THE BLOG
02/06/2013 04:45 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

The Joys of Generativity in Midlife

One of the key features of midlife is the opportunity to pass along the wisdom of our accumulated years onto others. Psychologist Erik Erikson used the term "generativity" to capture the need for all of us to leave something behind for future generations. The opposite of generativity is "stagnation" in which you throw your energy not into helping others, but into focusing on yourself and your personal needs. Generativity has the benefit of helping your personality flourish, even while you provide vital sustenance and support to the next generation. Stagnation carries the risk that all of your growth potential turns inward, and ultimately disappears altogether (you can take a short generativity quiz below to test yourself).

You might think that becoming a parent is the best way to achieve generativity. However, the act of having children is no guarantee of generativity. Nor is becoming a parent the only way to pass something of yourself along for the future. According to Smith College psychologist Bill Peterson, there can be non-generative as well as generative parents. Peterson found that parents who scored high on a measure of generativity had children who themselves were psychologically higher functioning, able to plan for their own futures and interested in national and world affairs. These fortunate children also scored higher on two key personality measures showing that they were "nicer" and more conscientious than the children of non-generative parents.

Being generative may help you produce children who are starting out in the world on the right foot, then. However, what if you don't have your own children? Fortunately, through mentoring, you can experience many of the same results both for those you mentor, and for yourself. Whether it's a junior employee, a student, or a young person in the community in need of guidance, you can turn your own experience into life lessons that can help them receive those benefits of the children in the Peterson study.

It may occur to you that generativity isn't a totally selfless enterprise. By helping others, whether your own children or other younger people, you're also enhancing your own psychological health. In fact, Northwestern psychology Dan McAdams, who invented one of the most widely-used generativity scales, writes in The Redemptive Self that truly generative adults want to give of themselves to help others, a process that often involves a certain amount of pain and personal sacrifice. In return, they gain greater validation of their sense of self as well as benefiting from growth in their own generativity.

We see, then, that generativity is mainly directed at helping others, though some of our generative acts also benefit our own personal development. What other evidence is there that generative adults can make a difference in the world? Researchers interested in so-called generative behaviors are showing that people high in this personality quality are more likely to engage in acts that do benefit their communities, both now and in the future. One of these generative behaviors is showing concern for the environment. A research team headed by Kwantlen Polytechnic University Kyle Matsuba found that, as they expected, adults high in generativity were also more likely to be concerned with environmental movements. Similarly, in a cross-national study involving American and French adults, people scoring high on generativity were to be more likely to believe and -- more importantly -- engage in, environmentally responsible behavior.

University of Dayton psychologist Jack Bauer proposes that people high in generativity have another fascinating personal quality: the "quiet ego." An ego that is "noisy" clamors for attention, seeking fame and recognition. With generativity comes less of a tendency to want to enhance your own sense of self and a greater tendency for your ego to take a back seat to the needs of others. This is a tremendous step in development, allowing you to bask in the accomplishments of the young without feeling that your own self-worth is being threatened.

In fact, one of the great joys of generativity is that you can take greater pleasure in the success of the young, whether your own offspring or your other younger relatives, or the people you have guided and mentored. Erikson believed that with stagnation, middle-aged adults increasingly experience feelings of disgust and disappointment with the young, leading them to become alienated and eventually cut off from more and more people around them. As they do, they also become cut off from their own identities. After all, all middle-aged people were young once, and many engaged in behaviors that similarly rattled and annoyed our elders. In fact, the more we annoyed them, the prouder we were! Why should we not, in midlife, appreciate the new ideas that the young today (and midlifers of tomorrow) have to contribute?

Issues around generativity also provide the working drafts of what we will encounter in the coming decades of our lives. Erikson firmly believed that each stage of life builds on the next. If you're able to establish a firm sense of generativity, that belief in leaving a lasting legacy will buffer the changes of the coming decades when you think about the larger meaning of your life.

For the moment, however, revel in the joys of generativity. Take pride in what your children are doing, lend a helping hand to a younger employee in the workplace, and find a cause in your community that you can support. You'll help yourself to lead a more fulfilling life, and in the process, help the world be just that much better of a place for now, and the future.

To test how generative you are, take this brief self-scored quiz by clicking here.