Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University. He was awarded the Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard University in 1979.
McAdams studies personality development across the human life course, with an emphasis on the narratives that people construct to make meaning out of their lives. He is the author most recently of THE REDEMPTIVE SELF: STORIES AMERICANS LIVE BY (Oxford University Press, 2013) and THE ART AND SCIENCE OF PERSONALITY DEVELOPMENT (Guilford Press, 2015), and President-elect of the Association for Research in Personality.
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.
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.