Feature Stories

Generativity Helps us to Nurture Younger Generations

One of Freud’s seminal contributions to modern psychology was his delineation of childhood stages of development. His description of an oral, anal, and phallic stage in childhood was lamentably flawed by a sexual interpretation, a failing that marred many of his theories. The so-called ‘neo-Freudians’ corrected the problem and placed a more appropriate emphasis on the implications for social relationships.

Erik Erikson, of Danish heritage, spent his childhood in Germany and eventually emigrated to the United States when Hitler cast his ominous shadow over Europe. Erikson published ‘Childhood and Society’ in 1950 in which he described human developmental stages in broader psycho-social terms. Erikson claimed that the oral stage centered around issues of trust; the anal stage focused on the development of healthy autonomy and the phallic stage was a time when a child learned to show initiative.

Erikson made another major contribution to Freud’s original theory. He extended the concept of developmental stages throughout the human lifespan. He identified the psychological construct of ‘Generativity’ as the critical developmental issue in later adult years.

Generativity is a behavioral focus on nurturing younger generations and contributing time and attention to the positive development of children and teens. Erikson implies that mature adults promote their own behavioral health by focusing attention on the welfare of younger generations.

Of course, many older adults already engage in a range of activities that support and nurture grandchildren. Grandparents play an amazingly important role for a large percentage of our youth. This instinct comes naturally and needs no psychological explanation for the motivation to love our children’s children.

However, the Generativity focus holds special importance at this point in time. Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and a renowned specialist on teen psychology has said “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen (Gen Z) as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.” 

The data on teen mental health is very troubling. A Pew Research study reported that 70% of teens in their sample described anxiety and depression as major issues for their peers. BBC reported results of a survey of teens and young adults on the climate crisis. The survey revealed that three-quarters of the sample said they thought the future was frightening. Over half (56%) say they think humanity is doomed. Two-thirds reported feeling sad, afraid, and anxious. School-based, active shooter drills can hardly help the situation. Hospital admissions for teens with self-inflicted injuries have doubled over the past decade.

Our last article in Vermont Maturity addressed the concept known as ‘locus of control’ – the critically important issue related to confidence in our personal ability to shape our own destiny. Unfortunately, the locus of control data for teens – especially girls – has been tilting toward an external orientation – belief that forces beyond our control will shape our personal destiny. External locus of control is associated with poor academic achievement and depression in teen samples.

Now is a great time for readers of Vermont Maturity to ask how they can show support for teenagers in your life. They need reassurance that we have been through tough times before. Share some degree of optimism that we will solve these problems.

We are creating video statements by seniors that express confidence that we will prevail through this scary period. Contact me at rth@att.net if you want more information and might be interested in participating. We collaborate with senior communities to support our young compatriots. We need to build support systems for our young generation. And Generativity is a very healthy focus for those of us who are more experienced.

Richard Houston holds a Doctorate in Education and was licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Psychology. He is a graduate of Brown University. He has conducted research on the psychological dimensions of healthy lifestyle behaviors and has had long term consulting relationships with several continuing care retirement communities. You can visit his website at Resilience-Advocate.com.

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