Life expectancy has increased pretty dramatically since 1950. In 1950, the life expectancy for the average American was 68. Nowadays, it’s 79. That’s ten extra years in Erikson’s 8th stage of psychosocial development. Ten extra years to live with integrity, or fight through feelings of despair. The final stage of Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development is integrity vs. despair. On this page, I’m going to explain what this stage is, when it occurs, and what you can do to support the seniors in your life who might be in this stage.
What Is Ego Integrity vs. Despair?
In the final stage of Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, people tend to reflect. They reflect on what they’ve done in their lives. The central question during this stage is, “Have I led a meaningful life?” If a person feels satisfied, they will develop a sense of integrity.
Integrity vs. Despair Age
According to Erikson, a person enters this psychological crisis around the age of 65. By this time, a person may have retired. (The average retirement age, as of 2022, is 61.) As a person enters retirement and their schedule slows down, they have more time to reflect on their life and everything they had been through in the previous stages. Did they enjoy their career? Are the generations beneath them set up to have a better life? When you aren’t working 9-5, you have a lot more time on your hands to think about the answers to these questions!
Setting Up for the Integrity vs. Despair Stage
Integrity vs. despair is the final of the eight stages of psychosocial development. The seventh stage is Generativity vs. Stagnation, which takes place between the ages of 40 and 65. During this time, people explore the idea of whether they will leave a legacy, and how their memory will outlive them. They have already had children and might be welcoming grandchildren into the world. They are usually well into their careers. A person who has moved through this stage successfully will confidently believe that they have created a legacy that they can pass down to others. In the final stage of life, their goal is to impart their wisdom to the world.
A person who feels “stagnant” by the end of this phase is more likely to start out the final stage of life feeling despair. This does not mean they cannot regain their integrity. They will just need to do extra work to feel confident in the legacy and wisdom they have to pass down to others.
Striving for Integrity
The basic virtue developed during this time is wisdom. The wise parents and grandparents who give you the best advice? They are probably handling this stage of their life pretty well. People who have reached age 65 have spent a lot of time experiencing the world and collecting wisdom to impart. For this reason, studies show that they are generally better at regulating their emotions and are happier than their younger counterparts. Sixty-five years is a lot of time to learn how to tap into your emotions and act in ways that lead to happiness!
Not every older person chooses happiness or believes they have lived a life of happiness. If a person is not so satisfied when they reflect on their life, they may feel despair. Despair is a strong word: it’s defined as “the complete loss or absence of hope.” At the age of 65 and up, despair is not a great feeling to have.
Satisfaction doesn’t have to come from a lot of money in the bank or a huge family. Anyone can successfully complete this stage and develop integrity. Erikson defined ego integrity as “the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be.” A person can feel wholly developed without a library named after them or a grand accomplishment. Conversely, someone who has made big donations to charity, served in the military with many awards, or built a big family may not feel whole.
How Ego Integrity vs. Despair Compares to Other Stages
A Domino Effect
Not only does the seventh stage impact the eighth stage of psychosocial development, but all stages in some way make an impact. Even failing to successfully move through the first crisis of life, trust vs. mistrust, may eventually impact a person in the last years of their life. Think of these stages like a set of dominos. A child who does not develop trust due to neglect may not feel empowered to explore their autonomy. They might not feel confident to take initiative to explore the things they want, and eventually, their identity. We know from other psychologists that attachment and trust can also make an impact on adult relationships. Failing to form these relationships can lead to a life where a person cannot leave a legacy behind.
With this all being said, a person who might have experienced negative results from a crisis in their early years may still benefit from mental health counseling or work to move through that crisis with a more positive result.
The Identity Crisis in Old Age
Do you know who came up with the term “identity crisis?”
If you have studied the psychosocial stages of development in psychology, you know it was Erik Erikson himself. Erikson is a German-American psychologist who developed eight stages of psychosocial development. These stages don’t just involve how a person interacts with the world – the world’s perception of the person, and their place within the world, also come into account.
The identity crisis, Erikson says, happens around adolescence. This is an exciting time in a teenager’s life, but also very scary. Without a solid sense of who you are or what you are going to pursue in life, a crisis will occur. Rebellion, depression, or reckless behavior may occur.
Erikson developed his theory in the last half of the 20th century, and things have changed in the last few decades. A second round of identity crisis is starting to become more common – but not among adolescents. Seniors and retired individuals often revisit these same questions that they asked as teenagers:
- Who am I?
- What am I passionate about?
- Where is my place in the world?
They often have a lot more time and freedom to explore their interests and passions.
Can Integrity vs. Despair Kick in Before the Age of 65?
What about the seniors who have more time to do stuff other than sit and reflect? The seniors that find themselves at the age of 65, very healthy and free to do whatever they please? Are they in the Integrity vs. Despair stage?
Not necessarily. Just because a person hits 65 doesn’t mean they are in the final stage of psychosocial development. For many people, age 65 is still many years away from retirement. Major life events and other factors can adjust when a person enters different stages. A 40-year-old man who was just diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, for example, might find himself reflecting on his life sooner than he would have thought. Divorce, the death of a family member, or getting a new job may also impact whether someone stays in one stage of psychosocial development, jumps ahead, or even spirals back to previous questions about their life and place in the world.
I mention this because there are probably people in your life who may be going through any of the last three stages of Psychosocial Development. We are all developing our relationships with others and our place in the world. Maybe you are contemplating where you fit into the world, too.
How To Successfully Move Through The Integrity vs. Despair Stage
These tips can help you come to a point of acceptance with this stage of social development and develop basic virtues like wisdom, care, and purpose.
Talk About It!
While some people wear their feelings on their sleeves, others prefer to stay quiet. If you are struggling with these big questions, do not be afraid to reach out to your support system for help. This could be a family member, friend, sponsor, or a therapist. Talking through your feelings can be enough to settle them.
Ask questions. Check in with your support group. How are they doing? Offering support to others can help you feel better about your role in the world. Plus, you might realize that you are not alone in your questions and exploration. Another way to help others through difficult periods in their life is to remind them that they have benefitted you. If your grandpa has taught you valuable life lessons, tell him! If a friend has gotten you through hard times, let them know that you appreciate their support.
Try New Things!
You know that hobby you’ve always wanted to try? Or the career you’ve always wanted to break into? Exploring this could be the key to discovering your passion and your place. Encourage others to follow their passions as well. If, for example, you have a friend or a grandparent that is nervous to try a new class, go with them! Share your support.
How to Support a Loved One In the Final Stages of Life
You may not be close to the integrity vs. despair stage yet, but your parents or grandparents might. Be a support system to them by asking for their wisdom and reassuring them of their generativity.
Let your elders impart their wisdom to you. Ask them about their childhood and experiences in their career. What was it like building a family so many years ago? How might they have done things differently, if they had the wisdom they had now? If you want this wisdom in a more formal form, consider setting them up with a writer or service that turns their life story into an actual book!
Even the strongest, most impactful people may doubt their legacy and integrity. They look to people like their children, friends, and family to reassure them. If you have not told someone in your life how much they have influenced you, give them a call. Write them a letter. Send them an email, even! Give them another reason to believe that they have moved through their life successfully and will leave a mark on the world.
Be Candid About Their Feelings.
You may feel awkward asking a senior relative about their legacy or talking about their age, but these conversations need to be had. People know their age. They are more likely to be candid than you might imagine! Don’t be afraid to ask about your loved one’s feelings and whether they feel confident in the wisdom they are imparting or struggle with despair. If you do not feel equipped to handle these conversations, consider reaching out to a professional.
Erikson’s Stages of Development vs. Other Stages of Development
I hope you’ve had a good time exploring the different stages of psychosocial development! We all want to feel satisfied with our place in the world. Knowing the foundational virtues and feelings that get us there can be crucial to living (or redirecting) our lives in the most fulfilling way.