceive as power. On the other hand, a person who believes in equality and cooperation will see the same bullying as disqualifying. And, seen from within their own developmental stage, both are right.

I find this insight comforting, and I also find that it motivates me all the more to help others heal and grow into the next stage of their own development, whatever that next stage may be.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Stephen. Are you offering any continuing ed courses, especially on zoom?

  • I was with you until:

    “Here in the US, about 40% of people are in the earlier stage and about 60% are in the later stage. Worldwide, those numbers are reversed, with about 60% of people in the earlier stage and about 40% in the later stage.”

    I question the veracity of these statements. They sound biased to me. Also I think such statements deserve source notation. Thank you.

    • Those numbers come from a friend who is a long-time student of adult development and has studied it extensively. I’ll try to track down the source and add it.

  • Steven, I can not begin to thank you enough for writing and sharing this. It deeply resonates with me and helps me better understand the extremists’ thinking and political motivations. Despite having a Master’s Degree in Adult Learning, I sometimes forget that not all “adult-age” humans are functioning from a place of responsibility and compassion.

  • Hi Steven, thank you for this message. I think it is fair to say that there are relatively few people truly embodying healthy adulthood. The role models we have in the public eye are sadly, generally playing out a lot of unresolved childhood wounding of which so many of our young people admire. Even a lot of teachers in schools are doing the same.
    The world is healing and we have a long way to go before the balance tips favourably.
    So looking forward to reading your next book.

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