Generativity vs Stagnation. This is psychologist Erik Erikson’s challenge to late-career professionals. If we don’t keep “generating” value, engaging with the world, and pushing our careers forward, we are doomed to “stagnate” as inertia and complacency overtake us.
This concept of generativity vs stagnation is the seventh of Erikson’s eight life stages that progress from early childhood through old age. Each of these stages has an outcome – a specific value that represents our success at this period in our lives. For this seventh and penultimate stage that I’m recounting here, the outcome is “Care.”
The sense of abundance and “overflow” that can be experienced at this stage creates a feeling of being called to give back to our world, an evolution towards greater service orientation. It is in this stage that mentorship begins, and where we start thinking about the kind of legacy that we want to leave behind.
I believe this outcome describes our ability to think beyond our narrow personal concerns and ambitions. It describes our ability and willingness to reach out to others and to make a difference in their lives, and in the world.
A Blueprint for Building a Second-Act Career
As you’re reading this, you may well be saying to yourself: “That’s me!”
One of the things most of us discover over 50 is a shift in longer-term goals away from material acquisitions and ambitions. We begin to think about our legacy and look to find meaning in what we do.
It is helpful to keep these qualities and concerns in mind as we navigate our careers at this age stage. Understanding that we need to keep “generating” and “caring” can give us a better sense of what we both want to do, and can actually do at this point.
If we are feeling bored or under-appreciated in our job, it is likely because we are not aligned with the generativity and caring tendencies of this age stage.
If we don’t address this opportunity, and continue to remain inwardly focused and stay stuck in our past, we risk devolving into the stagnation that Erikson describes.
The generativity vs stagnation challenge is a great argument for delaying retirement. Remaining engaged and productive is not just the hallmark of a life well-lived. It may be one of the best ways to find meaning and generate satisfaction in life. So why would we throw that away at the peak of our experience and withdraw into a life that is disconnected from others?
Are Life Stages Even a Thing?
There is currently some skepticism around the validity of the “life stages” paradigm. For example, Bruce Feiler in his book Life is in the Transitions favors a more non-linear view of life. He has plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people don’t live their lives in an orderly sequence of events or experiences. This is particularly true at a moment in history characterized by so much change and disruption.
While I agree that we shouldn’t adopt a structured approach like Erikson’s as gospel, I do think it has validity. At its core, Erikson’s life map provides a compelling and humanistic reference point for what is going on with us underneath all of the life events and challenges we may be experiencing.
An Updated Life Stage!
That said, Erikson published his framework in an earlier era, when our lives were lived according to different timelines. So this seventh stage, which he called “Adulthood,” went from approximately age 40 to age 65. This was the period Erikson deemed most productive. In this stage, we are comfortable and empowered at work, and engaged with child-rearing, family, and community.
This stage is happening later these days – I think about ten years later. People are marrying later and having kids later. Life and work expectations are shifting later.
Accordingly, I think we need to redefine the timeline of the Adulthood stage as describing what happens to us in the 50 – 75-year-old range.
To me, this is a far more accurate age range for the generativity vs stagnation dynamic that Erikson describes.
Generativity Means Business
How does this relate to work, and to the challenges of staying on the job?
Generativity is not some abstract philosophical notion you can use to impress your friends at cocktail parties (or over social Zoom calls). It’s an opportunity to put the natural evolution of your mindset to work for you in your professional life.
Let’s look at some ways that you can build your generativity muscle and take advantage of the natural inclination you have at this age. With wisdom, soft skills, insight, perspective, and strategic thinking increasingly valued in today’s workplace, I believe your generativity is a major asset for you in your job.
Consider the following six ideas about how to incorporate generativity with your work.
Your yearning to find meaning may not initially yield direct results at work. But volunteering for a cause or an organization that you support has a direct professional impact.
First, it identifies you as a giver, as someone who is willing to extend themselves on behalf of others. This a positive character trait that will influence the way you are perceived at work and could earn you a gold star on your next performance review.
Your willingness to prioritize a cause makes you more approachable at work. We’re all looking for good news these days. If you take on a new volunteer project – especially if you haven’t been previously known for doing something like this – it can inspire others to emulate your example. Expect them to come up to you and introduce themselves and ask for advice.
Commit to Mentoring
You don’t have to find an external cause to be (re)perceived as a giving person. One of the most impactful contributions you can make at work is as a mentor.
Being in this generativity life stage means you have “arrived.” This is an adjustment for many people entering their 50s who continue to think of themselves as still in the learning and striving period of their careers.
In fact, you are now an expert with 20-30 years under your belt. Start thinking of yourself that way. This is not being arrogant. You deserve to be proud of your achievements and for what you’ve learned.
So now is the perfect time to generate more value around you by sharing what you’ve learned.
And remember that mentoring is not “teaching.” It’s not telling someone else how to do something, or that they should follow your example. It’s about using your wisdom and experience to listen to them. Help them to make their own choices and to find their own path to mastery. Use your listening skills to make an invaluable contribution to their lives and careers.
On top of it all, there’s a hidden bonus to offering your mentoring services. It’s an old adage: you never really know what you know until you’ve tried to impart it to someone else.
Mentoring will help you deepen in your certainty about what you know and what you’ve experienced. Engaging with your mentee(s) could also provide unexpected new professional perspectives.
Lighten Up and Loosen Up
I don’t think Erikson talks about this, but one of the cool things for me about this “Adulthood” stage is that it has allowed me to relax more in my working role. Ironically, by not taking myself quite so seriously, I am taking my work a lot more seriously.
When we’re younger, our identity is more involved in making sure our work and our achievements get recognized. We are prized for being hard workers and serious and committed to our jobs. We never want to appear frivolous. We compartmentalize our fun side or our silly side and keep it away from who we are at work.
By now, our track record gets to speak for us to a greater degree. We can actually become more effective, especially as leaders if we put others at ease. Take the opportunity to be more self-deprecating, more self-accepting, and to laugh at yourself. Have fun!
Be more supportive of the people you work with. Use your career survival skills and experiences to help them build confidence in their own abilities to weather the career storms that are a normal part of today’s volatile economy.
By creating a more relaxed environment around us, we invite others to share what is going on inside them. If they can safely discuss the fears, obstacles, or conflicts they’re experiencing on the job, they’re going to figure out ways of resolving them. This ups the level of output, productivity, and, yes, generativity that’s going on around you.
Take More Risks
Along the same lines, one of the hallmarks of our earlier years on the job was to play it safe and avoid risks. One of my workshop participants recently voiced their concern about taking risks, and how they thought it was important to be risk-averse.
No! What a great opportunity to reframe a limiting belief!
Why is risk intrinsically something to “avoid?” As we know more, and have greater discernment over all of the variables that go into the work that we do, why not encourage more risk-taking?
Risks can be managed. While foolish risks can lead to failure, smartly-managed risks, I would argue, more often lead to successes.
Now that you are in a position to better assess risk, stop thinking of risk as bad or dangerous. Think of it as a challenge to increase your generativity, and to even increase the level of your caring as you go about your business.
You’re also in a better position to message and manage risk with others. Approach risk openly and collaboratively. Get input and build support from the existing and prospective stakeholders around you.
Cultivate Relationships with New (Younger) People
Working and hanging out with people in the same age cohort limits your ability to explore and to understand different perspectives. Your generativity life stage is fueled by strong and varied inputs to help you grow and evolve your contributions at work and in life.
Reach out and engage with younger people who think differently. They grew up under different influences. Understanding their ways of thinking and acting helps you to identify your own limiting beliefs and can build new neural pathways around new ways to do things and solve problems.
While wisdom and experience are invaluable, the world has changed and is constantly changing. Consider letting yourself get “reverse mentored” by someone younger who can help you understand different ways of solving problems. You might even find that some of the styles and paradigms of young people’s culture start to rub off on you. Maybe this provides you with even more sense of your own generativity and deepens your connection to your new friends.
Always Be Learning
Established credentials matter, but our ability to solve tomorrow’s problems demands that we continue to challenge ourselves to add to our skill sets. This includes but goes beyond professional development and leadership skills.
Yes – staying competitive in your work and holding onto your job may involve learning new software or business processes. But inside yourself, your sense of meaning and purpose is also going to be reinforced by learning new things.
As we age, we may feel like time is passing us by and we are getting increasingly irrelevant. Some regular form of structured training exercises your brain. It builds your confidence that you are indeed still relevant. Your ability to cram even more new knowledge into your brain, and to be able to open up new vistas and understanding with that knowledge, will help you successfully stay at the top of your game. And it will allow you to support your team by being a constantly evolving and improving professional resource.
Call to Action: The Gift of Generativity
The lesson of generativity lies beyond Erikson’s outcome of Caring. For me, engaging with the concept fuels a broader sense of our own gratitude.
Gratitude is where I would suggest you start applying generativity to your work life.
Stop for a minute to consider what you are most grateful for in your career so far. You might be surprised at what comes to mind. It could be the successes you’ve had. Perhaps it’s the people you’ve worked with, groomed, mentored, or supported. It could be the mistakes you made and the invaluable lessons you’ve learned that have changed your outlook on life and on work.
Whatever you’re grateful for, I invite you to select at least one person at work and share that gratitude with them and see how it sparks your conversation.
Give it a try and share in the comments below. It will give others the support and inspiration to connect more deeply with others and support their own generativity process.
Thought-provoking article. I work in Aotearoa New Zealand and one of the things I am grateful for is the opportunities that the organisation I work for have given me to learn about and embrace Māori culture and NZ history. This has strengthened and helped me to articulate my values-based leadership.