A Life-Span Perspective of Consumer Behavior

Lawrence R. Lepisto, Central Michigan University
ABSTRACT - This paper outlines the pertinent empirical research and theory from developmental psychology that examines the developmental changes adults experience as they proceed through the life-span. This literature suggests that, as a person ages, some characteristics of a person remain stable while other characteristics change. The limited research in consumer research that uses a life-span perspective is surveyed. Finally, suggestions and directions for future consumer research using a life-span perspective are presented.
[ to cite ]:
Lawrence R. Lepisto (1985) ,"A Life-Span Perspective of Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 47-52.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 47-52


Lawrence R. Lepisto, Central Michigan University


This paper outlines the pertinent empirical research and theory from developmental psychology that examines the developmental changes adults experience as they proceed through the life-span. This literature suggests that, as a person ages, some characteristics of a person remain stable while other characteristics change. The limited research in consumer research that uses a life-span perspective is surveyed. Finally, suggestions and directions for future consumer research using a life-span perspective are presented.


Dramatic changes are occurring in the age composition of American society. Presently, the leading edge of the post-World War II baby boom population bulge is in its late thirties. In five years, this group will be pushing into its forties. As a result, we are experiencing a maturing of America. This maturing society, resulting from the baby boom will cause middle-age consumers to be the growth market of the coming decade.

Only in the most recent history have researchers begun to pay attention to the middle-aged citizen. Developmental psychologists have for decades studied the developmental changes in children. Recently, they have expanded their attention to the elderly. Most developmental psychologists, with their emphasis on infancy and childhood, left the impression that nothing changed between adolescence and retirement. Developmental psychologists are developing a life-span perspective of human development. While this is a recent thrust, new research is providing some understanding of the development of the adult. As the baby boom approaches forty, it-is evident that life-span research will be increasingly relevant to a significant portion of society.

The objective of this paper is to review the life-span literature, identify the limitations of its theory, present generalizations that can be made from a life-span perspective, and suggest opportunities and direction for the application of life-span theory and perspectives to consumer behavior research.


Life-Span Research

As an adult ages, some dimensions of a person exhibit stability while other dimensions change. Most of these changes evolve over a long period of time while some other changes are more rapid and dramatic. This section will discuss the research examining the effect of the aging process on the adult.

Physical Changes. The physical changes in an aging adult will hardly be noticeable at first but tend to accelerate in the 50's and 60's. As a person ages, skin dries out leading to lines and wrinkles, strength and endurance ebbs, reflexes slow, hair thins and greys, and the heart and kidneys lose efficiency (Tierney 1982). The spine "settles" as vertebrae move closer together causing an aging person to get shorter (Whitbourne and Weinstock 1979).

Visual acuity (the ability to discriminate) peaks in early adulthood and declines in the 40's and 50's (Corso 1971). Difficulty in depth perception becomes more pronounced in the-40's while restricted blood flow to the retina causes the size of the visual field to reduce in the mid-50's (Whitbourne and Weinstock 1979).

Some degree of hearing loss (generally in higher frequencies) is experienced by men in their early 30's and by women in the late 30's (Botwinick 1973).

It appears that sensitivity to touch and pain change little over the life-span. Similarly, since taste and smell receptors replace themselves when they die, aging seems to have little effect on taste and smell.

Information Processing. Consumer researchers have effectively outlined the changes in information processing in the elderly (Phillips and Sternthal 1977; Ross 1981). These researchers were able to trace some changes in the capacity to process information in middle aged adults. Since a discussion of information processing changes is beyond the scope of this paper, only generalizations of these changes will be made.

In general, the processing of information takes more time as a person ages (Phillips and Sternthal 1977). Even in the early adult stages, more time is necessary to store information into memory (Bee and Mitchell 1980). However, because older adults are more cautious and more concerned with accuracy, their cautiousness may explain some of the reduction in processing speed. It appears that the storage and retrieval of information can also be affected by the relevance of and familiarity of the material being processed, the presence of distractions, the amount of the material to be processed and the motivation to participate in the experiment (Birren, Cunningham and Yamamoto 1983).

Cross-sectional studies have found a decrease in intelligence scores over age levels (Matarazoo 1972). However, longitudinal studies suggest little decline in intelligence over the life-span until the sixties (Birren, Cunningham and Yamamoto 1983). There is other evidence of a decline in intelligence about five years prior to death. This decline has been referred to as the "terminal droP" (Palmore and Cleveland 1976).

Some research demonstrates that older people are not as good at problem solving as younger adults while others suggest that perhaps adults merely solve their problems differently (Whitbourne and Weinstock 1979). Craik (1977) notes that while it is often expected that adults would be more rigid ("set in their ways") in their approach to problem situations, he found that experience allowed adults to develop different strategies to deal with these situations. Clayton and Birren (1980), likewise, found that as adults age, they accumulate experiences and insights leading to a better understanding of themselves and their world, or in other words, wisdom develops.

It should be emphasized that most studies of cognitive abilities are based on cross-sectional studies. Longitudinal perspectives might suggest additional cohort/ historical explanation of the differences in information processing abilities among age levels. As Bee and Mitchell (1980, p. 367) note, "If we are to understand development in adults, we must study development directly, following groups of people over several years. Cross-sectional studies may be less expensive and easier to run, but they just don't answer the questions that need to be asked." Therefore, care must be taken when attempting to present reasons for differences among age levels when relying on cross-sectional data.

Personality. Recent research in personality change suggests that personality trait changes over the life-span are minimal (Costa and McCrae 1980). However, when studying changes in self-concept, Lowenthal and Chiriboga (1977) found that both men and women described themselves much more positively as they aged. Some studies show changes in internal locus of control over the life-span. As adults approach middle age, internal locus of control increased (they felt in more control over their lives) while little change occurred from middle age to old age (Birren, Cunningham and Yamamoto 1983).

The emotional changes associated with the mid-life crisis experienced by many men and women in their late thirties and early forties has been verified by a number of researchers (e.g., Brim 1976; Sheehy 1976; Hennig and Jardim 1977). Brim and Ryff (1980) note that the levels of testosterone change abruptly in males during this period, as do the levels of progesterone and estrogen in women. These physiological changes coincide with the psychological pressures associated with the questioning of one's job, family, and future expectations that often occur during this period. As a result, for some adults this is a difficult time of instability and reassessment.

Life-Span Theory

Theory of the adult development process or the life-span is in the early stages of development and sophistication. Generally, life-span theories address the changes in priorities and one's view of himself and the world that occurs as an adult ages. Three representative life-span theories will be briefly presented below and are outlined in Figure 1.

Erik Erikson. Erikson (1963) was the first developmental theorist to continue the developmental process past adolescence. He suggests that a person faces the tasks of intimacy versus isolation in ages 19 to 25. If a person cannot achieve intimacy, merging one's identity with another in a relationship, isolation will occur. In their survey of 25 successful single female executives, Hennig and Jardim (1977) found that all of these women took a "moratorium" from their careers in their late thirties. During this break, most of these women developed relationships and half ended up getting married. It would appear that because they were not able to establish relationships (intimacy) earlier, they felt a need to accomplish this later in life. Once these relationships were made, they were able to continue with their careers. During the ages of 26 to 40 (some suggest beyond 40), a person faces generativity versus stagnation. A person's task at this stage is to generate ideas, products, accomplishments, and/ or children. Those who do not generate will experience a sense of stagnation or purposelessness. The conflict of ego integrity versus despair occurs beyond 40. Ego integrity refers to an acceptance of one's life pattern, a feeling of well-being, and implies a sense of purposiveness. Those who lack ego integration experience a despair that time is running out and few, if any, life alternatives remain.

Roger Gould. Like Erikson, Gould (1978) suggests that a series of transitions are made as adults age. He feels adult development is a process of moving from a childhood consciousness (outer control, protection of parents) to an adult consciousness (independence, competence, self-control, self-understanding). The issues faced in life lead to self-understanding and a greater sense of competence. As a person moves into the thirties he turns inward to better understand himself. Once he accepts his mortality in the forties, he can gain a feeling of freedom and an acceptance of responsibility for himself.

Daniel Levinson. Levinson (1978) developed The Seasons of Man's Life into the most detailed of adult developmental theories. He views the life-span process as seasons that follow one another rather than a progression from worse to better (as does Gould). As with Erikson and Gould, Levinson feels a person proceeds through stages of stability and stages of sharper transition. While Gould focuses on internal changes as catalysts of change, Levinson suggests the major causes of change are external. Levinson feels "settling down" in the early thirties and occupational advances or lack of advances trigger transitions in the forties.

Limitations of Life-Span Theory

Life-Span theory is in its early stage of development and sophistication. As a result, a number of limitations of life-span theory have been noted. First, the theories are not staged so as to be empirically testable (Hultsch and Hickey 1978; Gergen 1980). Because most of the theories came out of the clinical psychology tradition, variables and relationships are often not able to be stated with sufficient precision to be operationalized and tested.

A second problem relates to the stages of transition experienced during the life-span that varies substantially from person to person with little explanation by theory (Kurtines and Grief 1974; Runyan 1978). Many theories suggest changes or transition to occur at certain ages, but these transitions occur at different ages for some people and other people never experience those changes. Present life-span theory does not effectively accommodate this variability.

Third, while exogenous life events are significant triggers to changes or transitions, life-span theories have not been able to integrate these variables into their theories (Kohlberg 1973; Dhrenwend and Dhrenwend 1974). The life events that affect children (e.g., learning to walk, developing language, getting teeth) occur at similar ages and result in more predictable stages in the development of children. In adult development these life events vary in variety, intensity, and timing from person to person and stages of development are therefore much less predictable.

Generalizations From Life-Span Theory and Research

Because the life-span discipline is in its early stages of maturation, its theory and empirical research is only beginning to develop an understanding of the aging adult. However, a number of generalizations from life-span theory and research can be mate. These generalizations are outlined below.

1. As an adult progresses through the life-span, some characteristics of adults remain stable while other characteristics change (usually slowly).

2. These changes can be sharper when internal and/or external events trigger "crises" or "transitions.

3. Personal understanding of ourselves and our world develops as we accumulate experience and insight.

4. Personal priorities and the importance of issues to evolve as a person ages.

5. Personal understanding of our mortality begins to develop in middle adulthood.



Consumer Behavior Research on Age

Research on the effect of age on consumer behavior has been similar to the history in developmental psychology There are examples of research using such age groups as children (Moschis and Moore (1979; Wartella 1981), the teenage market (Churchill and Moschis 1979), and elderly consumers (Lambert 1970; Phillips and Sternthal 1977; Ross 1981). However, there is only limited research on consumers between teenagers and the elderly.

In their study of the elderly, Shutz, Baird and Hawkes (1979) studied three age groups; 45-54, 55-64, and 65 and older. These groups were examined using a variety of measures including shopping patterns, brand usage, income management, health care, food and nutrition, transportation, housing, and clothing. Ross (1981) and Shutz, Baird and Hawkes (1979) cite research conducted by the Needham, Harper and Steers advertising agency as reported in Reynolds and Wells (1977) which measures approximately 4,000 adults from the 20's through 65 and over. This data examines media attitudes, consumer information, product beliefs and shopping attitudes, and behaviors of these age groups. In addition, life style data on these groups was also collected. The life style categories used were optimism and happiness, modern-traditional ideas, travel, mobility, anxiety, personal adornment, income and spending, staying at home, spouse and children, durable goods, housekeeping and cooking, grocery shopping, and health and nutrition. Most categories had only slight variations across age agroups. A possible explanation for the lack of differences across age levels was the lack of theoretical guidance in developing the life style questionnaire items. Without tying the items to the types of changes suggested by the life-span literature, it is probably not surprising that the data essentially showed few changes over age.

Hirschman and Solomon (1982) examined the relationship of age with acquisition of rational experiences. In their cross-sectional study, they found younger persons sought out more rational experiences (cognitive stimulation) than older persons while age had no significant effect on arrational experiences (sensory stimulation). Barak and Schiffman (1980) developed a measure referred to as "cognitive age." Instead of assessing chronological age, this measures the age level of a person's interests and how a person feels they- look, do, and feel. The studies of Needham, Harper and Steers (Reynolds and Wells 1977) found that a sizable percentage of persons 65 and over perceived themselves to be less than 65 on those measures. Underhill and Caldwell (1983) developed a similar measure called "perceived age" which, when used on a sample of persons over the life-span, generally found that people perceive themselves to be younger than their actual age.

Longitudinal research is necessary to determine the effect of aging, as contrasted with age levels, on behavior. There have been few longitudinal studies in consumer research (Cox, Granbois and Summers 1982; LaBarbera and Mazursky 1983). These longitudinal measurements were very limited in that there was less than a year between measurements. Cohort analysis has been used to examine consumption rates of products of different cohorts, but other aspects of consumer behavior and consumers were not examined (Reynolds and Rentz 1981; Rentz, Reynolds and Stout 1983).

One area of research that has a slight overlap with a life-span orientation is family life cycle research (e.g., Burns and Granbois 1980; Gupta, Hagerty and Myers 1981). While there may be relationships between events occurring at various stages of the family life cycle (e.g., birth of children or children moving away from home) and changes experienced by the individual, these issues are beyond the scope of this paper. Because the orientation is on the family as it progresses through the life cycle rather than on the individual family members, this body of research has only a limited relationship to life-span research.


Life-span research and theory study the adult progressing through the life-span. This life-span perspective could be insightful when studying many aspects of consumer behavior. This section suggests how life-span research and theory can contribute to consumer behavior research.

Changing Adult, Changing Consumer?

Since changes do occur in adults as they age, systematic research should examine if and how those changes are manifested in consumer behavior. Consumer behavior concepts such as self-concept, evaluative criteria, attitudes, information processing, and perception could be examined at different age levels. Because consumers at different age levels have more life experiences and understand themselves and their world differently, and because of historical differences of each cohort, consumers across the life-span could react differently on these and other consumer behavior variables. It is important that these research efforts should be guided by existing life-span theory and research rather than merely "fishing" for changes in aging adults.

Need For Appropriate Measures

While consumers across the life-span could be compared on traditional research variables, most of the changes adults experience are subtle. This infers the necessity of the development of aging-appropriate measures to compare different age consumers. Examples of these measures are: how one views his role in life; how one views his priorities; or how a person views his strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. These types of measures would have to more delicately assess consumers and would be more attuned to the aging process. For example, while some abilities of adults deteriorate as they age (e.g., speed of processing information) frequently adults develop other capacities to compensate (e.g., "reading between the lines"). Carefully developed research measures would be necessary to assess these kinds of changes.

Stages of Adult Development in Segmentation

Age levels have long been used for segmentation purposes. However, adults of the same age may be at different stages of adult development. Therefore, stages of adult development has the potential to be used as a basis of segmentation. Consumers at the same stage will tend to view their life situation in a similar way which could lead to similar priorities, activities, and possibly, consumer behavior. For example, some men in passing through the "mid-life crises" want to relive their youth and be reassured that they are still masculine and vital. This is a homogeneous segment of male consumers who could be the target of certain clothing, physical fitness, and grooming products.

Marketing Strategies and the Life-Span

As consumers change as they age, the ways firms market to them may also have to change. Priorities, evaluative criteria, and product usage need not be expected to be constant over the life-span. Advertising appeals and spokespersons for products cannot be expected to have the same effectiveness over the life-span. As Kaylan Pickford, a 53 year old model notes, "Women are bored to death with being forced to look at only one image in advertising. Advertisers would get a very good response if they would put sensuality into midlife models..." (Burstein 1983, p. M10). An obvious benefit of better understanding the aging process will be the ability to market to different age levels with more sensitivity and intelligence.

Need For Longitudinal Research

There is a definite need for longitudinal studies to consumer research over the life-span. Longitudinal analysis has the ability to give insight into the relationship between the aging process and consumer behavior. This technique uses longitudinal data to separate the effect of aging from the historical effects under which each age level was socialized (the cohort effect). That is, if 30 year olds eat more candy bars than 40 year olds, the difference may be caused by the age difference (40 year olds don't like sweets as much as they get older) or because 30 year olds grew up with sugar products being more commonplace (and they will continue to like candy bars when they are 40 year olds).

Only longitudinal research can offer the time dimension to better understand the data and be able to put it in context. For example, sociologists studying the 45-65 year old on a longitudinal basis found that "today's middle-age person is an entirely different critter physically, economically, and psychologically from previous generations" (Yovovich 1983, p. M10). Consumer research in the life-span obviously cannot advance by relying on cross-sectional studies.

Potential for Theory Development

Life-span theory is in its early stages of development. Life-span theory and other life-span research has not been systematically applied to the study of consumers. While this presents problems for researchers, it also presents an opportunity for involvement in the development and testing of life-span theory both in and outside the context of consumer behavior.


Limited consumer research has been conducted to systematically examine the effect of aging on adult consumer behavior. The study of the adult developmental process finds that aging adults adapt to the changes occurring within them and changes experienced in their environment. Life-span theory and research has the potential to suggest fresh insights and perspectives into the buying behavior of adult consumers. Research employing a life-span perspective can offer a significant contribution in studying an increasingly important segment of our society.


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