My students and I have developed the main psychological measures used today to assess individual differences in generativity. Many studies link high levels of generativity, as assessed on these measures, to more effective parenting, broader friendship networks, political participation, civic engagement, religious involvement, mental health and well-being, positive personality characteristics, and a host of other positive outcomes in life. As described in my book, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (2006/2013), highly generative American adults at midlife tend to construe their lives as heroic narratives of redemption, wherein a gifted protagonist journeys forth into a dangerous world and, equipped with moral steadfastness, aims to transform suffering into enhancement.
Redemptive life narratives serve as a psychological resource for highly generative adults, providing them with the kind of personal story (narrative identity) they often need to persevere in the face of adversity and to keep focused on trying to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in society writ large. In our current longitudinal study of men and women between the ages of 55 and 65, we are continuing to study the vicissitudes of generativity and redemptive life narratives.
In terms of life-span developmental studies, it is clear that generativity is an important psychosocial construct in the midlife years – say between ages 35 and 65. But what about after that? Erikson suggested that generativity retains its prominence through the middle years and even into old age, wherein the last stage (ego integrity versus despair) comes into play. However, many of the late-midlife adults in our current longitudinal study at Northwestern do not showcase generative themes in their life stories, or if they do, they suggest that these themes are rooted more in the past than in their envisioned future. Is there a post-generative period in many older people’s lives? Healthy adults in their late 60s and 70s are not sitting around waiting to die. They are often very active, but their activities appear to be less motivated by generativity than they may have been in their 40s and 50s. Moreover, themes of redemption may be less salient in the life stories of late midlife adults, compared to adults in their 40s. In an aging society like ours, what are the 60s and the 70s fundamentally about? This is a central preoccupation of my current work.
Dan P. McAdams is a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, and Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University.