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 brings them joy. This could include a spouse, group of friends, family unit, etc.
Generativity vs. Stagnation Age
According to Erikson, people enter the generativity vs. stagnation crisis between the ages of 40 to 60. In the “typical” expectations that society placed on people while Erikson did this research, people at this age were married with older children. Grandchildren may already be on the way!
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 virtue of Generativity vs. Stagnation
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 careers before building a family. Some people only choose to focus on their careers 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 Outcomes of Generativity vs. Stagnation
Entering a crisis is not always a bad thing. At each stage of Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, the person gains something new within their struggle. An infant will spend time crying for its mother, for example, but when the mother satisfies the child’s needs, they learn the ability to trust. This is a good thing!
Facing the conflict of generativity vs. stagnation is not a walk in the park. The fear that we will not leave behind a legacy can be crippling at times, even when we have accomplished a lot in our lives! People who resolve this crisis often use these emotions as motivation.
There is a reason that people in this age group are generally more optimistic than those in younger age groups!
Changes to Diet and Health
Around the ages of 40-60, doctors begin to recommend more vigorous health checks. Women should start getting mammograms every two years starting at age 50. Men should get annual prostate exams at 50. All people should begin getting colonoscopies every 10 years, starting at age 50. With higher risks of health conditions and more vigilant health checks, people in this stage often think more seriously about their health. After all, if they haven’t built the legacy they want to leave behind, they’ll have to be around so they can!
Entrepreneurship or Charity Work
People who have children between the ages of 25-35 are finding themselves with less on their hands by the ages of 40-60! Their children may be going off to college or starting their own families. For many couples, they have to adjust to life as “empty nesters.”
This time as an empty nester often gives people the opportunity to explore the ways they want to leave a legacy! Without having to chauffeur their kids around, people can spend more time on charity work. No PTA meetings mean more time for board meetings! Entrepreneurship, hobbies, travel, and other activities may also take up an empty nester’s schedule. If they hit an age where they can retire, there is even more time to explore passions and develop new hobbies. Doesn’t this stage of life sound pretty great?
Resolving Relationships or Creating New Ones
Legacy isn’t just about what people will remember about you - it’s about who will remember you! Just as the generativity vs. stagnation stage offers a chance to take control of your health, it also offers a chance to take control of your relationships. Friends, family, and other social circles at this age offer more benefits than just people to see and memories to make. People with tight social networks are more likely to stay mentally sharp and physically healthy. Taking the extra time to reconnect with friends or form networks within charity organizations is a great way to ensure that you create a lasting legacy and stick around long enough to go through the last stage in Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.
How Is This Crisis Resolved?
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 completed 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 watch 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?
How to Support Parents in Generativity vs. Stagnation Stage
If your parents are going through this stage of development, you can help them!
Reassure them of their legacy. You may think your parents know how much of an impact they have made on your life, but find ways to reassure them anyway. In this stage of life, it’s important to know that their legacy lives on through you and your family.
Encourage their independence. Give your parents the chance to explore their passions, interests, and even new relationships. Do they want to spend Christmas at a national park? Can you take on chores around the house to free up their schedule for pottery classes? Your parents may feel they need permission from you to travel, date, or make big changes in their life. Support them through it.
Include them in your plans. If a community is what will make your parents happy, bring them into yours! Communicate that they are welcome to spend holidays with you if they so choose. Let them know about trips you are going to take. Even if they decide to pursue independent passions, they will still be included and feel like they are welcome in the community that your family has built together.
With the right mindset, someone in this stage can really feel fulfilled and adopt healthy habits that extend their life! But if someone feels as though they have not established a legacy or built a community, health problems can appear. Do not overlook this penultimate stage of Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. Generativity vs. stagnation is a critical crisis and one that offers big rewards or harrowing negative results.
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?