Generativity vs. Stagnation in Psychosocial Development

Generativity vs. Stagnation
Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Generativity versus stagnation is the seventh of eight stages of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. This stage takes place during middle adulthood between the ages of approximately 40 and 65. The eighth and last stage is integrity vs. despair.

During this time, adults strive to create or nurture things that will outlast them; often by parenting children or contributing to positive changes that benefit other people. Contributing to society and doing things to benefit future generations are important needs at the generativity versus stagnation stage of development.

What to Know

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Generativity Versus Stagnation
  • Major Question: "How can I contribute to the world?"
  • Basic Virtue: Care
  • Important Event(s): Parenthood and Work

What Are Generativity and Stagnation?

Generativity refers to "making your mark" on the world by caring for others as well as creating and accomplishing things that make the world a better place. Key characteristics of generativity include:

  • Making commitments to other people
  • Developing relationships with family
  • Mentoring others
  • Contributing to the next generation

As you might imagine, these sorts of things are frequently realized through having and raising children. Those who are successful during this phase will feel that they are contributing to the world by being active in their home and community.

Stagnation refers to the failure to find a way to contribute. These individuals may feel disconnected or uninvolved with their community and with society as a whole. Some characteristics of stagnation include:

  • Being self-centered
  • Failing to get involved with others
  • Not taking an interest in productivity
  • No efforts to improve the self
  • Placing one's concerns over above all else

Those who fail to attain this skill will feel unproductive and uninvolved in the world.

Benefits of Generativity

Developing a sense of generativity can have a number of important benefits. These include:

  • Better health: Research suggests that generativity can provide a greater motivation to initiate and maintain healthy behaviors. People who feel that they have the power to make a difference may be more likely to pursue health-promoting activities because they believe that such actions can be meaningful.
  • More positive relationships: For many adults, parenting plays a key role in the development of a sense of generativity, but it is not the only path. Erikson himself suggested that participating in the lives of others, whether they are one's children, friends, or others, is an important way to gain a sense of making a contribution and difference in the world.
  • Greater productivity: The actions required to develop a sense of generativity involve taking an active, participatory role in the world. Generative people are productive in a variety of ways including teaching, mentoring, and volunteering.
  • Greater fulfillment: Because generativity is focused on making contributions, people who are able to gain this sense of generativity are also more likely to experience a greater sense of fulfillment. They are able to look at their life, family, and work and feel that they have lived a life of consequence and joy.
  • Increased community involvement: During the early part of adulthood, parenting and family tend to be the dominant factors contributing to the development of generativity. But research has also found that giving assistance to others, often in the form of civic engagement, also plays a role in generativity as people age.

Causes

One thing to note about this stage is that life events tend to be less age-specific than they are during early-stage and late-stage life. The major events that contribute to this stage, such as marriage, work, and child-rearing, can occur at any point during the rather broad span of middle adulthood.

There are a number of factors that can contribute to the development of either generativity or stagnation during middle age. Some of these include:

Pride in Work and Family

This aspect of the generativity versus stagnation stage is centered on the sense of pride that adults take in their family and children. In many ways, it mirrors the autonomy versus shame and doubt stage of early childhood.

This aspect of adulthood centers on reaching out and contributing to the next generation.

This can occur through parenting, although not all people who produce offspring necessarily become supportive and giving parents. Those who do not have children are still able to give to the next generation in meaningful ways.

Feeling Included

Feeling part of something, whether it is an individual family unit or a larger community, is essential for the development of generativity. This centers on the scope of caregiving activities and on what and who an individual is willing to include in their life. This stage reflects the trust versus mistrust stage of early childhood.

Taking Responsibility

As people go through adulthood, they must choose to take responsibility for their lives and choices. It reflects the initiative versus guilt stage seen earlier during childhood.

People who take responsibility are more likely to feel empowered and in control of their lives and destiny. This is more likely to lead to a sense of making a contribution to the world.

Feeling Productive

Work plays a major role in adulthood, so it is no surprise that an individual’s sense of pride and accomplishment in their work can lead to feelings of productivity. This stage mirrors the industry versus inferiority stage of childhood.

People who feel that they are busy and productive are also more likely to feel that they are making a difference in the lives of others.

Making Contributions

As the generativity stages draw to a close and people approach the final stage of life, finding meaning plays an increasingly critical role. Self-knowledge and self-understanding have an important role during this phase of the generativity versus stagnation stage.

As people reach a point where they are beginning to reflect back on their lives and accomplishments, it is important to feel that these achievements have left a lasting mark on the world.

Consequences of Stagnation

When people fail to achieve generativity, they instead develop a sense of stagnation. Such feelings can have an impact on how people manage the later years of their lives. Some of the potential outcomes that may be linked to stagnation include:

  • Worse health: Generativity has been linked to health outcomes in later life, so those who are left with a sense of stagnation may face worse health as they age.
  • Lower quality relationships: Because the development of generativity is linked to healthy relationships with others, stagnation may often be the result of poor-quality social connections. This can be a problem as people age since social relationships play an important part in healthy aging.
  • Decreased life satisfaction: People who don't achieve a sense of generativity are less like to feel satisfied with their lives. They may look at their lives with regret, a sense of boredom, and overall dissatisfaction.

It is at this point in life that some people might experience what is often referred to as a "midlife crisis." People might reflect back on their accomplishments and consider their future trajectory and feel regret. In some cases this might involve regretting missed opportunities such as going to school, pursuing a career, or having children.

In some cases, people might use this crisis as an opportunity to make adjustments in their lives that will lead to greater fulfillment.

It is important to note that it is the way that people interpret these regrets that influence their well-being. Those who feel that they have made mistakes, wasted their time, and have no time to make changes may be left feeling bitter.

How to Improve Generativity

There are also numerous things that people can do to improve their feelings of generativity versus feelings of stagnation at this point in life. Some things that you can do include:

  • Participate in your community: Research suggests that civic engagement can help foster generativity, so look for ways to get involved in your community. Volunteer for an organization, take part in community projects, or get involved in local activism. 
  • Assume responsibilities: Feeling productive in your work can help improve generativity, so look for new ways to take on new tasks and roles at work or at home. Take on a big project at work or explore a way to improve some aspect of your household.
  • Learn new skills and share them with others: Sharing your skills and knowledge with others can also be helpful, so look for teaching or mentoring opportunities.
  • Volunteer: Making a difference in the lives of others can build generativity as well. Your child's school, your church, or community organizations are a good place to look for volunteer opportunities.

People who have positive relationships with others, good quality health, and a sense of control over their lives will feel more productive and satisfied.

How to Decrease Stagnation

Those who suffer from poor health, poor relationships, and feel that they have no control over their fate are more likely to experience feelings of stagnation. If you are feeling a sense of stagnation, there are things that you can do to feel more productive and involved. Some things you might try:

  • Explore a new hobby: Finding a new passion is a great way to feel more creative and inspired.
  • Learn something new: Acquiring and then applying new skills can help you feel more productive.
  • Find new sources of inspiration: When you are feeling stagnant, seek out things that help you feel inspired. You can then use these sources as a way to build motivation to tackle new things.
  • Look for new opportunities: Even if you have become settled in your role at work or home, it is important to look for new ways to feel challenged, useful, and productive.

Finding ways to combat stagnation can help you stay more active, engaged, and satisfied with your life as you age.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Erikson, EH & Erikson, JM. The Life Cycle Completed. New York: Norton; 1998.

  • Erikson, E.H. Childhood and Society. (2nd ed.). New York: Norton; 1993.