Generativity Versus Stagnation: An Elaboration of Erikson's Adult Stage of Human Development

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DOI: 10.1023/A:1020790820868
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Erik Erikson's theory of human development posits 8 stages of life. This paper gives special attention to the adult stage of generativity vs. stagnation. A review of recent research provides new concepts that can be added to Erikson's chart of development in the form of 7 psychosocial conflicts that give breadth to the central crisis of generativity vs. stagnation. They are inclusivity vs. exclusivity, pride vs. embarrassment, responsibility vs. ambivalence, career productivity vs. inadequacy, parenthood vs. self-absorption, being needed vs. alienation, and honesty vs. denial. Each conflict is connected to one of Erikson's other stages of development. Given this framework, case studies of leaders could provide further knowledge about generativity as the intersection of society and the human life cycle.
Slater, C.L. (2003). Generativity versus stagnation: An elaboration of Erikson's adult
stage of human development. Journal of Adult Development 10, 53-65.
Dr. Charles L. Slater, Professor
Ed.D. Program in Educational Leadership
California State University Long Beach
1250 Bellflower Blvd. AS 204
Long Beach, CA 90840-2012
Generativity versus Stagnation: An Elaboration of Erikson’s Adult Stage of Human
Erik Erikson’s theory of human development posits eight stages of life. This
paper gives special attention to the adult stage of generativity versus stagnation. A
review of recent research provides new concepts that can be added to Erikson’s chart of
development in the form of seven psychosocial conflicts that give breadth to the central
crisis of generativity versus stagnation. They are: inclusivity versus exclusivity, pride
versus embarrassment, responsibility versus ambivalence, career productivity versus
inadequacy, parenthood versus self-absorption, being needed versus alienation and
honesty versus denial. Each conflict is connected to one of Erikson’s other stages of
development. Given this framework, case studies of leaders could provide further
knowledge about generativity as the intersection of society and the human life cycle.
Key words: Adulthood, human development, generativity, identity, psychosocial conflict
Generativity versus Stagnation: An Elaboration of Erikson’s Seventh Stage of Human
Erik Erikson described an eighth stage theory of life cycle development in 1950,
and invited researchers to complete a 64 space chart to show the precursors and
derivatives of each stage. Discussion of the theory since then and recent empirical
research have not been connected to the chart of development. This paper looks at the
adult stage of generativity versus stagnation and uses the research to suggest a tentative
elaboration of precursors of this stage on the chart of development.
Erikson is grounded in psychoanalytic theory, but he rejects the Freudian notion
that personality is fixed by early childhood experiences alone, and extends the stages of
human development to adolescence, adulthood, and old age. He recognizes the
influences of culture and history and refuses to be confined by reductionistic analyses and
rigid rules of interpretation. He takes a holistic approach, expresses optimism about
human potential, and is more concerned with psychological health than illness.
Erikson’s concept of identity is supported by similar concepts of other
psychologists. Frankl’s (1955) process of self-transcendence is a search for meaning.
Like identity, it integrates previous experience and looks for a future with something to
believe in. Debats (1999) discusses the importance of meaning for patients and non-
patients and reports that a framework of meaning is not enough for psychological health;
there must be commitment validated by real and fulfilling life experiences.
Rogers (1961) concept of congruence can be seen as an important part of identity.
It brings together conscious and unconscious aspirations. Ford’s (1991) example of
anger helps to explain congruence. He says that if a person is insulted or demeaned, there
is a physiological response and a preparation to fight or flee. However, the person may
not recognize the connection because the experience of anger is related to feeling
unworthy as a person. A congruent response, on the other hand, would allow acceptance
of the anger. In a more general sense, identity involves the constant attempt to make
different aspects of oneself congruent.
Erikson’s theory is similar to Maslow’s (1970) theory of self-actualization in that
both conceive of a person as moving from a self-centered orientation to an other-centered
orientation. Maslow’s self-actualizing people appear quite similar to those who are
successfully navigating Erikson’s adult stage of generativity versus stagnation. Maslow
(1970) describes the need for self-actualization as follows: “In one individual it may take
the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically,
and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions (p. 46).
Erikson’s theory can also be contrasted with other developmental theories.
Piaget’s theory (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958) specifies a cognitive structure for operating
upon experience, whereas Erikson includes both process and structure with more of an
affective emphasis. Both theories specify stages that move in order, but for Piaget, one
stage must be successfully completed before going on to the next so that a person may
stop in the stage sequence at any point. In Erikson’s framework everyone traverses all
stages assuming that they live a full life span. Kohlberg and Gilligan (1972) took a
Piagetian approach to moral development. It focuses more on the cognitive aspects of
moral reasoning while Erikson gives more attention to behavior.
Loevinger (1976) has outlined a theory of ego development with extensive work
in measurement. There are three levels of ego organization: Pre-conformist (impulsive to
self-protective); conformist (conformist to conscientious); and post-conformist
(autonomous to integrative). Loevinger is similar to Erikson in specifying a progressive
differentiation of ego-functions, but Erikson includes attention to life-cycle stages.
The Life of Erik Erikson
Erik Erikson was born in 1898 and lived through the major events of the 20th
century. In a thoroughly researched and highly readable biography, Lawrence Friedman
(1999) describes the central themes of Erikson’s life that led to his theory of life cycle
development. He never knew his father’s identity and could only surmise that he was a
blond Danish Christian unlike his mother and stepfather who had dark complexions and
Jewish heritage. He started out as an artist and went through an extensive period of travel
and search in his early twenties, which he would later call a moratorium that young
people use to find their identity. He trained as a Montessori teacher and taught in an
experimental school. He studied and underwent psychoanalysis with Anna Freud, but
never completed a college education. He married, had children, and moved to the United
States where he was grateful to have a home. He crossed many borders, literally and
figuratively. He claimed his Freudian roots, but gave major emphasis to the cognitive
dimensions of the ego. His research on the life cycle incorporated traditional
psychoanalytical techniques, but he made extensive use of anthropology, sociology, and
history as well. His ideas were wide ranging, and he was not comfortable with attempts
to pin down his concepts with empirical research. He thought that these methods were
often rigid and not consistent with the spirit of his theory. Throughout his life, he was
optimistic about the human condition while he still acknowledged recurring crises, times
of “heightened vulnerability and increased potential.” He took risks and looked for
opportunities to remake himself and his work.
The Life Cycle Chart
Erikson first propounded this life cycle theory in 1950 in an article entitled,
“Eight ages of man” (Erikson, 1950). The ages are based on Freud’s description of
psychosexual stages of development, but Erikson extends them to give special emphasis
to the adolescent task of identity development and the conflicts of adult development
including the one to be discussed in this paper, generativity versus stagnation. The theory
is epigenetic in the sense that each stage is to some extent present before its time of
special ascendancy. Each stage is a conflict between polar opposites which upon
resolution leaves a sense of both the positive and negative in the form of a ratio.
Erikson uses a chart to describe human development (See Figure 1). It includes
the eight stages on the diagonal. The remaining squares are left blank with the exception
of “identity” which he completed in 1968. Erikson insisted that the 64 space chart be
included in all of his reprinted articles which described the life cycle (Friedman, 1999).
He considered it to be important, not in a rigid way because he considered it “only a
tool”, but he invited researchers to complete the squares and draw out the relationships.
In this stage theory, it is clear that development proceeds through each of the
stages listed on the diagonal. No one skips a stage, and while there can be some
regression to an earlier stage, people complete the stages in order and go through all of
them, presuming a full life. The process for navigating the other squares in the chart is
much more complex, and appears to vary considerably from individual to individual and
among cultures. Erikson does not directly explain the rules for the seventh stage of
generativity versus stagnation, but he does discuss the fifth stage of identity versus
identity diffusion and the first two stages of life. An examination of these stages can
offer clues about how the chart as a whole would function.
Erikson’s completion of the squares for the fifth stage of identity versus identity
diffusion illustrates some of the properties of the chart. He describes the spaces in the
column below each stage as the precursors of that stage and the spaces in the column
above as the derivatives (See Figure 2). For example, the derivative of trust that takes
expression during the fifth stage of identity is temporal perspective vs. time confusion.
The task for the adolescent is to develop confidence that a dependable past can be
constructed into a positive future. Although he does not mention it in the chart, Erikson
(1968) says that faith in others and the need to find someone to have faith in is another
task of identity that is a derivative of trust.
Erikson gives only one of the precursors for generativity in his elaboration of
identity on the chart: leader and followership vs. authority confusion. This conflict has
special resonance in the leadership literature especially in the work of Gardner (1995)
who describes the leader’s story which can serve to inspire a nation in crisis to ask,
“Where have we been?” and “Where are we going?”
A precursor of identity that gives expression during the stage of trust is mutual
recognition vs. autistic isolation (See Figure 2). The mother and child recognize each
other and develop the bond that will be so crucial in other relationships throughout life.
From these illustrations we conclude that the spaces in the horizontal rows occur at the
same time as the major stage, and the spaces above or below on the vertical are either
derivatives or precursors.
Erikson discusses variations in the tempo and intensity of each stage (Erikson,
1950, p. 272). He says that an infant may linger in trust, I-1, and then leap over I-2 to II-
2. In other words, he may skip the precursor of autonomy (not specified by Erikson) and
go directly to the second stage of autonomy vs. shame and doubt. Presumably, the more
typical path would be to go from I-1 to I-2 and then to II-1 in a kind of jigsaw pattern.
Another infant might accelerate from the first stage of trust, I-1, and bypass the
expression of trust in the second stage, II-1, to move directly to the autonomy stage, II-2.
Since Erikson has not completed these portions of the chart, it is difficult to describe how
these two infants would actually appear. “Each such acceleration or (relative)
retardation, however, is assumed to have a modifying influence on all later stages” (p.
272). It appears that a child would spend varying degrees of time and experience various
levels of intensity in any of the squares that appear along the horizontal row with each
stage. The resulting complexity is, then, enormous. Erikson’s (1950) chart is an
invitation to a “thinking through of all its empty boxes” (p. 272), and he has, indeed, left
us a lot of work and a level of complexity that could approximate human development.
Generativity vs. Stagnation
The stage of generativity versus stagnation represents the major conflict of
adulthood. The survival of the human species depends on the willingness of parents to
take care of children. There is a mutuality of benefit for the child and the adult. The
child needs to be cared for and the adult needs to be needed. As the stages progress there
is a gradual expansion of ego interests. The adult stage of generativity has broad
application to family, relationships, work and society. “Generativity, then is primarily
the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation ...the concept is meant to
include... productivity and creativity” (Erikson, 1950, p. 267).
Everyone faces the crisis of parenthood. Most make a deliberate decision to
become parents, but some become parents without conscious decision, others decide not
to become parents, and still others want to become parents but cannot. The decision and
its outcome provoke a crisis that calls for a re-examination of life roles. The timing of
this crisis varies tremendously from early teens to early forty’s. Other adult crises of
generativity are not universal but can play an important role in one’s sense of generativity
or stagnation. With marriage often comes divorce and consequent trauma that forces a
rethinking of life issues. With children come many challenges that try the patience of
parents just as they provide many vicarious rewards. Children in the US culture usually
leave home, and the empty nest sets the stage for another crisis of varying degrees. Work
can also provoke a crisis of generativity especially if one is fired, unemployed or has to
re-enter the labor force after a long absence. Greer (1980) distinguishes between the
developmental crises that are a part of normal personality development and the accidental
crises that occur suddenly or arbitrarily to some people and not others. Both are an
integral part of adult development.
A sense of generativity is important for both the individual and society. In a
healthy family, parents show generativity through interest and care for their children. In
organizations, leaders with a sense of generativity will be able to care about both the
mission and the employees. Schott (1992) describes self-actualizing people as similar to
those with a sense of generativity. They are working hard at something that they consider
important and worthwhile. Unfortunately, he says that they are less likely to take
leadership roles than less healthy individuals who seek power to overcome a perceived
The Research on Generativity
The following research has elaborated on the concept of identity and stage
development and raised important theoretical questions. Each starts with an Eriksonian
viewpoint, and then, makes changes to argue for a competing conception. Rather than
develop a new or revised model, these additions and modifications could be understood
within Erikson’s original proposal and placed within the developmental chart.
Marcia (1993) grounds his work in the psychoanalytic approach taken by Erikson.
But he introduces a new term that is not necessarily connected to earlier or later
development. He uses the term identity status to describe both the style by which
adolescents navigate an identity crisis and the resulting character of their identity. This
approach has inspired considerable research but has not been connected to earlier stage
resolutions, nor the conflicts on the row of the chart adjacent to identity versus identity
diffusion (Figure 2). The four statuses are: identity achievement, which describes a
person who has gone through a crisis and constructed an identity; moratorium, which
describes a person in transition; foreclosure, which describes a person who has not gone
through a crisis but simply accepts the identity conferred by others; and identity
diffusion, which depicts a continuing state of confusion.
Marcia’s work deals with the identity crisis during adolescence. More relevant
for the purposes here is the work of Josselson (1987, 1996) who studied generativity in
adult women. She developed identity statuses that corresponded to identity achievement,
moratorium, foreclosure and identity diffusion. They are: pathfinders, searchers,
guardians, and drifters, respectively. The use of statuses or styles along with extensive
empirical research and case studies adds much to our understanding of identity, but rather
than have them stand alone as a new aspect to the theory, the task here will be to relate
them to the precursors in childhood and use this knowledge to fill out the chart to amplify
the meaning of generativity.
Bradley (1997) used Marcia’s ideas about adolescent identity statuses to look at
the adult stage of generativity versus stagnation. The resolution of this stage takes the
form of a dialectic synthesis of care and rejectivity, which she posits as the positive and
negative aspects of the adult psychosocial conflict. Two criteria determine the extent of
care or rejectivity. They are involvement and inclusivity. Adults can be rated as high or
low on these criteria in relation to self and others. These ratings, then, allow adults to be
classified in one of five statuses: generative, agentic, communal, conventional, or
stagnant. Bradley and Marcia (1998) found support for these constructs in validation
efforts using the NEO Personality Inventory and the Loevinger Sentence Completion
Test of ego development.
Kotre (1984) describes agency and communion as being two approaches to
identity. Agency is an independent and self-centered approach that can neglect the needs
of others. Communion, on the other hand, is a more collective approach that deals with
identity issues largely in connection with others. Agency and communion could be the
expression of the second stage concerns of autonomy versus shame and doubt. In this
stage the child develops a general orientation to independence, sharing, and cooperation.
Every child will experiment with excessive independence and dependence, but some will
continue the pattern to fight against insecurity. The agentic orientation goes it alone for
fear of being too dependent, and the communal orientation may rely on others to
determine their actions. Bradley also uses the concept of high and low involvement and
the concept of high and low inclusivity to describe the different identity styles.
Much as Keniston (1968) suggests a new stage of youth to account for the
extended period of time between identity formation and adult parent responsibilities,
Levinson (1986) has studied adult males who seem to go through a period of “climbing
the ladder” before developing concerns about the next generation.
Vaillant and Milofskey (1980) studied both well off and poor males over time
and suggested revisions to Eriksonian theory. They posit a spiral model that de-
emphasizes crises and looks on stages as developmental tasks. The stages are sequential,
but it appears that one can fixate at one stage and not progress. They suggest the addition
of two stages: the first one, career consolidation versus self-absorption, comes before
generativity, and the second one, keepers of the meaning versus rigidity comes after
generativity. Rather than conceive of these issues as new stages, they could be seen as
derivatives of earlier stages on Erikson’s chart that give a special definition to the stage
of generativity versus stagnation. Career consolidation deals with issues that come
directly from stage IV, industry versus inferiority, while self-absorption appears to be a
form of identity diffusion in stage V.
Several writers have suggested that Erikson’s theory neglects and misinterprets
the development of women. Gilligan (1982) says that care is especially important for
women and takes on more significance than male oriented accomplishments. This
observation could be quite consistent with Erikson’s theory especially since care is the
virtue of the generativity stage. In western culture, women may express dominant
concerns from the stages of trust and intimacy while males may express dominant
concerns from the stages of autonomy, initiative and industry. Josselson (1987, 1996)
says that female development is more of a weaving of strands that recur in a variety of
forms rather than a stage structured progression. However, this “weaving” could reflect
the inter-relatedness of all of the stages that is so integral to the theory. Each stage is to
some extent present before it appears, and the concept of adaptive regression (Bilsker &
Marcia, 1991) implies what may appear to be a back and forth “weaving” of
developmental stage issues.
Matteson (1993) reports research that the sixth stage of intimacy versus isolation
may not be resolved in women prior to progressing to the next stage of generativity. The
same phenomenon could be described as lingering in the stage of intimacy versus
isolation in the same way that Erikson describes an infant lingering in trust versus
mistrust before going directly to the next stage of development.
Snarey (1993) has completed an extensive study of fatherhood that suggests that
fathers who take a large role in raising their children not only help the children, but also
help themselves in their own development which extends into their careers. These fathers
may be focusing on the precursors of generativity that come from the sixth stage of
intimacy vs. isolation. The need for close relationships at this stage involves loving,
caring, and accepting that could provide the model for a style of nurturing offspring as
An Elaboration of Generativity vs. Stagnation
The concepts from the research can give guidance to offer a tentative completion
of some of the empty squares that describe the expression of generativity vs. stagnation.
We can also speculate beyond the research and ask how the results of earlier stages are
expressed in the sixth stage. Here is a tentative explanation of how each major stage of
development takes form during adulthood. (See Figure 3 to get a graphic impression of
how these conflicts fill out Erikson’s chart).
Inclusivity versus Exclusivity
The first stage of trust versus mistrust could take the form of inclusivity versus
exclusivity during adulthood. Bradley (1997) uses inclusivity as one of the criteria for
status orientations of adults. She says, “Inclusivity relates to the scope of one’s
caregiving activity, in terms of who or what is to be included or excluded” (Bradley &
Marcia, 1998, p 41).
The conflict of inclusivity and exclusivity results in an attitude and an outlook
that pervades every aspect of adult life. It has roots in the struggle between trust and
mistrust in the first stage of life. The very survival of the infant depends on fulfilling the
need “to get” which is accomplished be “taking in.” The infant gets a sense of
consistency if the mother responds to pangs of hunger. The infant feels warmth from the
touches and caresses of loving parents. The infant also has its first encounters with
patience and persistence, “If I keep this up, will my cries be heard?” On the other hand,
the infant may get more of sense of mistrust if there is little response to early needs.
At this time, babies are just beginning to differentiate between inside and outside
of self. It is as if they wonder what is included in me and what is excluded. Every infant
feels at least some sense of abandonment when the mother stops breast feeding or
removes the bottle, and there is the challenge of moving on to crawl and stand up. A bit
of nostalgia can be the residue of this first stage which leaves the infant with a lasting
understanding, “I am what hope I have and give” (Erikson, 1968, p. 107).
Years later the parent “gets to be the giver”, and the tables are turned. The
arrival of the newborn precipitates a crisis in the family. Will the mother and father
adjust and expand to include the new child, or will they exclude the infant in favor of
other interests? Patience takes on new meaning when the parent must respond to the
constant needs of a baby. Can the parent act in such a way as to convey a sense of
meaning and a belief that life is worthwhile?
Parents extend their own boundaries to include their hopes and expectations for
the child. They project their longings onto the child and hope that the child can pursue
some of their missed opportunities. The child may adopt these expectations, but the
adolescent fights them. There is a constant tension between inclusion and exclusion as the
child differentiates from the family and eventually leaves to live independently. The
departure of the young adult can bring on a crises for the care givers when they no longer
have someone to care for, and when they see that the child will not live out their
projected fantasies. Yet, at the same time, in today’s world, the child goes back and forth
between living at home as a child and living independently as an adult.
Inclusivity and exclusivity issues are not only confronted in the family but in the
adult’s interaction with the community, the country and the world, and perhaps most
obviously, in religious experience. A sense of exclusivity could be seen in a person with
rigidly held views from childhood accompanied by rejection of others who do not have
the same beliefs. Religion could be limited to ritual, conformity, and repetition. By
contrast, a more inclusive religion could come from periods of doubt that ultimately lead
to a spirituality that informs action and gives hope.
Trust becomes the capacity for faith. To some extent, religion requires one to
become like a child to suspend disbelief. Religion provides a means to address the need
to appease, seek atonement, and pray for reunification. Human beings want to see a
coherence between the past and the future, or as some would express it, a communion
with the saints, and life hereafter.
The crisis for the adult is whether to believe, what to believe, and how to believe
it. The crisis may pass quietly or as part of tumultuous rebellion. For our purposes, the
content of the belief is not crucial, but the sincerity of conviction, the authenticity, and
the degree to which faith is vibrant are dependent upon the early origins of trust. A
dynamic spirituality is one that includes others, seeks understanding, and is open to
Pride versus Embarrassment
The second stage of autonomy versus shame and doubt could be expressed as
pride versus embarrassment during adulthood. This conflict can be experienced in
relation to children, work, or creative endeavors. Kotre (1984) describes the agentic and
communal orientations. The agentic orientation appears to be the stereotypical father
who is highly involved in career and personal interests but pays little attention to his
children. The communal orientation resembles the stereotypical mother who forgoes
personal desires for the sake of others. Neither has a positive sense of autonomy nor is
likely to take pride in children.
In the second stage of life, toddlers are concerned with “holding on and letting
go” and developing an autonomous will that says, “I can stand on my own two feet.”
They struggle to balance cooperation with willfulness and self-restraint with compliance
to end up with a healthy sense of self-control and free will. Children may be left with a
“basic sense of doubt in whatever one has left behind...” (Erikson, 1968, p. 112), or a
more positive sense that “I am what I can will freely” (Erikson, p. 112).
Parents also worry about what they are going to leave behind. They wonder how
their children will turn out and how much they should regulate or control them to get the
desired result. Parenting is a constant process of “holding on and letting go.” When
children are young, some parents try to regulate every aspect of their child’s life, and
others just let go and seem to deny that they have any investment. In raising children,
parents may be ready to handle the willfulness of their own children if they are
comfortable with their own independence. They try to instill a sense of self-discipline,
which is not punishing.
Most parents want to take pride in their children, but when they choose an
endeavor that appears alien to the parent’s life style such as chess instead of football, or
cheerleading instead of ballet, a parent can be embarrassed. Later, when adolescents
rebel, perhaps choosing to deny the family religion, parents can face a more serious
crisis. They ask, “How can we take pride in our children when they have gone against
our beliefs? What will the neighbors say? What will the relatives say? How can we go
on saying that our religion is important if our children do not follow it?” If they
successfully traverse this crisis, parents could ultimately conclude, “My children reflect
on me for better or worse, and I am comfortable with what I can control.”
Responsibility versus Ambivalence
Initiative versus guilt could take the form of responsibility versus ambivalence
during adulthood. Adults may drift from one activity to another with few goals and little
sense of purpose, or they can make choices, which lead to lifetime commitments, a habit
of reflecting on the ethical dimensions of what they do, and a sense of responsibility.
Josselson (1996) rated women as high or low in exploration and commitment in an
examination of identity from college age to mid-life. She found that women fell into one
of four categories: guardians, who made identity commitments without a sense of choice;
pathmakers, who explored or went through a crisis to make identity commitments on
their own terms; searchers, who were still in an active period of searching; and drifters
who were without commitments and did not appear to be actively searching.
Each of Josselson’s categories could be understood from looking at the precursors
in Erikson’s third stage of initiative versus guilt. The pathmaker may have wanted both
consciously and unconsciously to be just like mom or dad. It may have appeared
dangerous to risk being something else. Children who resolve this stage by identifying
closely with their parents may take the “guardian” roles of judge, police officer, teacher
or leader of society who maintains order and keeps the tradition. The pathmaker is active
and ambitious. She uses her imagination to play and try on new roles, and appears to
have contained her guilt well enough to freely commit without over-compensating with
constant action. The searcher has more difficulty, but Josselson appears to have
confidence that they are still on their way to a commitment, whereas, the drifters appear
to be completely ambivalent. For the drifter, the powerful drives of the third stage can be
a cause of great anxiety and lead to denial and self-restriction.
After the third stage, the child has a sense that, “I am what I can imagine I will
be” (Erikson, 1968, p. 122). In adulthood, the guardian might say, “I am what society
expects me to be;” the pathfinder might say, “I have had a lot of dreams, and I have
made my choices;” the searcher might say, “I have many dreams for my life;” and the
drifter might say, “I try not to dream and just take a day at a time.”
Career Productivity versus Inadequacy
Industry versus inferiority could be expressed as career productivity versus
inadequacy during adulthood. Vaillant and Milofskey (1980) describe this as the task of
career consolidation. They studied men who were committed to a career, had developed
specialized skills, and took satisfaction in their work. These men internalized the
experiences with their mentors and had taken on a role valued by themselves and society.
When children are school age, they are interested in making things work. They
enjoy working with others to share in construction. From these activities they gain a
sense of competence, or if unsuccessful, they have a sense of estrangement from
themselves and their tasks. The child might say, “I am what I can learn to make work.”
The creations and constructions of childhood take on added seriousness during
adulthood. The use of tools and technology can give a sense of competency or the lack of
success can leave a sense of inadequacy that compared to others, “my work is no good.”
A concern with work continues throughout adult life. In social gatherings, after people
say, “How do you do?”, they ask, “What do you do?” And so, most adults, particularly in
a highly industrialized society, have a sense that, “I am what I do.” Adults spend 40 to
50 hours per week working where they gain status and recognition, and their salaries
determine the life style that they will lead and the people they will know. A young adult
may experience a crisis in trying to enter the world of work or in trying to come to terms
with the dreams of youth when “climbing the ladderî”(Levinson, 1986). Along the way,
a person my become unemployed and have no answer to the question, “What do you do?”
Finally, the older adult faces retirement with questions about self-worth if their is no job
to go to each day.
Parenthood versus Self-Absorption
Identity versus identity diffusion could be expressed as parenthood versus self-
absorption during adulthood. Vaillant and Milofskey (1980) use the term self-absorption
as the opposite pole of career consolidation, but it appears to be especially applicable to
those who have offspring, but fail to become parents. They cannot reach out of
themselves to make the lives of their children as significant as their own. Rather, they
withdraw into self-absorption in which they seem unable to engage with their children in
authentic ways.
Successful parents may first try out the role and have to pretend that they are
parents. Then, when they hear the call form mommy or daddy, they come to recognize it
and enjoy it. They socialize and compare experiences with other parents, help children
with homework, coach the basketball team, and empathize with the ups and downs of
their children’s lives. Parenting becomes a way of life in which parents are devoted to
their children.
Parents face all kinds of questions about what they want for their children and
from their children. A young man may say in shock, “I have become my father” as he
recognizes that he is doing the same things that his father used to do. That surprise can
bring both pleasure and pain as well as questions about how much he wants his own
family to be like his. Some will pledge that, “In my family, it will be different.” They ask
what they want their children to believe and value and in so doing, they look again at
their own beliefs. They look at ideology in a broad way and examine their views about
their country, their religion, and their heritage. They must face the questions of children
about who they are, “Where did we come from and where are we going?”
As the children grow, they challenge those answers and come up with a few of
their own. The young rebel and force yet another reconsideration on the part of parents.
The parent must decide what really matters and where to take a stand. This process
changes the parent in a constant interaction and ultimately provides a new source of
energy to grow.
One of the crises that can occur at this stage is when a couple is unable to have
children. The urge to procreate is blocked. Or worse, a child may die leaving the parents
with no place to invest all of the devotion and feeling that they have had. Such a crisis
requires all of the ego strength from earlier stages to weather the storm and set new goals
to create again.
Parenting, here, means more than being a biological parent. It means parenting
one’s creations as well. The adult begins to realize the temporary nature of life and so,
may strive for self-transcendence through children and work. Ultimately, one’s creations
are the only chance to have something succeed oneself in the world. The parent might
say, “I see myself in my creations.”
Being needed versus alienation
Intimacy versus isolation could take the form of being needed versus alienation in
adulthood. Intimacy comes before generativity just as sex comes before birth. Two
people fall in love; they see themselves in each other and feel the excitement that
someone else finds them attractive, a person whom they find attractive as well. If the
relationship goes beyond infatuation, they must take chances with their identity with self-
Being loved by another in the intimacy stage is much like being needed by
another in the generativity stage. There is an initial feeling of self-importance, which
then is either followed by the risk of investing oneself or by a fear of commitment.
Investment results in a healthy relationship with a spouse or child; failure to invest results
in alienation from others and from oneself. A person might engage in serial relationships,
which start with excitement but lead to boredom and then wonder why the right person
does not come along. Of course, a sense of isolation may come about from factors
outside of the person as well. There may just not be opportunities to meet potential mates
because of living in under populated remote areas or having a job that brings few
contacts with eligible partners.
Erikson (1974) speaks of the close connection among identity, intimacy, and
generativity in terms of the generative virtue of care. Identity is what you care to do and
care to be; intimacy is whom you care to be with; and generativity is whom you can take
care of. We could substitute the virtue of intimacy, love, for care and say: identity is
what you love to do and love to be; intimacy is whom you love to be with; and
generativity is whom you love to take care of.
Snarey (1993) studied fathers who took a major role in the raising of their
children. They may have been present at the birth of the child, been generally available
around the house in the evening and on weekends, taken considerable responsibility for
the routines of childcare and played with children frequently. They can be described as
having a strong sense of care that is more commonly associated with mothers. Gilligan
(1982) says that women seem more focused on care and continue the concerns of the
intimacy stage through adulthood. That sense of care could derive from intimacy with a
partner and then take expression with a child during adulthood.
Snarey finds that these fathers not only help their children in significant ways, but
seem to accrue added benefits in their own development, which is manifested in the
workplace and in more successful marriages. Waite and Gallagher (2000) review
massive amounts of survey data that show that marriage appears to provide benefits for
health, wealth and happiness for both partners, but especially for males.
Erikson (1968) sums up the intimacy stage by saying, “We are what we love” (p.
138). In generativity, the parent might say, “My life matters because I am needed.”
Honesty Versus Denial
The precursor of integrity versus despair could take the form of honesty versus
denial in adulthood. Vaillant and Milofsky (1980) suggest that another stage be added
toward the end of generativity, which they call, keepers of the meaning versus rigidity.
Although their sample of men had yet to reach the upper ages of generativity, they
tentatively proposed this stage because they saw a move from the expressions of care
among younger adults to expressions of wisdom and preservation of culture among older
Making, teaching, and keeping the meaning are central to generativity. Meaning
has many layers, and each stage of life brings a new lens to view the past. In
generativity, one begins to see what life has turned out to be. There is an element of both
intentionality and surprise. Each life has its regrets. In the last stage, one confronts the
fact that there is only one life to lead, and there is not enough time to start over.
Somehow, adults must come to grips with their limitations and failings. If the struggle is
pursued openly and ethically, then life can feel worthwhile, and a person can have a
lasting sense of honesty. On the other hand, the inability to face what is uncomfortable
can be a form of denial that leaves a fragmented sense of self or what Erikson calls “a
thousand little disgusts” (Erikson, 1950, p. 269). Indeed, the person appears rigid.
Honesty is essential to make meaning. To be honest with oneself is to be
constantly on the lookout for what one does not see or is only barely apparent. Self-
knowledge is gained through hard work, and the occasional pain of confronting the views
of others or measuring oneself against a standard and finding that we had not achieved
what we thought. Honesty is a constant process of testing and is not once and for all
achieved in adulthood.
The elderly person confronts the inevitability of death, and it is clearly on the
horizon in adulthood. Some friends have died young, and the adult cares for parents who
are no longer vigorous, and ultimately, lays them to rest. The adult might think, “If my
parents have died, can my own death be far away?” There is bound to be a fear of death,
a fear that can lead to either denial or struggle. The goal of the struggle is not to
eliminate fear but rather, to have the courage to move forward in the face of fear.
Erikson (1950) says that the elderly person in the last stage of life expresses identity by
saying, “I am what survives me” (p. 141). The adult might say, “I am what meaning I
can make of my life.”
The completion of the seventh row of Erikson’s chart to amplify the stage of
generativity versus stagnation opens several possibilities for further research. The
conflicts could be defined empirically and validated by connecting them with other
measures of ego development and generativity (Boyd & Martin, 1984: Bradley & Marcia,
1998; McAdams & de St. Aubin, 1992; Peterson & Klohnen, 1995; and Skoe & Marcia,
1991). There is a need to do longitudinal studies especially since generativity develops
over time and relates early experiences to later psychosocial conflicts. Vaillant (1997)
and Snarey (1993) provide a model for how to pursue this type of longitudinal research.
In addition, cross-cultural studies are badly need to test the universality of these concepts
and to bring to light critical differences. The proposed conflicts could also be used in
clinical applications to determine if they might be helpful in explaining behavior and
counseling adults.
Erikson’s broad descriptive approach lends itself to comparisons with art,
literature and poetry and drama. The conflicts and crises of adulthood could be made
more clear and at the same time more complex, by using the humanities to draw out and
illustrate the ramifications of each conflict. There is also a need to connect these ideas
with history and broader societal issues. Erikson says, “Psychosocial strength...depends
on a total process, which regulates individual life cycles, the sequence of generations, and
the structure of society simultaneously: For all three have evolved together” (1950, p.
141). Thus, an interdisciplinary approach is called for. The intersection of the
individual, institutions, and society is where the development of identity occurs.
Erikson (1958, 1974) pursued the psychobiography of Luther and Gandhi to
explain the concepts of identity in relation to historical forces. Gardner (1995) pursues
the same track when he says,
According to Erikson’s psychoanalytic perspective, all individuals are involved in
working out aspects of their psychosocial identity: who they are, where they come
from, what is going to happen to them. It sometimes happens that individuals in
the throes of an ‘identity crisis’ arrive at solutions that work not only for them but
also seem to hold a key to a wider problem, one that is besetting a significant
portion of their society (p. 255).
Gardner then develops a cognitive theory of leadership, which he illustrates
through case studies of 20th century leaders. Each leader has a story, not just to recount,
but to live and embody. The story connects with an audience and is particularly salient in
times of crisis when people are asking, “Who are we? Where have we been? Where are
we going?” The final task of the leader is to institutionalize the ideas and
accomplishments to provide a lasting contribution.
The use of identity theory to study leaders appears to provide an optimal setting to
gain insight about human development and society. With new understandings, vital
applications can be made to help individuals, families, and organizations.
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Gardner, H. (1995). Leading minds: An anatomy of leadership. New York:
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Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
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Greer, F. (1980). Toward a developmental view of adult crisis: A re-examination
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Josselson, R.L. (1996). Revising herself: The story of women’s identity from
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Keniston, K. (1968). Young radicals: Notes on committed youth. New York:
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
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discovery of the self in a post-conventional world. In J. Kagan & R. Coles (Eds.), 12 to
16; Early adolescence (pp. 144-180). New York: Norton.
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VIII Integrity v
VII Generativity
VI Intimacy
v. isolation
V Identity v.
IV Industry v.
III Initiative
v. guilt
II Autonomy
v. shame
and doubt
I Trust v.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Figure 1
Erikson’s Eight Stages of Development
VIII Integrity
VII Generativity
VI Intimacy v.
V Temporal
v. time
v. Self-
v. Role
ticeship v.
Identity v.
v. bisexual
Leader and
v. Authority
IV Industry v.
inferiority Task
v. sense of
III Initiative
v. guilt Anticipation
of roles v.
II Autonomy
v. shame
and doubt
Will to be
oneself v.
I Trust v.
mistrust Mutual
v. autistic
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Figure 2
Erikson’s Expanded Stages of Development
VIII Inte-
grity v.
Pride v.
bility v.
tivity v.
v. self-
needed v.
VI Intimacy v.
tive v.
v. Self-
v. Role
ticeship v.
Identity v.
tion v.
Leader and
v. Authority
IV Industry v.
inferiority Task
v. sense of
III Initiative
v. guilt Anticipation
of roles v.
II Autonomy
v. shame
and doubt
Will to be
oneself v.
I Trust v.
mistrust Mutual
v. autistic
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Figure 3
Expansion of Generativity
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