Generativity overview

‘It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood. Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a life-long residue of emotional immaturity in him.’ Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994).

 There are many theoretical approaches to understanding and working with relationships. The generative approach to life stages is a model used in understanding ageing and also in understanding fathering. The model was developed by Erik Erikson in the 20th century.

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Erikson builds his stages of human development on a series of dyads or opposite personality traits. People think of themselves as optimistic or pessimistic, independent or dependent, emotional or unemotional, adventurous or cautious, leader or follower, aggressive or passive. Based in part on his study of Sioux Indians on a reservation, Erikson became aware of the massive influence of culture on behaviour and placed more emphasis on the external world, such as depression and wars. He felt the course of development is determined by the interaction of the body (genetic biological programming), mind (psychological), and cultural (ethos) influences (Harder, 2008).

 He organised life into eight stages that extend from birth to death (many developmental theories only cover childhood). Since adulthood covers a span of many years, Erikson divided the stages of adulthood into the experiences of young adults, middle-aged adults and older adults. Erikson was the first developmental theorist who saw ‘old age’ as being positive and expected that older people continue to make a significant contribution and experience new learning. Central to Erikson’s ideas is the belief that somewhere along the way the strength of the human spirit can be ignited and deficits overcome. Erikson divided the lifecycle up into eight life stages that are still relevant today and especially relevant when working with men.

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Erikson’s life stages of development

1. Infancy: Birth to 18 months - Trust vs. Mistrust

Basic strength: Drive and hope

Erikson also referred to infancy as the Oral Sensory Stage (as anyone might know who watches a baby putting everything in his/her mouth) where the major emphasis is on the parent’s positive and loving care for the child, with a big emphasis on visual contact and touch. If we pass successfully through this period of life, we will learn to trust that life is basically okay and have basic confidence in the future. If we fail to experience trust and are constantly frustrated because our needs are not met, we may end up with a deep-seated feeling of worthlessness and a mistrust of the world in general (Harder, 2008).

2. Early childhood: 18 months to 3 years - Autonomy vs. Shame

Basic strengths: Self-control, courage and will

During this stage we learn to master skills for ourselves. Not only do we learn to walk, talk and feed ourselves, we are learning fine motor development as well as the much appreciated toilet training. Here we have the opportunity to build self-esteem and autonomy as we gain more control over our bodies and acquire new skills, learning right from wrong. And one of our skills during the ‘Terrible Twos’ is our ability to use the powerful word ‘NO!’ It may be painful for parents, but it develops important skills of the will (Harder, 2008).


3. Play age: 3 to 5 years - Initiative vs. Guilt

Basic strength: Purpose

During this period we experience a desire to copy the adults around us and take initiative in creating play situations. We make up stories, use toy phones and miniature cars, playing out roles in a trial universe, experimenting with the blueprint for what we believe it means to be an adult. We also begin to use that wonderful word for exploring the world- ‘WHY?’ (Harder, 2008).


4. School age: 6 to 12 years - Industry vs. Inferiority

Basic strengths: Method and competence

During this stage, we are capable of learning, creating and accomplishing numerous new skills and knowledge. This is also a very social stage of development and if we experience unresolved feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among our peers, we can have serious problems in terms of competence and self-esteem (Harder, 2008).


5. Adolescence: 12 to 18 years - Identity vs. Role confusion

Basic strengths: Devotion and fidelity

Up to this stage, according to Erikson, development mostly depends upon what is done to us. From here on, development depends primarily upon what we do. Adolescence is a stage at which we are neither a child nor an adult. Life is definitely getting more complex as we attempt to find our own identity, struggle with social interactions, and grapple with moral issues. Our task is to discover who we are as individuals separate from our family of origin and as members of a wider society. It is no surprise that our most significant relationships are with peer groups (Harder, 2008).


6. Young adulthood: 18 to 35 years - Intimacy and solidarity vs. Isolation

Basic strengths: Affiliation and love

In the initial stage of being an adult we seek one or more companions and love as we try to find mutually satisfying connections, primarily through relationships and friends. If negotiating this stage is successful, we can experience intimacy on a deep level (Harder, 2008).


7. Middle adulthood: 35 to 55 - Generativity vs. Self absorption or stagnation

Basic strengths: Production and care

Now work is most crucial. Erikson observed that middle-age is when we tend to be occupied with creative and meaningful work and with issues surrounding our family. Also, middle adulthood is when we can expect to ‘be in charge’.  The significant task is to perpetuate culture and transmit values of the culture through the family (taming the kids) and working to establish a stable environment. Strength comes through care of others and production of something that contributes to the betterment of society, which Erikson calls generativity, and people often fear inactivity and meaninglessness. Significant relationships are found within the workplace, the community and the family (Harder, 2008).


8. Late adulthood: 65 years to death - Integrity vs. Despair

Basic strengths: Wisdom

Erikson felt that much of life is preparing for the middle adulthood stage and the last stage is recovering from it. Perhaps that is because as older adults we can often look back on our lives with happiness and contentment, feeling fulfilled with a deep sense that life has meaning and we’ve made a contribution. Erikson calls this integrity. Our strength comes from a wisdom that the world is very large and we now have a detached concern for the whole of life, accepting death as the completion of life (Harder, 2008).

3 - Generativity, wisdom and the lessons in life



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