Self-esteem is lowest among young adults but increased throughout adulthood, peaking at age 60, before it started to decline according to researchers Ulrich Orth of the University of Basel, Kali Trzesnieuski of the University of Western Ontario and Richard Robbins of The University of California and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Between 1986 and 2002, these researchers surveyed a total of 3,617 adults living in the United States. The researchers measured self-esteem by asking participants to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, "I take a positive attitude toward myself," which suggests high self-esteem; "At times I think I am no good at all" and "All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure," which both suggest low self-esteem. Subjects were also asked about their ethnicity, education, income, work status, relationship satisfaction, marital status, health, social support and if they had experienced stressful life events. Some examples of stressful life events are suddenly losing a job, being the victim of a violent crime, or experiencing the death of a parent or of a child.
On average, women had lower self-esteem than did men throughout most of adulthood, but self-esteem levels converged as men and women reached their 80s and 90s. Blacks and whites had similar self-esteem levels throughout young adulthood and middle age. In old age, average self-esteem among blacks dropped much more sharply than self-esteem among whites. This was the result even after controlling for differences in income and health. Education, income, health and employment status all had some effect on the self-esteem trajectories,especially as people aged.
People of all ages in satisfying and supportive relationships tend to have higher self-esteem, according to the findings. However, despite maintaining higher self-esteem throughout their lives, people in happy relationships experienced the same drop in self-esteem during old age as people in unhappy relationships.
There are numerous theories as to why self-esteem peaks in middle age and then drops after retirement, said the researchers. "Midlife is a time of highly stable work, family and romantic relationships. People increasingly occupy positions of power and status, which might promote feelings of self-esteem," said co-author Richard Robins, PhD, of the University of California, Davis. "In contrast, older adults may be "Self-esteem declines sharply among older adults while middle-aged are most confident."
experiencing a change in roles such as an empty nest, retirement and obsolete work skills in addition to declining health."
Orth doesn't think baby boomers will skew self-esteem trajectories as the majority of that generation reach retirement age. But with medical advances, they will be healthier longer and, therefore, may be able to work and earn money longer. "It is possible that the decline in self-esteem might occur later in life for babyboomers," he said.