How Do People’s Values Change as They Get Older?

Your values are influenced by the tasks you perform at different life stages.

Posted Sep 01, 2015

Abhikdhar2009 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Abhikdhar2009 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

At any given moment in your life, you have a set of abstract values that guide your actions. As an academic psychologist, for example, I value knowledge, and spend a lot of time pursuing it. Success has also been a value for me, and so I have devoted time to my career. My values are not shared by everyone; I have many friends who are less driven by success than I am.

In addition to individual differences in values, there may also be changes in values as people age. For example, people may value excitement more when they are younger than older. 

A paper by Valdiney Gouveia, Katia Vione, Taciano Milfont, and Ronald Fischer in the September, 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examined changes in endorsement of values based on both age and gender. They examined data from a sample of over 36,000 adults from Brazil who came from a number of regions in the country. About half the sample were men and half were women, ranging in age from 12 to 65.

Participants rated their endorsement of 18 values coming from an instrument called the Basic Values Survey. These values were designed to reflect six different classes of values people hold: Excitement (emotion, pleasure, and sexuality), Promotion (power, prestige, and success), Interaction (affection, belonging, support), Normative (obedience, religiosity, and tradition), Actualization (beauty, knowledge, maturity) and Existence (health, stability, survival). They analyzed how endorsement of these values changed with age for both men and women.

The strength of each of these values changed with age. There were some small gender differences, but for the most part men and women were similar.

People were most interested in Excitement as adolescents. This value declined with age. The main gender difference here was that the oldest women were much less interested in Excitement than the oldest men. This finding is probably not that surprising;  younger people are generally more apt to seek pleasure than older adults.   

People were more interested in Promotion (power and success) when they were younger and older than in the middle. The idea is that in early and middle adulthood, people are focused on children and family and so success broadly is less of a concern than it is early in life or later when child-raising responsibilities have been completed.

Interaction was most important for adolescents and early adults but reducing somewhat with age. This value was fairly important at all ages, though, and did not change a lot with age. As a social species, the continued importance of Interaction makes sense.

Normative values (tradition and religiosity) tended to get more important with age and were most important for the older adults. This value was endorsed more strongly for older women than for older men. It reflects a trend for people to cling more tightly to tradition as they get older, perhaps because it helps to give meaning to life.

Actualization increased with age up to middle adulthood at which point it tended to flatten out, though older men continued to show an increase in the importance of this value. This change reflects that as people get older, they become more interested in beauty and knowledge, though in middle age adults are often more focused on practical concerns, such as making a living and raising children than on loftier life concerns.

Finally, Existence was most important to people early in life with a decrease toward middle adulthood and a slight increase late in life. This was similar for both men and women. Essentially, the youngest people are most concerned with their own health and well-being. As people age, they want to stay healthy, but they also recognize that they will experience some health problems as they age.

These data need to be taken with some caution. They reflect a sample of Brazilians that may not reflect people in general. That said, these results do suggest that changes in values over time probably reflect the tasks people need to perform at different life stages. Early in life, people need to figure out what they want to do in life, and so they need to explore life’s possibilities. Later, many people want to start a family and raise children. That shifts people’s values. In old age, the responsibilities of raising a family are finished, but older adults also begin to experience health problems. These changes may lead older adults to value tradition as a way of finding meaning in their lives.

While there are big changes in values with age, there are not large group differences between men and women. In general, men and women have similar life tasks to perform at different ages. They may differ in the degree to which a particular value is important, but they do not differ strongly in the pattern of increase or decrease in the importance of these values with age.

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