It’s Time for the Generativity Revolution.
In 1988, Daniel Goleman -- then a journalist for the New York Times, later the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence -- sat down with Erik Erikson and his wife, Joan, for a chat. Erikson, then 87, was one of the world’s greatest theorists of human development. Joan, 86, was his collaborator.
A central topic of their conversation: Erikson’s theory of generativity -- the drive to contribute what we’ve learned from life to future generations, an impulse that should grow stronger as we move through midlife and come face-to-face with our own mortality.
But as Goleman writes, Erikson was worried about a generativity deficit.
''What's lacking is generativity,” he told Goleman, “a generativity that will promote positive values in the lives of the next generation. Unfortunately, we set the example of greed, wanting a bigger and better everything, with no thought of what will make it a better world for our great-grandchildren. That's why we go on depleting the earth: we're not thinking of the next generations.''
The crisis that Erikson identified is, if anything, more urgent and profound today. Younger generations are struggling to breathe under the weight of trillions in national debt and their own student loans, the perils of climate change, and the impact of the pandemic on their prospects.
I’m convinced that it’s our responsibility as elders (modern and otherwise!) to embrace the mantle of generativity, to build it firmly into our ethos for living and our actions. It’s time for a generativity revolution, in ways large and small.
The Eriksons showed the way, not only in their advocacy for the environment and other causes, but in their daily life. They moved from California back to the Boston area in their 80s to be closer to their grandchildren. And they set up shop in a rambling Cambridge Victorian, accompanied by graduate students and young faculty. The multigenerational housemates often took meals together.
“Living communally,” explained Joan, “is an adventure at our age.”
The generativity revolution promises to be an adventure as well, with inevitable challenges along the way. But connecting and contributing to younger generations is central to our own fulfillment—and to our well-being as a multigenerational society.
So I leave you with a pair of questions: What are you doing to be generative? And what can we do together as modern elders to turn the generativity gap into a better future for future generations?
Marc Freedman is the founder and CEO of Encore.org, a nonprofit that works to bridge generational divides. He is the author of “How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations.”