The term generativity was coined by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson in 1950 to denote “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” He first used the term while defining his theory of the stages of psycho-social development. Later additions to this theory included a concern for one’s legacy or even an “inner desire for immortality”. It all boils down to concern for the future, a need to nurture and guide younger people and contribute to the next generation.
Erikson first argued that generativity usually develops during middle age, but then, having experienced old age himself, he suggested that generativity has a more important role in later life. Generativity involves answering the question “Can I make my life count?” People can contribute to the next generation through caring and teaching in their own families and local groups. They can also contribute more widely, engaging in creative work and philanthropic pursuits which contribute to society as a whole.
When trying to assess generativity, individuals are asked to agree or disagree with questions such as –
“I try to pass along the knowledge that I have gained through my experiences.”
“I have a responsibility to improve the neighbourhood in which I live.”
“In general, my actions have a positive effect on other people.”
In assessing the concept of generativity, psychologists have concluded that it can spring from selfish desires – to be remembered, and also altruistic motives – to help others. Generativity differs in how it is expressed between individuals and across cultures, but there is general agreement that it promotes psychological well-being. Hence, generativity is an important component of successful ageing. If we agree with this, the aim should be to maximise opportunities for generative activity and altruistic behaviour among older people.
Although we had not overtly included it in the scope of our “older entrepreneurs” research, which I have mentioned before in my blog posts, generativity and altruism did come through in the narratives of the people we interviewed. Here are some examples.
A retired public servant, said, “I like to feed back to the community, and I have long- term roles with voluntary organisations”. He estimates that 40% of his consultancy work is unpaid.
A Maori woman, also a policy and business consultant said – “I support women coming out of prison (often with gang connections) who need some help to set up their business. I’ll write their business plan for them and help them navigate their way around”.
An older man with several interests in the primary sector – “You don’t go into business to make losses. But it is a joy when you make money. If you want to give some away to charity, you can. There’s a lot of little things that we can help our community with.” He is involved in trusts supporting community youth initiatives.
A man with a high level of technical skills – “My ambition is not to start my own business. That’s not my primary goal. My goal these days is I want to do things that are interesting and creative and for the public good. And I really enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that I’m doing something that’s going to help other people’s lives.” He is trying to pass on responsibility for developing a new product to younger people. “If it becomes successful, I will be creating jobs for other people, not just myself.”
A self-employed handyman in his seventies– “I try and give three hours a month somewhere where I know that somebody needs it. At the moment I’ve been working for a lady who lives nearby. And I do it for free. So that’s my way of giving something back to the community because this lady is very sick. “
A very experienced technician was made redundant about the age of 50. His brother and nephew had a business in the auto trade, but this was not well managed and was struggling. He stepped in with funding and expertise. Eventually the business was back on its feet and family members paid out. Now he is mentoring a niece to take it over.
When he settled in NZ, another interviewee bought a business, but in his fifties he became interested in the development of alternative energy sources and has secured funding to work with a university in this area. He sees this as his potential contribution to save the planet and, on a personal level – “If I’m lucky enough to have grandchildren and they say, “What did you do?” I want to be able to say something.”
I selected these snippets hopefully to illustrate some of the points about generativity which I outlined above.