The Journals of Gerontology: Series B


The development of life goals over the adult lifespan



Life goals are important organizing units for individual agency in development. On a societal level, they align with age-normative developmental tasks; on the individual level, they guide people’s attempts at shaping their own development. This study investigates the development of life goals across the adult life span with a focus on differences regarding gender, parental status, education, and region.


Using longitudinal data from the German Socio-Economic Panel study (N = 52,052, age range: 18–84 years), we estimated the developmental trajectories of importance ratings for 9 life goals across the adult life span using multiple-group latent growth curve modeling.


Having a happy relationship or marriage, having children, and being there for others are the life goals rated as most important across almost the entire adult life span. Having a happy relationship or marriage differed strongly by gender. Up to middle adulthood it was more important for women, but more important for men in late adulthood. Parental status amplified gender differences in the work and family domain. Low education was associated with a higher perceived importance of being there for others. The largest regional differences (East vs. West) were found for home ownership.


Although the importance of some life goal trajectories reflects typical age-grading in developmental tasks, other life goals (e.g., having children) remain important even after goal attainment or after developmental deadlines have passed.

Keywords: Developmental methods, Gender, Life course and developmental change, Longitudinal change, Parenthood

Topic: adult, child, happiness, marriage, life event, ownership, parent, gender, life span

Issue Section: Motivation and Emotion

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Buchinger, L., Richter, D., & Heckhausen, J.