Generativity vs. Stagnation in Psychosocial Development

Generativity vs. Stagnation

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Generativity vs. stagnation is the seventh stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. This stage takes place during middle adulthood, between the approximate ages of 40 and 65. It comes before the eighth and final stage of development in Erikson's theory, which is integrity vs. despair.

During this stage, middle-aged adults strive to create or nurture things that will outlast them, often by parenting children or fostering positive changes that benefit others. Contributing to society and doing things to promote future generations are important needs at the generativity vs. stagnation stage of development.

It's important to note that life events at this stage tend to be less age-specific than they are during early- 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 broad span of middle adulthood.

What to Know

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Generativity vs. stagnation
  • Major Question: "How can I contribute to the world?"
  • Basic Virtue: Care
  • Important Event(s): Parenthood and work

What Are Generativity and Stagnation?

To understand this stage of middle adulthood development, it's helpful to know what the terms generativity and stagnation mean.

Generativity

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

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

These sorts of actions are frequently realized through having and raising children. Those who are successful during this phase feel that they are contributing to the world by being active in their home and community.

Stagnation

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

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

Those who fail to attain the generativity skill feel unproductive in and uninvolved with the world.

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Benefits of Generativity

When adults developing a sense of generativity, they benefit from a number of important advantages.

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—both in their personal lives as well as at work.

Greater Fulfillment

Because generativity is focused on making contributions, people who are able to develop this skill are also more likely to experience a greater sense of satisfaction with themselves and with life in general. 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, plays a role in generativity as people age.

What Contributes to Generativity?

There are a number of factors that can contribute to the development of either generativity or stagnation during middle age. Here are a few to consider.

Pride in Work and Family

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

Pride can occur through parenting, although not all people who produce offspring become supportive and giving parents. Plus, 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 a family unit or a larger group or 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.

Research indicates that participating in social organizations can assist with developing generativity by providing feelings of inclusion. This reflects the trust vs. mistrust stage of early childhood.

Taking Responsibility

As people go through adulthood, they must choose whether to take responsibility for their lives and choices. This reflects the initiative vs. 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 helps lead to a sense of making a contribution to the world.

Feeling Productive

Work plays a major role in adulthood, so it's 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 vs. inferiority stage of childhood.

Making Contributions

As the generativity stage draws to a close and people approach the final stage of life, finding meaning plays an increasingly critical role. People reach a point where they are beginning to reflect back on their lives and accomplishments, making it important to feel that these achievements have left a lasting mark on the world.

Self-knowledge and self-understanding have an important place during the latter portion of the generativity vs. stagnation stage.

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 linked to stagnation include:

  • Reduced cognitive function: A 75-year study found that less successful psychosocial development at this stage is correlated with weaker cognitive function later in life, potentially through increasing the risk of depression which leaves individuals more vulnerable to cognitive decline.
  • Poorer 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 be the result of poor-quality social connections. This can be a problem as people get older since social relationships play an important part in healthy aging.
  • Decreased life satisfaction: People who don't achieve a sense of generativity are less likely 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." They may reflect back on their accomplishments, consider their future trajectory, and regret missed opportunities such as going to school, pursuing a certain career, or having children.

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. Others might use this crisis as an opportunity to make adjustments in their lives that will lead to greater fulfillment.

How to Improve Generativity

There are many ways to improve feelings of generativity vs, feelings of stagnation during middle adulthood. You can:

  • Participate in your community: Research suggests that civic engagement helps foster generativity. So, look for ways to get involved in your community. Help out an organization, take part in community projects, or get involved in local activism. 
  • Assume responsibilities: Since feeling productive in your work can help improve generativity, look for new ways to take on new tasks and roles. Take on a big project at work or explore ways to improve some aspect of your household.
  • Learn new skills and share them with others: Take the time to learn a new skill, then share this skill with others via a teaching or mentoring opportunity.
  • Volunteer: Making a difference in the lives of others can build generativity as well. Your child's school, your church, and community organizations are good places to look for volunteer opportunities.

People who have positive relationships with others, good quality health, and a sense of control over their lives often 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 this way, there are things that you can do to feel more productive and involved.

  • 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.

A Word From Verywell

The generativity vs. stagnation stage of psychosocial development is when we start to question, "How can I contribute to the world?" Finding ways to advance or enhance future generations can help you work toward generativity instead of having a sense of stagnation.

If you want more fulfillment in your life, getting involved in your community, learning new skills, or starting a new hobby are all ways to achieve this goal. Taking actions such as these can help improve your well-being later in life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • At what age does the generativity vs. stagnation state occur?

    This stage generally occurs between 40 and 65 years of age. It is preceded by the intimacy vs. isolation stage in young adulthood (19 to 40 years) and followed by the integrity vs. despair stage which occurs during maturity (65 years and up).

  • What is an example of generativity?

    Caring for your children by guiding them through life is an example of generativity. Volunteering, mentoring, engaging in community activism, and fostering other people's growth at work are additional examples of generativity.

  • How do adults in the generativity vs. stagnation stage deal with healthcare?

    Research indicates that middle-aged adults who develop a sense of generativity are more motivated to make positive health decisions. Thus, they would also likely tend to their healthcare needs regularly.

    Conversely, someone with a sense of stagnation may experience less motivation to look after themselves, resulting in less stringent healthcare routines—and a lower level of health later in life.

  • What is the virtue of generativity vs. stagnation?

    The basic virtue of generativity vs. stagnation is "care." This involves caring for others who are close to the person (family, co-workers, friends, etc.) as well as caring for the community or the future generation as a whole. If generativity is not developed, rejectivity, or a lack of meaning in one's life and in one's actions, can occur.

  • How can you cope with generativity and stagnation?

    If you have a sense of stagnation, doing something you've never done before can help turn it around. This could involve learning a new skill or taking on a new hobby.

    If you have a sense of generativity, you can maintain and even promote this sense by finding additional ways to take part in your community or by increasing the amount of responsibility you have at work or home.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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