Age Variations in Cohort Differences in the United States: Older Adults Report Fewer Constraints Nowadays Than Those 18 Years ago, but Mastery Beliefs Are Diminished Among Younger Adults

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Abstract

Life Span psychological and life course sociological perspectives have long acknowledged that individual functioning is shaped by historical and sociocultural contexts. Secular increases favoring later-born cohorts are widely documented for fluid cognitive performance and well-being (among older adults). However, little is known about secular trends in other key resources of psychosocial function such as perceptions of control and whether historical changes have occurred in young, middle-aged, and older adults alike. To examine these questions, we compared data from two independent national samples of the Midlife in the United States survey obtained 18 years apart (1995/96 vs. 2013/14) and identified case-matched cohorts (per cohort, n = 2,223, aged = 23–75 years) based on age and gender. We additionally examined the role of economic resources for cohort differences in perceived mastery and constraints. Results revealed that older adults in later-born cohorts reported perceiving fewer constraints than did matched controls 18 years ago, with such positive secular trends being particularly pronounced among women. In contrast, younger adults reported perceiving more constraints in later-born cohorts than those 18 years ago and also reported perceiving lower mastery. We conclude from our national U.S. sample that secular trends generalize to central psychosocial resources across adulthood, such as perceptions of control, but are not unanimously positive. We discuss possible underlying mechanisms and practical implications.

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