Famed psychologist, Eric Erikson, who theorized about the eight stages of human development, described generativity in midlife as a very significant foundation for the last stage of life. For Erikson, generativity meant creative and productive work, and especially activity that contributes to the betterment of the society. Being generative has also been associated with feelings of well-being. The more one gives (up to a point), the better one feels about life. For example, a study of 520 people aged 55-84 found that generativity accounted for approximately 80% of their feelings of well-being, more important, even, than intimacy. Yet, generativity is not exclusively an activity characteristic of mid-life adults. Rather it can be a continuous way of life. Indeed, according to research by McAdams, de St. Aubin, & Logan (1993) and Sheldon & Kasser, (2001), commitment to nurturing younger people increases over the age span. Generative activities among older people are often focused on those who are beyond the family circle, as well as within it, through forms of volunteer work, civic engagement and interpersonal relations involving caring for non-family members.
In this context, research from Hong Kong makes a contribution. In Hong Kong, many older people are not formally educated, in contrast to the young. Because of this, members of younger generation often express a disrespect and disregard of their older relatives. This tendency reduces the seniors’ ability to engage with them and thus express their generativity. This has repercussions for their sense of well-being. To verify these trends, researchers studies 190 people, average age of 73, at two time periods, one year apart. They were evaluated as to their sense of being respected, their generative activities, concern with passing on their knowledge to the next generation, and their psychological well-being. The findings indicated that generative action and well-being depend importantly on the degree to which one’s actions are valued and respected by others. If one feels respected, it increases one’s generativity, and enhances one’s feelings of well-being. Interestingly, in this study, engaging in civic activities seemed to generate more respect than that found from children and grandchildren. At the same time, however, the younger generation would be well-served by giving respect to their elders; it has positive potential for their own well-being, as well as for their seniors.
Narratives of Generativity
Erik Erikson characterized the mature years in a person’s life in terms of their generative potential, that is, their potential for creative and productive work. Especially important for Erikson was the potential of one’s work in contributing to social well-being, and particularly the fate of the next generation. These Argentine researchers interviewed fifteen older women concerning their generative potential across the life span. These women worked as volunteers in a community organization dedicated to the social welfare of the elderly. Based on their interviews, the researchers concluded that there was a continuity of generativity throughout their lives, from their early childhoods until the present. Four significant moments related to this development were established:
1. As girls, these women recalled early expressions of empathy, solidarity and helpfulness toward others. As one interviewee, Mrs. Y., aged 76, said, “I had a childhood, in which I could help others. I did this because of the values my parents taught me;” “Another member of the sample recalled that in her childhood, “I always sided with the poorest;…. I was involved in everything….; maybe I was hyperkinetic!”
2. A second theme found among these women was the expansion of generativity and productivity in adulthood. This period was described as an “especially productive and expansive stage,” devoted to the central tasks of caring for the family and being strongly committed to their professions, both of which were associated with expressions of happiness and satisfaction. As one divorced women said, “I did everything for my daughters, to make sure they had what they needed. I had to move forward, so I went on with my daughters, and with my job.”
3. As they reached middle age, these women experienced a consolidation of generative achievements; the researchers asked them to think about a culminating point of their life story (making reference to the moment in which they have experienced positive emotions more intensely, such as joy, happiness, peace, etc.). The women tended to group their several generative efforts in a single type of memory: the births of children and grandchildren.
4. The last characteristic is what the researchers called “generative continuity.” The interviewees still showed important levels of commitment to concrete activities that linked them with the improvement of younger generations and the care of the family circle and wider community. Examples of this generative continuity during old age were found in the interviewees’ expressions. Mrs. Y. tells us about her present day activities. “I do what I do responsibly at the crisis telephone answering service as well as tutoring school children, and volunteering at the ‘Casa de la Bondad’ too (House of Kindness). I try to comply with everything and to be useful everyday I go and all the time I’m with them. … At ‘Casa de la Bondad’ people who have nothing, who are very poor or who have nobody to stay with, go to this house. So we spoon feed them, or touch them, caress them or rub them where it hurts. How good we feel about it is perhaps more than what we give to them, it is very nice.”
As the researchers concluded, generative activities may continue throughout the life span to become a permanent expansion and growth of the self. In later life, highly generative people integrate into their narratives a deep sense of well-being that combines both the personal and social.
THE POSITIVE AGING NEWSLETTER