The Art of ‘Generativity’

Finding Purpose through Giving to Future Generations

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I’m staying in a retirement village, visiting my old mum. Some of the elderly residents have twinkling eyes, a ready joke and full calendars! Other resident are full of hatred and bitterness and petty grievances. One old man is convinced his gardening spade has been stolen, an indignant old lady is furious about the bossy bitch who has taken over the social committee.

In loud conversations on driveways, they compare and compete about their painful ailments, the heart scares, the bad knees, the hip ops, the emergency hospital visits, without listening or caring about the other’s suffering.

Another faction hates, in vicious huddles, those horrible dogs that leave messes on their manicured lawns and vehemently condemns irresponsible dog-owners. They should be thrown in jail!

The wrinkled, hunched old wives grip the flabby arms of their senile husbands when a younger woman walks by and smiles ‘Hello’; jealously guarding the old relic and oozing envy for the youth she has lost; buried photo memories deep in the drawer with the sparkly ear rings she once wore, dazzling the dance floor with haughty elegance!

I am fearful of ending up like this; shrinking smaller and smaller and withering, bitter and twisted, lonely and isolated, in a segregated old people’s ghetto, discarded by mainstream community, waiting…waiting for something? What is it? Are these cranky old folks aching for Grace; for Love to swoop in, like a huge soft white dove, and cradle them, a visit from the ungrateful grown-up children who are busy with their interesting lives.

Perhaps they are waiting for genuine friendship that pierces their dense armour of complaints and touches the heart with lightness, joy, humour and gratitude in still being alive! Or perhaps they are waiting to be recognised as useful; the realisation by youngsters that all their years of experience must be good for something!

Erik Erikson was a German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst (1902 – 1994) who extended the developmental theories of Freud to include the entire lifespan.

Erikson identified eight stages of development, not just in childhood, but right throughout life into old age and death. He claimed each stage held an inherent struggle and desired outcome.

He claimed from birth to age one, the baby has to resolve a crisis between Trust and Mistrust of parents or caregivers with the desired outcome of Hope; from one to two, the toddler grapples with Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt with the desired outcome of Will; from age three to five, the young child faces a crisis of Initiative over Guilt within the family with the desired outcome of Purpose. From age six to 11, the child is challenged with Industriousness over Inferiority at school with a desired outcome of Competence.

Stage Five, Adolescence, brings conflict between Identity and Role Confusion within peer groups with the desired outcome of Fidelity, the ability to be true to an integrated sense of self.

In Young Adulthood, the challenge is finding Intimacy over Isolation with a spouse and amongst friends with the desired outcome of Love.

Which brings us to Stage Seven, Middle Adulthood where we are challenged to discover “generativity”, a term coined by Erikson, rather than self-absorption within our family, community and work. The desired outcome is Care.

Generativity means the ability to look beyond yourself and to express concern for the future of the world and younger generations. The self-absorbed person is preoccupied with personal wellbeing and material gain.

When I hit 50 I was also hit with an overpowering desire to go MAD; that is, to Make a Difference to the world. I wanted to contribute to solving problems and reducing suffering on a global level. Having lived more than half of my life, the balance was tipped to the approach of the end and I started thinking about legacy, concerned about what I would leave behind after I’m gone.

So that is when my husband and I migrated from far-flung Australia to the UK to be close to the centre of the world stage, where we felt better placed to make a positive difference to global issues.

My progress in making a difference on a grand scale has been slow. I’ve done much soul searching about my talents and skills and researched causes and charities to support.

On my 57th birthday we had a night out in London and saw the brilliant stage show War Horse, with the most talented, creative performers operating intricate life-like puppets, singing, dancing and acting with utter perfection to tell a glorious, triumphant story.

The next day I took to my bed and my journal and tried to figure out what I was good at! I realised that I am not a perfectionist who could spend hours every day for years mastering an instrument or difficult skill. I searched my formative years and remembered how I discovered the joy of writing stories at age 11 and the thrill of being published!

Then at 17, I discovered the empowerment of becoming a vocal campaigner! And I recalled how I was a passionate activist in my 20s; how in my 30s I was elected a local government councillor to work for my community.

Then in my 40s I experienced a crisis and wallowed in a bottomless lake of therapy and self-analysis and had to wade my way back to focusing on others. And so we left the endless summer of coastal Queensland and came to the bustling London for a new lease on life. And these years of my fifties have been wonderful, full of city pleasures, travel and adventures!

So at 57, I was reminded of my true Purpose (beyond fun times) and decided to devote the rest of my life to using my writing skills to campaign for good causes; human rights, peace, animal and environmental protection; all the good stuff that will allow our damaged world to heal, survive and flourish in the future.

Now I am nearly 59 and I am ready. I am passionately committed to future generations of girls across Africa discovering their human rights and becoming empowered, free from abuse, suffering and poverty. This is my mission for my sixties, for the next decade of my life.

If a person in their 50s, 60s and 70s shifts focus to making a difference for others, then he or she will face old age with a sense of dignity, satisfaction and personal fulfillment.

Middle-aged and older people thrive when they use their lifetime of experience to mentor teenagers and young adults or lavish patient love on grandchildren or volunteer in community, environmental or humanitarian projects.

Those mature-aged people who choose to contribute rather than expecting to be coddled by the young and fit are ironically the ones who thrive with a sense of purpose, joy and gratitude, despite their aches and pains.

The elderly do not have to end up bitter and twisted, nursing grudges and resentment, burdened by sense of futility and despair, disappointment and failure.

If we need role models, consider the inspirational David Attenborough, who has devoted his life to educating us all about the wonders of animals and the natural world. He continues in his creative film making at the sprightly age of 89.

In Old Age, the final stage of life, Stage Eight according to Erikson, we face a struggle between Integrity and Despair. And the desired outcome is Wisdom.

I hope that Wisdom will lead you in your mature years to Integrity; the choice to make a difference for future generations because “generativity” is the hope of the future.

Diane Priestley

Engaging storyteller, Prolific Journalist, Empowering People Matters

Hello Psychologies Tribe, Let me introduce myself! I'm an experienced journalist with a career spanning more than 30 years writing for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Australia and the UK. I write about relationships, health and humanitarian issues. I'm a qualified Counsellor and Workshop Facilitator. I moved from Australia to the UK in 2009 and now live near the beach in Folkestone, Kent and part of the year in Kenya doing community work.


Go to the profile of David Head
over 6 years ago
Very interesting, reflective piece, thank you Diane. 50 is an interesting marker and for many of us, a trigger to really focus on the things that matter. Finding inner piece and acceptance is a big part of that and I agree, if more of us can find meaning through giving, we may be less inclined to focus on our own mortality..