What legacy do you want to leave behind? It’s okay if you don’t know yet. According to German psychologist Erik Erikson, a person really starts to think about their legacy between the ages of 40-60. During this stage of a person’s life, they enter a crisis: generativity vs. stagnation.
What Is Generativity vs. Stagnation?
Generativity vs. stagnation is the seventh crisis that a person experiences throughout their social development. It follows the crisis of intimacy vs. isolation. People who successfully moved through the sixth stage have a community who bring them joy. This could include a spouse, group of friends, family unit, etc.
What Happens During Generativity vs. Stagnation?
In the seventh stage, the person looks beyond the generation that they know. They start to think about the next generation. Parenthood is a big event in the generativity vs. stagnation stage (for those that become parents.) With a new generation starting to enter the identity vs. role confusion stage, people in this stage begin to reflect on their lives and think about what they are leaving for the next generation. This is the definition of generativity. Erikson is credited for using this term first.
If a person feels good about what they are leaving to the next generation, they will feel satisfied and proud. If a person does not feel good, they might feel embarrassed. Like the stages before it, failing to complete the seventh stage will make things harder in the last stage of social development.
Psychologists have discovered that this stage comes with other crises, but they all revolve around the same basic ideas of leaving behind a legacy:
- Inclusivity vs. exclusivity
- Pride vs. embarrassment
- Responsibility vs. ambivalence
- Productivity vs. inadequacy
- Parenthood vs. self-absorption
- Honesty vs. denial
The basic virtue in this stage is care. We care for the things and people that will outlive us. We take responsibility for the things we care for and help to build them up in a productive manner. When we see the results of our efforts, we feel pride.
Are Erikson’s Stage of Development Still Relevant?
Erikson wrote about the eight stages of psychosocial development in the second half of the twentieth century. Sure, it was only a few decades ago, but things have changed. We don’t expect everyone to get married right out of college and have children immediately. Some people may focus on their career before building a family. Some people only choose to focus on their career and don’t have any children. Just because someone doesn’t have children doesn’t mean they won’t enter this stage of life.
Positive Outcome of Generativity vs. Stagnation
People complete this stage when they feel confident that they have left their mark on the world – that they have done something that will outlive them. That could be the creation of a family, or the creation of a company. It would be a big charitable contribution or the hours of work put into volunteering for a cause. Creating and nurturing generations of people is just one way that you can feel fulfilled during this stage in your life.
Example of Generativity vs. Stagnation
Have you ever read The Alchemist?
The classic book tells the story of a boy who abandons his life as a shepherd to follow his Personal Legend. The central theme of the book is following your Personal Legend. After all, “The closer one gets to realizing his Personal Legend, the more that Personal Legend becomes his true reason for being.”
The boy in the book is young when he learns about his Personal Legend, but he is showing all the signs of a person in the Generativity vs. Stagnation stage.
Is This a Midlife Crisis?
Erikson coined the term “identity crisis,” but did he see the generativity vs. stagnation stage as a “midlife crisis?”
Not exactly. Each stage of Psychosocial Development involves a crisis, starting with Trust vs. Mistrust in the first few months of an infant’s life. Things feel like a crisis until the stage is completely successfully: the infant feels that they can trust the world, the adolescent feels like they have a solid identity, etc.
Many studies show that people are actually more satisfied and happier in their 40s than they are in their 20s, and that getting older generally makes people happier. While psychologists are still debating the “U-shape” model of happiness, many agree that the “midlife crisis” is caused by things other than just turning 40.
A person experiencing a “midlife crisis” may not be at a point where they feel they have left their mark on the world. Big life changes (divorce, loss of a job, becoming an “empty nester”) may also contribute to these feelings. This is often why people experiencing a “midlife crisis” will go out and make a big purchase – the spontaneity will give them a sense of accomplishment (even if it is brief.)
One-time actions will not move a person along this stage successfully. It takes hard work, passion, and gratitude for a person to feel that they have created a legacy.
Ways to Avoid A “Midlife Crisis” and Experience Generativity
If you or someone you know is starting to feel blue about the mark they are leaving on the world, it’s important to keep moving. In order to feel as though you have left a mark on the world, you’ll need to get out there and do the things that make you feel accomplished. Volunteer at a charity. Quit the job that is wasting your time. Spend more hours a day with your family and watching your children grow up. You may need to take a step back and re-evaluate what it means to impact future generations and leave a legacy. What do you care about?
Fortunately, this does not have to be done overnight. The generativity vs. stagnation stage lasts for two decades. This can be an exciting journey, but no journey is without a few doubts or bumps in the road. If you’ve completed the previous stages, you should have a support group and a strong identity to help you explore during this period in your life. And might I recommend reading The Alchemist?