Psychologist Erik Erikson is famous for his 7 Life Stages, describing key periods and transitions in our lives from birth to death. It is time to rethink the application of Erikson's ideas to the boomer generation, and to explore how we can better use his framework as an inspiration and a roadmap for our work moving forward from our 50s into our 70s. Erikson developed his framework at a very different time, when life expectancies were shorter, and when our society was focused on a productive career and life cycle that began to wrap up after age 60. Not so today.
Erikson's 6th stage describes the period that he calls "Adulthood," but I think today we would call it late mid-life -- people aged 45 to 60 (or 45 to "retirement"). In this period of life, the individual is at their most productive, comfortable and empowered at work, as well as engaged with child-rearing, family and community. The sense of abundance and "overflow" that can be experienced at this stage creates a feeling of being called to give back to our world, an evolution towards a greater service orientation. It is in this stage that mentorship begins, and where we start thinking about the kind of legacy that we want to leave behind. As in all of his life stages, Erikson posits two opposite polarities through which we can experience this period in our lives, depending on whether we are trending positive or negative. His word for the positive polarity is Generativity, a sense of productivity and accomplishment that we can finally achieve in this period. After having graduated from life's earlier challenges, where we learned how to navigate our world and settled into career and family, we're now finally figuring things out. The opposite polarity is what he refers to as Stagnation. If we haven't been able (or refused) to grow up and get going in our lives, and build the kinds of personal and professional relationships that support this potential productivity, we will be caught in a loop of unproductive living and behavior. We will find ourselves thwarted and increasingly embittered by life. The resolution to these polarities is what Erikson identifies as a sense of, and an ability to be caring. So the natural flow of our lives, as Erikson sees it, is outward from the inside. As we emerge into our adult selves and figure out who we are and what we can do, we no longer need to focus inwardly (perhaps selfishly...), and can now focus outward on other people and other ideas, applying this caring as a way of connecting to others for a purpose, and as a way to create and derive meaning in our lives.
Here's the key epiphany for our generation: this period of 15 to 20 years that Erikson originally envisioned has all of a sudden ballooned way beyond that time frame. We now expect to live at least another decade of productive time, if not more. How should we look at this age stage if old age -- or what Erikson calls Maturity, isn't going to really start until we hit at least 70, more likely 75 or for some of us, perhaps even beyond?
Is this realistic?
How many of us are going to want to be working productively all the way to 75? The stats are starting to tilt in this direction. Not a week goes by where I'm not seeing more research validating our generation's interest in, and intention towards working longer -- such as this week's stats from the Sloan Center at Boston College. Between our increased life expectancy and the ability of medical science to get us over some significant pitfalls, we're going to be able to maintain our direction, focus and energy a lot longer. I was amazed a few years ago when a family friend, vital and sharp as a tack at age 88, was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live. He summarily rejected the diagnosis, fired his doctors and found a non-invasive surgical solution at another hospital. He flew to that city on a Monday, had the entire lung removed through a series of small incisions on Tuesday, recovered in the hospital for a few days, and was back home on the weekend - cancer free. With a few radiation treatments thrown in for good measure, he lived another ten years, dying in his sleep at 98. Imagine what they'll be able to do for us in 20 or 30 years...
What does it mean?
Our generation is going to have a longer period in which to make a lasting impact. For some of us, it is going to mean that we're just going to be able to keep on going, and to maintain our direction and our output for longer. My first thought, as someone with roots in the entertainment business, is that we're going to see our favorite film directors making great movies for a lot longer. Look at Clint Eastwood's amazing and multi-faceted career: he is currently completing his 37th film as director at age 84. He embodies a shockingly simple maxim promoted by health/fitness guru Mark Sisson: "Live long; drop dead." Eastwood is likely going to keep creating until his final day. Where this kind of life and career used to be something rare and unheard of, I believe it will become increasingly commonplace in our generation. The association of the word "old" with decrepitude, incapacity and irrelevance is going to be replaced by its identification with wisdom, capacity, richness and inspiration.
What are the new strategies?
Clearly, each of us is going to have to figure out what works best for us. I don't for a minute believe that we are all going to be going strong at 84 like Clint Eastwood. But i do believe that there are going to be increasing opportunities for us to be a part of society, culture and business in ways that did not exist in the past. We're hearing more about "phased retirement," and the opportunity for workers to set their own levels of participation at work as they age, and to carve out more time for other work that reflects the purposeful aspect of Erikson's Generativity concept. The overall trend towards better work-life balance, and the acceptance of more individualized productivity practices in the workplace bode well for our generation. As long as we welcome new ideas, and are adaptable and collaborative with new ways of participating at work and creating value, I believe that we will be able to hold on to jobs longer, and find jobs and freelance business opportunities that recognize and take advantage of our experience and wisdom (another nod to Erikson...)
What can we accomplish?
If we have more time -- 30 years at least in this new view of the "Adulthood" age stage -- we should be able to do quite a lot. Sociologists and thought leaders are talking about "second act" or "encore" careers, and looking at this stage as not merely a continuation of our life to-date, but an entirely new level of opportunity. I believe that we are just beginning to look at new ways that our generation can use our experience, our work ethic and our inventiveness to reshape the workplace. Yes, let's move over and let GenX and GenY move up the hierarchy. But that doesn't mean that we're moving out. It means that there will be new roles for us to play, new levels of meaning to the concept of "senior executive" or "leader" or "mentor" or "advisor" or "entrepreneur."
And for those of you who say: "Well, I'm not a leader. I've never been a leader. I just want to do my job and not take on too much responsibility." Fine. I hear you. But I would invite you to reframe your thinking and consider who you are and who you've become over all these years. Just surviving in work and in life all this time has given you a set of experiences that qualifies you as some sort of resource to someone else who is looking to learn from your experience. Sorry: that does make you a leader. If you're "generative" vs. "stagnant," you're likely going to want to engage with that person seeking your wisdom. You'll find that the experience of giving back, of caring about them and with them, is going to produce a surprising amount of gratification and a tangible sense of your own purpose.
This is our opportunity to build a legacy, our gift to the world. If we're the generation that once defined ourselves as wanting to make the world a better place, now is our opportunity to do so -- and we've got another 30 years to do it. So let's get busy.