Following Women’s Lives from Age 21-71: Lessons in Adult Development
In the 1950s, man had just gone into outer space for the first time, and researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, were trying to help the U.S. government locate creative people who could help move our country forward in the Space Race. In these early days, even before the women’s movement or any field called “psychology of women,” they had a striking idea—maybe they should study women’s creative potential! So began the Mills Study, which followed 142 graduates of a women’s college from age 21-71.
With data collected when the women were in their 20s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, a dedicated team of researchers aimed to paint a six-decade picture of women’s personality and development. And in our book, Women on the River of Life, by Ravenna Helson and Valory Mitchell, published this last November, we did just that—exploring family, work, maturity, wisdom, creativity, attachment, and purpose in life. Their lives unfolded in a rapidly changing historical period with far-reaching consequences for the kinds of lives women would envision, and achieve, for themselves.
Here are three major discoveries we found.
Discovery #1: Women’s Prime of Life
One surprising discovery—women have a prime of life! Their early 50s was the time when they rated their lives as most “first-rate.” For these women, children had begun leaving home, and they were living alone with their partner (if they had one) for the first time in a very long time. As a group, they were healthy and felt financially secure; 78% were in the workforce. They had increased in confidence, responsibility, tough-mindedness, and intellectual complexity. Our findings are in sharp contrast to the stereotype of women as buffeted by hormonal and interpersonal upheaval in midlife.
What were they feeling? We asked them to rate 45 statements of “feelings about life.” The feelings that got the highest ratings were:
— being selective in what I do (91%)
— a sense of being my own person (90%)
— feeling established (78%)
— more satisfied with what I have, less worried about what I won’t get (76)
— focus on reality, meeting the needs of the day and not worrying about them (76%)
— feeling the importance of time’s passing (76%)
— bringing both feeling and rationality into decisions (76%)
Thus, most Mills women had developed more control over their lives and had increased in a kind of present-oriented contentment, with reduced emotion and worry.
Discovery #2: The Enormous Influence of Personality Across the Lifespan
Each time we contacted the Mills women, they filled in a personality inventory that measured 22 major personality traits, later condensed to the Big Five traits of Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience, Neuroticism, and Agreeableness. This way, we could discover whether personality was related to behavior, outlook, and goals all across the lifespan. We found that personality measured at age 21 could predict important outcomes at 71!
One trait—Openness to Experience—can provide interesting examples. College seniors who were high on Openness started their work lives earlier than others in their cohort, were more likely to seek out higher education, and were more likely to become self-employed. They were less likely to choose work or spouses with financial security in mind. In fact, Openness at age 21 was related to feeling the least financially secure, compared to other women, at age 71. Perhaps this outcome is both good and bad—good because it is far more satisfying to choose your work because you love it than because it is lucrative, but bad because financial security is also a source of satisfaction, particularly in late adulthood.
Discovery #3: Personality and Paths of Development
In early adulthood, women’s lives were best described by their commitments to family and/or career. By mid-life, however, a better way to describe these lives was by identifying different “paths of development.” No surprise, perhaps: the personality trait of Openness turned out to be important in determining which path a woman will take. We found three subgroups whose standing on this trait, in combination with other personality features, had significant consequences.
The first group, Conservers, are women low on Openness at age 21 (but high on Conscientiousness). Because of this, they do not enjoy exploration, and so were likely to accept the identity that was handed to them by the society. They valued the security and predictability of fitting in smoothly, and established traditional lives, which at that time meant they married and began having children right out of college. They loved marriage and motherhood, were less likely than others to divorce, and felt they had been successful in meeting these life goals. These women have a distinctive way of managing emotions, preferring to keep them all subdued.
The second group, Seekers, are high on Openness (but low on Conscientiousness). Their goals center on self-understanding, developing a philosophy of life, and standing apart from social norms so they can better see their own point of view. They seek out exploration, but are less comfortable with commitment, so may continue to have a rather fluid sense of identity. They are just as likely to have families and careers, but are conspicuous for the priority they place on having time and space to support the importance of their inner search. Their approach to emotion regulation is the opposite of the Conservers—this group seeks to amplify both positive and negative emotions so they can more fully understand all aspects of a situation.
The third group, Achievers, have managed to blend high Openness and high Conscientiousness, along with a healthy dose of ambition. These are the women with significant creative or professional accomplishments, a fully achieved sense of identity, and a style of emotion regulation that subdues the negative while accentuating the positive.
This is just a taste of the treasures to be found in the book about the Mills Project, Women on the River of Life. It is enjoyable to read—no statistics!—and may lead you to consider what has, and will, describe your own development.
For Further Reading
Helson, R., & Mitchell, V. (2020). Women on the River of Life: A Fifty-Year Study of Adult Development. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. https://www.ucpress.edu/blog/53012/how-a-50-year-study-of-women-shaped-our-understanding-of-personality-development
Valory Mitchell has retired as a distinguished professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant University, and is a psychotherapist in private practice in Berkeley, California. She is co-author of Women on the River of Life.