The Generative Adult

The Generative Adult
The famous psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson defined generativity as an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations.  Generativity involves raising children, of course, but it also encompasses things like teaching, mentoring, activism, leadership, and other prosocial activities aimed at leaving  a positive legacy of the self for future generations.  Erikson argued that generativity (versus stagnation) is the central psychosocial issue of the middle-adult years.  Midlife adults who are able to make positive contributions to future generations should enjoy better psychological health and higher levels of psychosocial development, compared to their less generative counterparts.  But generativity should be good for others, too, as well as for the self, which suggests that generativity is itself a virtue, or that it points to related virtues, such as care and concern for humanity.

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.

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Image by Otto Steininger, from nytimes.com

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.


This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It), New York Times, May 22, 2007

 Research on generativity suggests that adults experience strong motivations to give back to society and to contribute in meaningful ways to future generations.  At the same time, generativity can also promote the pursuit and satisfaction of more selfish motives.  Most generative projects involve commitments to things that are, in some way, mine – my children, my workplace, my church, my legacy, my values agenda.  There is a sense in which narcissism and altruism struggle with each other at the heart of generativity – or maybe it is less of a struggle than a dynamic tension, for it would seem that each needs the other.

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.

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Image by Chelsea Beck, from theatlantic.com


Dan P. McAdams is a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, and Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University.