How Self-Esteem Changes Over the Lifespan

Self-esteem builds over the lifespan and peaks at age 60.

Posted Sep 06, 2018

SelimBT/Shutterstock
Source: SelimBT/Shutterstock

Positive self-regard varies from person to person, but research shows that this psychological resource rises and falls in systematic ways across the lifespan.

Scientists recently combed through numerous studies of self-esteem to chart the average changes that occur from childhood to old age. The trajectory they observed challenges ideas about how self-esteem develops and deepens our understanding of a trait thought to influence relationships, health, education, and professional success.

“This is the first time researchers have charted out, across studies, the trajectory of self-esteem,” says Brent Donnellan, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University who was not involved with the research. “It’s a massive contribution to understanding self-esteem across the lifespan.”

The team analyzed 331 studies that assessed self-esteem, collectively covering more than 164,000 people between 4 and 94 years old. Self-esteem is measured with questionnaires in which respondents state to what extent they agree with statements such as “I feel that I'm a person of worth, at least on an equal basis with others” or “I wish I could have more respect for myself.”

The investigators discovered that self-esteem tended to rise slightly from ages 4 to 11, remain stagnant from 11 to 15, increase markedly from 15 to 30, and subtly improve until peaking at 60. It stayed constant from 60 to 70 years old, declined slightly from ages 70 to 90, and dropped sharply from 90 to 94. (Fewer studies addressed the oldest and youngest age groups—just a couple each for the 4 to 6 range and 90 to 94 range—so the evidence is weaker for the tail ends of the spectrum.) The results were published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

“The trajectory is much more positive than previously thought,” says Ulrich Orth, the lead author of the study and a developmental psychologist at the University of Bern. “Most people experience positive changes in self-esteem as they go through life, and only in very old age does the trend reverse.”

Every individual has a unique set of experiences; the trends observed only chart the average changes that occur. Still, the overall growth in self-esteem between ages 4 and 60 represents substantial change. “The cumulative increase in self-esteem going from childhood to young adulthood to midlife was much larger than I expected,” says Richard Robins, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the research but has worked closely with Orth in the past. For example, the jump in self-esteem was greater in magnitude than the difference between men and women in body weight, Robins explains.

The findings challenge assumptions scientists previously held about certain age groups, Orth says. Past evidence suggested that children experience a decrease in self-esteem between 7 and 9 years old. It was thought that youngsters initially develop an inflated sense of self, which they revise when cognitive advancements allow them to distinguish between the real and ideal self—leading to a dip in self-esteem. However, self-worth turned out to increase slightly during this time window.

Another previous assumption was that adolescents experience a sharp drop in self-esteem thanks to factors such as challenging academic environments, social comparison, and the physiological changes brought on by puberty. Nevertheless, the review demonstrates that on average, self-esteem held steady. The finding doesn’t necessarily imply that everyone maintains the status quo, Robins notes. Changes that take place in adolescence likely lead some to grow and others to struggle, combining to display no overall change.

Past studies also suggested that older folks experience a notable drop in self-esteem, Orth says. The review demonstrated a more benign decrease through age 70 and a stark change only at age 90.  Despite the challenges of aging, such as retirement, physical health problems, reduced social mobility, and loss of family and friends, the elderly can maintain relatively high levels of self-esteem. “It’s important to take care of the elderly and help them maintain high self-esteem,” Orth says. “It would be desirable for everyone to be satisfied with themselves when they look back on their life.” Evidence suggests that low self-esteem is a risk factor for developing depression, he adds, so addressing self-esteem could potentially help improve health and well-being for seniors.

Robins has observed the relationship between age and self-esteem firsthand. His father, Al, had worked for the government for years as a psychologist in human resources. When he was in his 80s, he moved to an assisted living home. Al struggled with feeling helpless, useless, and unable to leverage his professional skills, Robins says. He was also extremely frustrated by the institution’s inefficiencies. So Robins suggested that his father meet with the director and share a few ideas about how to improve operations and employee management. The two ended up meeting regularly. “It feels great to use all the knowledge I’ve acquired over the course of my life,” Robins recalls his father saying. “And, secondly, I’m finally getting this place into shape.”