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Stress Across the Life Span—In Three Parts: Part Three


Stage 7: Generativity vs. Self-Absorption—What Can I Do for Succeeding Generations?


The seventh stage of development is associated with middle adulthood, approximately 40 to 65 years of age. Gray hair, wrinkles, and reading glasses are physical signals that this stage has been reached. Not too long ago, this period was thought of as the beginning of the end, but for most people today, it is the start of a new beginning. When you reach the half-century mark, you can look forward to about another quarter century of living, and much longer in many cases.


With personal affairs in order the adult who achieves generativity directs attention toward other people—family and friends as well as the larger community. The person becomes concerned about the state of the world and the well-being of future generations. There is the need to be needed and the desire to contribute to the welfare of others. As Carl Jung explains, we reach backward to our parents and forward to our children, and through their children, to a future which we will never see but about which we care very much. Productivity, creativity, and responsibility are important values for the person who exhibits generativity during middle adulthood.17


In contrast, a person who has not developed generativity experiences self-absorption, the feeling that “I come first before anyone or anything else.” Oscar Wilde portrayed such self-absorption in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a story about a vain young man who received his wish to remain young forever. He used other people and was cruel to those who loved him. A self-portrait reflected all of his misdeeds, and this evil image haunted him. In the end, he stabbed the picture and then died. Wilde’s story is a parable that illustrates the disaster of self-absorption.18


More and more people are living longer and longer, and this impacts the stresses of middle adulthood. In addition to raising children, many are caring for aging parents. On top of this is the added demand of preparing for one’s own old age. This three-front struggle can be an enormous task and is highly stressful. A common situation is the midlife adult who has too much to do and not enough time to do it. If youth’s theme is potential, midlife’s is reality because the focus is on coming to terms with facts and finite resources.


The midlife period sometimes involves a painful struggle as people appraise their values and talents and the extent to which they have lived up to them. A reckoning occurs. According to Jung, one must live long enough to experience such a crisis before the public self and the private self can be reconciled and the full flowering of the human personality can be achieved. The term he uses for this process is “individuation.” A key characteristic of this process is that it must be accomplished by the individual him or herself. Others may care, and others may share, but true individuation is ultimately a personal challenge.


Overcoming stagnation, completing unfinished tasks, and resolving old business are common themes for people in midlife. Finishing one’s education, healing old relationships, and fulfilling one’s dreams are recurring stories. Although the challenges of midlife are great and there are plenty of exceptions, the data show that the middle years are considered the best time in life for most people, says Ronald Kessler of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. As sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot writes, the third chapter can be the best chapter in one’s book of life.19


Challenges: The developmental tasks of middle adulthood include (1) making productive contributions; (2) relating to other people as people; (3) helping young people become happy and self-sufficient; (4) adjusting to aging family members; (5) establishing economic security for one’s remaining years; (6) developing leisure-time activities; (7) providing leadership in social, economic, religious, and other institutions; and (8) adjusting to the physical changes of aging.


Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair—Have I Found Contentment and Inner Peace?


The last stage of development occurs during later adulthood, from about 65 years of age onward. This is the period of reflection and summing up. The central task of this stage is to achieve integrity and inner peace. The older person with integrity feels that life has been good and the years have been used well. There is a sense of fulfillment.


On the other hand, the elderly person who has not achieved integrity feels that life has been wasted, is filled with regret, and feels personal despair. The older person with integrity cares about the future generations and seeks to help other people, while the older person with despair dwells on personal problems of the past, thinking, “If I could only live my life over, I would do things differently.” Older people with integrity make wonderful teachers because they have learned from life and they care about those who are younger. They are deemed to be wise and enter the ranks of society’s most respected individuals.


The secret to emotional well-being in old age seems to be not only professional success or a blissful marriage but also an ability to cope with life’s setbacks and shortfalls without blame or bitterness. The later years can be the happiest of one’s life. Many of those who have achieved what others call old age have confessed to feeling embarrassingly young and unexpectedly fresh. It is the kind of freshness that the long-distance runner experiences when at the peak of fatigue he experiences a second wind that takes him on to the finish line.20


Challenges: The developmental tasks of later adulthood include (1) adjustment to decreasing physical strength; (2) adjusting to retirement and reduced income; (3) maintaining interests beyond oneself; (4) adjusting to the deaths of family and friends; and (5) accepting one’s own impending death.


One’s Later Years

Older people need the support and love of others in order to cope with the stresses of aging. The fact that older people have much to offer society is shown in the following:

  • Winston Churchill served as prime minister of Great Britain during his 60’s and 70’s, and then only after a lifetime of defeats and setback.

  • Laura Ingalls Wilder is best known for her Little House books. She was 65 years old when she published her first book, and she wrote some of her best children’s stories during her 70s.

  • Golda Meir was named prime minister of Israel when she was 71 and held that office for 5 years.

  • Michelangelo, who created the sculptures David, Moses, and the Pieta’ and painted the Sistine Chapel, continued to produce his masterpieces years after he was 77.

  • Ann Mary “Grandma” Moses, best known for her realistic scenes of rural life, was 76 when she began painting.

  • Mahatma Gandhi led India’s opposition to British rule when he was 77.

  • Benjamin Franklin helped write the Declaration of Independence when he was 70 and the United States Constitution when he was 81.

  • Mother Teresa continued to serve the poor and sick until her death at age 87.

  • Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus, one of the greatest Greek Tragedies, at 70 and Electra when he was nearly 90.

  • Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, wrote most of his 39 books between the ages of 65 and 95.21

Today’s older people are looking for situations that are mentally and emotionally rewarding. Many view part-time work, volunteer work, or a second career as an encore, the chance to use what they have learned and make their last work their best work. The Roman philosopher Cicero explains why older people have so much to offer:


It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment; in these qualities, old age is usually not only not poorer, but is even richer.22


Author Pearl Buck, at age 79, wrote the following:

Would I wish to be “young” again? No, for I have learned too much to wish to lose it. It would be like failing to pass a grade in school. I have reached an honorable position in life because I am old and no longer young. I am a far more valuable person today than I was 50 years ago, or 40 years ago, or 30, 20, or even 10. I have learned more in the last 10 years than I have learned in any previous decade. This, I suppose, is because I have perfected my techniques, so that I no longer waste time in learning how to do what I have to do.23


One important way people find satisfaction during their later years is to guide and develop young people. Steve McMillen writes:


I was a big man on campus—popular with the girls, lettered in three sports. I was important. Then I got involved with the wrong crowd and was adrift and sinking. That’s when she found me. Like a grandmother, Dr. Dotson took an interest and reached out to help. But she said I must repay her. It wasn’t until I finished my education and was teaching others that I understood this debt. She meant…I must pass it on and do for others what she had done for me. It was a powerful message—each generation must care about and help the next.


An important point to remember about lives in progress is that transitions may require leaving some things behind. The thrill of adventure may require loss of security. The development of knowledge may require the loss of innocence. These losses may or may not be pleasant, but they are necessary. Another point to remember is that although developmental tasks tend to be age-related, people can accomplish unfinished tasks from earlier periods at any point in time. The late bloomer is a phenomenon we all have witnessed. Also, a shooting star may fall, and a person’s life may diminish. A good way to view this is to see lives like books. Each is in the process of being written, and every life is worth a novel. Today is a new page, and you are the writer of your own story. What will it be?


Life span development is a dynamic concept in that ages and tasks can change across cultures and time. Consider the observations of author Gail Sheehy in her book New Passages:


There is a revolution going on in the adult life cycle. People today are leaving childhood sooner, but they are taking longer to grow up and much longer to die. That is shifting all the stages of adulthood ahead—by 10 years. Adolescence is now prolonged for the middle class until the end of the 20s. Today, our First Adulthood only begins at 30. Most baby boomers don’t feel fully “grown up” until they are in their 40s. When our parents turned 50, we thought they were old! But today, women and men routinely feel they’re 5 to 10 years younger than the age on their birth certificates. Fifty is what 40 used to be; 60 is what 50 used to be. Middle age has already been pushed far into the 50s. People are living increasingly longer, and this amounts to a second adult lifetime.24


At each stage of my own life, I’ve been tempted to think, ” I’ve seen it all.” Then came the challenges and developmental tasks of a whole new chapter, giving proof to the saying, “Every Life is Worth a Novel. Two closing thoughts about ‘stress across the life span:’ Willa Cather said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened before.” Grandma Moses said at age 90, “Life is what we make it…always was and always will be.”



Suggested Reading

Passages by Gail Sheehy


New Passages by Gail Sheehy


The Seasons of a Man’s Life by Daniel Levinson


Suggested Ted Talks

What Makes a Good Life? by Robert Waldinger


The Secret to Living Longer May be Your Social Life by Susan Pinker


  1. McGoldrick, M. & Carter, B. (1999). The expanded family life cycle. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

  2. Wilde, O. (1985). The picture of Dorian Gray. New York, NY: Modern Library.

  3. Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2009). The third chapter: Passion, risk, and adventure in the 25 years after 50. New York, NY: MacMillan; See also: Rohr, R. (2011). Falling upward. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  4. Montagu, A. (1989). Growing young (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Bergin and Garvey Publishers.

  5. The World Book Encyclopedia (1981).

  6. Page, J.S. & Miners, R. (2007). Don’t retire, rewire! New York, NY: Alpha; and Freedman, M. (2008). Encore: Finding work that matters in the second half of life. New York, NY: Public Affairs.

  7. Centerscope: A report to friends of Washington Hospital Center (1981, Spring/Summer). Washington, DC: The Washington Center.

  8. Sheehy, G. (1995). New passages: Mapping your life across time. New York, NY: Merritt Corporation and Alfred K. Knopf.




George Manning, Author and Editor Professor of Psychology and Business at Northern Kentucky University LinkedIn


Jennifer Zimmerman, Author and Editor

Freelance editor, writer, and consultant

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