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Baby Boomers Experience Declining Self-Esteem

Posted: April 5, 2010

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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. Future research should further explore these ethnic differences, which might lead to better interventions aimed at improving self-esteem, wrote the study's authors.

Education, income, health and employment status all had some effect on the self-esteem trajectories, especially as people aged. "Specifically, we found that people who have higher incomes and better health in later life tend to maintain their self-esteem as they age," said Orth. "We cannot know for certain that more wealth and better health directly lead to higher self-esteem, but it does appear to be linked in some way. For example, it is possible that wealth and health are related to feeling more independent and better able to contribute to one's family and society, which in turn bolsters self-esteem."

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. "Although they enter old age with higher self-esteem and continue to have higher self-esteem as they age, they decline in self-esteem to the same extent as people in unhappy relationships," said co-author Kali H. Trzesniewski, PhD, of the University of Western Ontario. "Thus, being in a happy relationship does not protect a person against the decline in self-esteem that typically occurs in old age."

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 experiencing a change in roles such as an empty nest, retirement and obsolete work skills in addition to declining health."