From the time you were a child, people have posed this question to you. In childhood, you probably answered by indicating some specific career, such as firefighter or teacher. But now that you are an adult, the question takes on new meaning. Rather than simply a matter of picking a profession, the question goes much deeper
to the kinds of values and the essence of the person you would like to become.

Take a few minutes and think about who you would like to be in another decade or two (or maybe even 50 years hence). What things will matter to you? What will you be doing? What experiences will you have had? What lies ahead?

This exercise can give you a sense of the way in which researchers try to understand people’s sense of identity and self through the use of personal narrative. You could even keep what you have written, and check it when the appropriate number of years have elapsed.

as people change and the changing environment places different demands on them.

McAdams’s (2001) research indicates that people in Western society begin forming their life story in late adolescence and early adulthood, but it has its roots in the development of one’s earliest attachments in infancy. As in Erikson’s theory, ado­lescence marks the full initiation into forming an identity, and thus, a coherent life story begins. In early adulthood it is continued and refined, and from midlife and beyond it is refashioned in the wake of major and minor life changes. Generativity marks the attempt to create an appealing story “ending” that will generate new beginnings for future generations.

Paramount in these life stories is the changing personal identity reflected in the emotions conveyed in the story (from tragedy to optimism or through comic and romantic descriptions). In addition, motivations change and are reflected in the person repeatedly trying to attain his or her goals over time. The two most common goal themes are agency (reflecting power, achievement, and autonomy) and communion (reflecting love, intimacy, and a sense of belonging). Finally, stories indicate one’s beliefs and values, or the ideology, a person uses to set the context for his or her actions.

Every life story contains episodes that provide insight into perceived change and continuity in life. People prove to themselves and others that they have either changed or remained the same by pointing to specific events that support the appro­priate claim. The main characters in people’s lives represent idealizations of the self, such as “the dutiful mother” or “the reliable worker.” Integrating these various aspects of the self is a major challenge of midlife and later adulthood. Finally, all life stories need an ending through which the self can leave a legacy that creates new beginnings. Life stories in middle-aged and older adults have a clear quality of “giving birth to” a new generation, a notion essen­tially identical to generativity.

One of the more popular methods for examining the development of life stories is through auto­biographical memory (Bluck & Habermas, 2000; Thorne, 2000). When people tell their life stories to others, the stories are a joint product of the speaker and the audience (Pasupathi, 2001). Pasupathi finds that the responses of the audience affect how the teller remembers his or her experiences. This is a good example of conversational remembering, much like collaborative cognition discussed in Chapter 8.

Overall, McAdams (1994, 2001) believes that the model for change in identity over time is a process

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of fashioning and refashioning one’s life story. This process appears to be strongly influenced by culture. At times, the reformulation may be at a conscious level, such as when people make explicit decisions about changing careers. At other times, the revision process is unconscious and implicit, growing out of everyday activities. The goal is to create a life story that is coherent, credible, open to new possibilities, richly differentiated, reconciling of opposite aspects of oneself, and integrated within one’s sociocultural context (McAdams, 1994, 1999, 2001).