The best-known life-span theorist is Erik Erikson (1982), who called attention to cultural mechanisms involved in personality development. According to him, personality is determined by the interaction between an inner maturational plan and external societal demands. He proposes that the life cycle has eight stages of development, summarized in Table 9.1. Erikson believed the sequence of stages is biologically fixed.

Each stage in Erikson’s theory is marked by a struggle between two opposing tendencies, both of which are experienced by the person. The names of the stages reflect the issues that form the struggles. The struggles are resolved through an interactive process involving both the inner psychological and the outer social influences. Successful resolutions establish the basic areas of psychosocial strength; unsuccessful resolutions impair ego development in a particular area and adversely affect the resolu­tion of future struggles. Thus each stage in Erikson’s theory represents a kind of crisis.

The sequence of stages in Erikson’s theory is based on the epigenetic principle, which means that each psychosocial strength has its own special time of ascendancy, or period of particular importance. The eight stages represent the order of this ascendancy. Because the stages extend across the whole life span, it takes a lifetime to acquire all of the psychosocial strengths. Moreover, Erikson realizes that present and future behavior must have its roots in the past, because later stages build on the foundation laid in previous ones.

Erikson argues that the basic aspect of a healthy personality is a sense of trust toward oneself and others. Thus the first stage in his theory involves trust versus mistrust, representing the conflict that


Summary of Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development, with Important
Relationships and Psychosocial Strengths Acquired at Each Stage

Table 9.1


Psychosocial Crisis

Significant Relations

Basic Strengths

1. Infancy

Basic trust versus basic mistrust

Maternal person


2. Early childhood

Autonomy versus shame and doubt

Paternal people


3. Play age

Initiative versus guilt

Basic family


4. School age

Industry versus inferiority

“Neighborhood,” school


5. Adolescence

Identity versus identity confusion

Peer groups and outgroups; models of leadership


6. Young adulthood

Intimacy versus isolation

Partners in friendship, sex competition, cooperation


7. Adulthood

Generativity versus stagnation

Divided labor and shared household


8. Old age

Integrity versus despair

Humankind, “my kind”


Source: From The Life Cycle Completed: A Review by Erik H. Erikson. Copyright © 1982 by Rikan Enterprises, Ltd. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

an infant faces in developing trust in a world it knows little about. With trust come feelings of secu­rity and comfort.

The second stage, autonomy versus shame and doubt, reflects children’s budding understanding that they are in charge of their own actions. This understanding changes them from totally reactive beings to ones who can act on the world intention­ally. Their autonomy is threatened, however, by their inclinations to avoid responsibility for their actions and to go back to the security of the first stage.

In the third stage the conflict is initiative versus guilt. Once children realize they can act on the world and are somebody, they begin to discover who they are. They take advantage of wider experience to explore the environment on their own, to ask many questions about the world, and to imagine possibilities about themselves.

The fourth stage is marked by children’s increas­ing interests in interacting with peers, their need for acceptance, and their need to develop competencies. Erikson views these needs as representing industry versus inferiority, which is manifested behaviorally in children’s desire to accomplish tasks by working hard. Failure to succeed in developing self-perceived competencies results in feelings of inferiority.

During adolescence, Erikson believes, we deal with the issue of identity versus identity confusion. The choice we make—that is, the identity we form—is not so much who we are but, rather, whom we can become. The struggle in adolescence is choosing from among a multitude of possible selves the one we will become. Identity confusion results when we are torn over the possibilities. The struggle involves trying to balance our need to choose a possible self and the desire to try out many possible selves.

During young adulthood the major develop­mental task, achieving intimacy versus isolation, involves establishing a fully intimate relationship with another. Erikson (1968) argues that intimacy means the sharing of all aspects of oneself with­out fearing the loss of identity. If intimacy is not achieved, isolation results. One way to assist the development of intimacy is to choose a mate who represents the ideal of all one’s past experiences. The psychosocial strength that emerges from the intimacy-isolation struggle is love.

With the advent of middle age the focus shifts from intimacy to concern for the next generation, expressed as generativity versus stagnation. The struggle occurs between a sense of generativity (the feeling that people must maintain and perpetuate

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society) and a sense of stagnation (the feeling of self-absorption). Generativity is seen in such things as parenthood; teaching, like the man in the pho­tograph; or providing goods and services for the benefit of society. If the challenge of generativity is accepted, the development of trust in the next gen­eration is facilitated, and the psychosocial strength of care is obtained.

In old age individuals must resolve the struggle between ego integrity and despair. This last stage begins with a growing awareness of the nearness of the end of life, but it is actually completed by only a small number of people (Erikson, 1982). The task is to examine and evaluate one’s life and accom­plishments in order to try and make sense of one’s life. This process often involves reminiscing with others and actively seeking reassurance that one has accomplished something in life. People who have progressed successfully through earlier stages of life face old age enthusiastically and feel their life has been full. Those who feel a sense of meaninglessness do not anxiously anticipate old age, and they experi­ence despair. The psychosocial strength achieved from a successful resolution of this struggle is wis­dom. Integrity is not the only issue facing older adults; Erikson points out that they have many opportunities for generativity as well. Older people often play an active role as grandparents, for example, and many maintain part-time jobs.

Clarifications and Expansions of Erikson’s Theory.

Erikson’s theory has had a major impact on thinking about life-span development. However, some aspects of his theory are unclear, poorly defined, or unspec­ified. Traditionally, these problems have led critics to dismiss the theory as untestable and incomplete. The situation is changing, however. Other theorists have tried to address these problems by identifying common themes, specifying underlying mental processes, and reinterpreting and integrating the theory with other ideas. These ideas are leading researchers to reassess the usefulness of Erikson’s theory as a guide for research on adult personality development.

Logan (1986) points out that Erikson’s theory can be considered as a cycle that repeats: from basic trust to identity and from identity to integrity. In

330 CHAPTER 9 this approach the developmental progression is trust ^ achievement ^ wholeness. Throughout life we first establish that we can trust other people and ourselves. Initially, trust involves learning about ourselves and others, represented by the first two stages (trust ver­sus mistrust and autonomy versus shame and doubt). The recapitulation of this idea in the second cycle is seen in our struggle to find a person with whom we can form a very close relationship yet not lose our own sense of self (intimacy versus isolation). In addition, Logan shows how achievement—our need to accomplish and to be recognized for it—is a theme throughout Erikson’s theory. During childhood this idea is reflected in the two stages initiative versus guilt and industry versus inferiority, whereas in adulthood it is represented by generativity versus stagnation. Finally, Logan points out that the issue of understanding ourselves as worthwhile and whole is first encountered during adolescence (identity ver­sus identity confusion) and is re-experienced during old age (integrity versus despair). Logan’s analysis emphasizes that psychosocial development, although complicated on the surface, may actually reflect only a small number of issues. Moreover, he points out that we do not come to a single resolution of these issues of trust, achievement, and wholeness. Rather, they are issues that we struggle with our entire lives.

Slater (2003) has expanded on Logan’s reasoning, suggesting that the central crisis of generativity ver­sus stagnation includes struggles between pride and embarrassment, responsibility and ambivalence, career productivity and inadequacy, as well as par­enthood and self-absorption. Each of these con­flicts provides further knowledge about generativity as the intersection of society and the human life cycle.

Some critics argue that Erikson’s stage of gen – erativity is much too broad to capture the essence of adulthood. For example, Kotre (1984, 1999) contends that adults experience many opportunities to express generativity that are not equivalent and do not lead to a general state. Rather, he sees generativity more as a set of impulses felt at different times in different settings, such as at work or in grandparenting. More formally, Kotre describes five types of generativity: biological and parental generativity, which concerns

raising children; technical generativity, which relates to the passing of specific skills from one generation to another; cultural generativity, which refers to being a mentor (as discussed in more detail in Chapter 12); agentic generativity, which refers to the desire to be or to do something that transcends death; and communal generativity, which represents a person’s participation in a mutual, interpersonal reality. Only rarely, Kotre contends, is there a continuous state of generativity in adulthood. He asserts that the strug­gles identified by Erikson are not fought constantly; rather, they probably come and go. We will examine this idea in more detail in the next section.

Finally, Hamachek (1990) provided behavioral and attitudinal descriptors of Erikson’s last three stages. These descriptors are meant to create a series of continua of possibilities for individual develop­ment. This reflects the fact that few people have an exclusive orientation to either intimacy or isolation, for example, but more commonly show some com­bination of the two. These behavioral and attitudinal descriptors provide a framework for researchers who need to operationalize Erikson’s concepts.

Research on Generativity. Perhaps the central period in adulthood from an Eriksonian perspective is the stage of generativity versus stagnation. One of
the best empirically based efforts to describe gen­erativity is McAdams’s model (McAdams, 2001; McAdams et al., 1998) shown in Figure 9.1. This multidimensional model shows how generativity results from the complex interconnections among societal and inner forces. The tension between cre­ating a product or outcome that outlives oneself and selflessly bestowing one’s efforts as a gift to the next generation (reflecting a concern for what is good for society) results in a concern for the next generation and a belief in the goodness of the human enterprise. The positive resolution of this conflict finds middle-aged adults developing a generative commitment, which produces generative actions. A person derives personal meaning from being generative by constructing a life story or narration, which helps create the person’s identity (Whitbourne, 1996c, 1999).

The components of McAdams’s model relate dif­ferently to personality traits. For example, generative concern is a general personality tendency of interest in caring for younger individuals, and generative action is the actual behaviors that promote the well­being of the next generation. Generative concern relates to life satisfaction and overall happiness, whereas generative action does not (de St. Aubin & McAdams, 1995; McAdams et al., 1998; McAdams,

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2001) . New grandparents may derive much satisfac­tion from their grandchildren and are greatly con­cerned with their well-being but have little desire to engage in the daily hassles of caring for them on a regular basis. These results have led to the creation of positive and negative generativity indices that reliably identify differences between generative and nongenerative individuals (Himsel et al., 1997).

Although they can be expressed by adults of all ages, certain types of generativity are more common at some ages than others. For example, middle-aged and older adults show a greater preoc­cupation with generativity themes than do younger adults in their accounts of personally meaningful life experiences (Norman et al., 2002; Zucker et al.,

2002) . Middle-aged adults make more generative commitments (e. g., “save enough money for my daughter to go to medical school”), reflecting a major difference in the inner and outer worlds of middle-aged and older adults as opposed to younger adults (McAdams et al., 1993).


Similar research focusing specifically on middle – aged women yields comparable results. Peterson and Klohnen (1995) examined generativity from the viewpoint of personality characteristics, work productivity, parental involvement, health concerns, and political interests in separate samples of Mills College and Radcliffe College alumnae who were in their early to mid-40s. They found that women who exhibit high generativity tend to have prosocial personality traits, are personally invested in being a parent, express generative attitudes at work, and exhibit caring behaviors toward others outside their immediate families (Peterson & Klohnen, 1995), as well as show high well-being in their role as a spouse (MacDermid et al., 1996).

These data demonstrate that the personal con­cerns of middle-aged adults are fundamentally different from those of younger adults. In fact, gen- erativity may be a stronger predictor of emotional well-being in midlife adults (Ackerman et al., 2000; Keyes & Ryff, 1998). For example, among women
and men generativity was associated with positive emotion and satisfaction with life and work. Finally, these concerns are not consistently or uniformly related to dispositional traits. Considered together, these findings provide considerable support for Erikson’s contention that the central concerns for adults change with age. However, the data also indi­cate that generativity is much more complex than Erikson originally proposed and may not diminish in late life.