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What’s generativity vs. stagnation? It's a step closer to your goals

July 18, 2022 - 17 min read

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Breaking down generativity and stagnation

What does generativity vs. stagnation look like?

The effects of generativity vs. stagnation

6 ways to inspire generativity and reduce stagnation

As human beings, we go through stages of life

Our careers and our jobs change. Our relationships, friendships, and who we spend time with all change. Our appearance changes, the way we care for ourselves, and our physical health. Our personal development journeys are constantly bobbing through waves of change.

These growth journeys — these stages of life — help to form our identities. Our personalities. Our passions, our purpose, our interests. Through each stage of life, we’re bound to come across a fork in the road. In fact, there’s some scientific evidence behind the so-called fork that we may internally feel in the choices we make every day. 

For the past decade, many companies have spent a lot of time focused on trying to understand their youngest workers. First the Millennials. Now Gen Z. But half the workforce is also older. As Gen X and Millennials age, they can start having different needs and expectations for what makes work meaningful and fulfilling and what type of growth they want. 

When we hit our middle-aged years (think: ages 40-65), we reach a new stage of psychosocial development. 

It’s called generativity vs. stagnation. 

“At this stage of life, individuals are pulled in all directions with work, family obligations, and children. Depending on their individual situation, they may be taking care of ailing or elderly parents, still raising children, or facing an empty nest. These are moments of great change and transformation. This stage of life can open doors to individuals’ sense of belonging and contribution to the next generation.”

 Nikki Moberly, BetterUp Premier Fellow Coach  

In a lot of ways, this stage of our development captures this fundamental struggle of adulthood. After all, you can probably all relate to the “I’m feeling stuck” feeling. You might not know what direction to take your career next, or where to invest your time.

In this stage of adulthood, you’ve accomplished quite a bit in your life already. So why does this fork in the road feel especially confusing? 

Let’s talk about what we mean by generativity versus stagnation. We’ll also talk about real-life examples of what this looks like — and how to continue to invest in you. 

Breaking down generativity and stagnation

Let’s first break down what we mean by generativity versus stagnation. To be generative means to be able to originate, produce, or create. Often when we talk about being generative, we're also talking about generating new options or possibilities. So generativity is about creating and expanding. 

Psychologist Erik Erikson outlined eight stages of psychosocial development.  Here’s a closer look at Erikson’s midlife stage of psychosocial development

Erikson’s theory outlines this stage of adult development in a few ways. It's the stage of life that hinges on the success of someone’s relationships, their career, and their community.

In fact, Erikson theorized that adults who are coming across challenges risk a lot. At this stage in human development, if adults don't continue to grow, they risk becoming stagnant. 

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Generativity 

Let’s define what we mean by the stage of generativity. For many of us, we want to leave our mark on the world. At this point in adulthood, humans have likely been through a myriad of experiences. 

At the root of many of these experiences are two things: caring for others, and reaching your full potential. Generativity is the idea that as adults in this stage of life, we have a responsibility to invest in others.

For some, that might be as a parent or a caregiver. It might be through the care and nurture of others. For others, it might be through actions or commitments to helping make the world a better place.  

Regardless, people who are invested in the generativity stage of life want to reach their full potential. They want to live with clarity, purpose, and passion. They want to see growth, change, and development in who they are as people. They want to leave this world better than they found it. 

But it doesn’t come without any bumps along the way. This is why many adults will come across different points in their journey where they’re faced with stagnation. Let’s talk about what we mean by stagnation. 

generativity-vs-stagnation-man-pointing-up-smiling-with-hat-on

Stagnation 

The stagnation stage can happen when a person doesn’t participate in generative activities. But because human beings are unique, stagnation doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer for what it looks like in practice. 

“The biggest obstacle I see in my Members who feel stuck in stagnant mode is time.”

 Nikki Moberly, BetterUp Premier Fellow Coach 

However, we can identify some key characteristics of stagnation (and things that we may struggle with in this stage of development): 

  • Self-absorption 
  • Lack of a willingness to grow, and get outside of their comfort zone
  • Failure to contribute to society 
  • Some identity crises, like a midlife crisis can fall into a stagnant place 
  • A fear of change or lack of effort to make positive change 
  • A lack of sense of self or role confusion 
Erikson’s 8 stages of psychosocial dev

Erikson’s 8 stages of psychological development 

It’s important that we understand all eight of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. It’ll help to better frame Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these stages hinge on whether or not the person’s needs are met to be able to progress and grow. 

  • Stage 1: Trust versus mistrust. If needs are met, the child develops trust.
  • Stage 2. Autonomy versus shame and doubt. If needs are met, the child develops a sense of self and independence. 
  • Stage 3: Initiative versus guilt. If needs are met, the child will feel safe and secure. Because of that built trust, the child will explore their own capabilities.  
  • Stage 4: Industry versus inferiority. In this stage of early childhood development is the sense of accomplishment. Can the child develop confidence? What does that confidence look like? 
  • Stage 5: Identity versus confusion. At this stage, we’re reaching the teenage years, the formative years for developing an identity and sense of self. 
  • Stage 6: Intimacy versus isolation. Moving into young adulthood, this stage is where people form strong connections with one another. 
  • Stage 7: Generativity versus stagnation. By now, we’re in middle adulthood. This is where the adult will feel secure, competent, and confident. They are striving to contribute to the world in a meaningful way. 
  • Stage 8: Integrity versus despair. This last stage is the final stage of psychosocial development. By now, we’re in late adulthood. A mature adult will feel content about their life, their contributions, their purpose, and their passion. 

generativity-vs-stagnation-mother-and-daughter-older-hugging

What does generativity look like relative to stagnation?

We know that generativity versus stagnation is a concept that doesn’t roll off the tongue in simple terms. So, let’s take a look at a couple of examples to illustrate what this could look like in real life. 

  • Pride versus embarrassment. How are you representing your key accomplishments? For example, if you’re a parent, do you feel a sense of pride or embarrassment around your role as a parent? 
  • Inclusivity versus exclusivity. How open are you to letting others into your life? Are you adopting a growth mindset, or are you closed off to feedback and to growth? How are you making others feel like they belong? If not, why are you resisting including others? 
  • Honesty versus denial. Are you honest with yourself? Do you have a sense of what you know to be true? If you make a mistake or recognize an area of growth to focus on, what’s your response? 
  • Responsibility versus ambivalence. If something goes wrong in your life, are you looking to blame others? Or are you taking responsibility for your actions? Are you showing extreme ownership, or are you deferring ownership to others around you? 

“One way I support my members to work through the sense of being stuck is to work on prioritization. First, we look at their values to bring clarity to what’s most important to them right now. Then, we prioritize how they are currently spending their time against what’s most important to them. We can’t make more time, so we need to look at how they are spending their time and make trade-off decisions.”

 Nikki Moberly, BetterUp Premier Fellow Coach 

At BetterUp, we have a handful of high-impact behaviors that we strive to model. In many ways, these high-impact behaviors are guidelines for reaching our full potential. 

For example, extreme ownership and bias toward action feed directly into being a responsible adult. It’s the idea that we’re responsible for our own actions. If something goes wrong, we own that mistake. 

We talk a lot about work to learn and stay on our edge. Are we being honest with ourselves about what we need to improve? Sure, we can look at this high-impact behavior in the workplace setting. But extended beyond just our day-to-day jobs, how are we pushing ourselves to become better? 

The effects of generativity versus stagnation

Over the course of our lifespan, we’re bound to come across this fork in the road. Do we want to continue to grow? Or are we staying comfortable with where we’re at in our lives? Are we leaning into fear of change or uncertainty? 

In order to better understand how to make important choices about how we live our lives, let’s understand the effects.

6 benefits of achieving generativity 

generativity-vs-stagnation-quote-about-everything-youve-endured-has-created-who-you-are

6 challenges of stagnation 

  • Lower quality relationships or inability to make meaningful connections with others 
  • Poorer mental health and health in general  
  • Undesirable personality traits, like selfishness or self-absorption 
  • Not fully being satisfied or happy in life
  • Inability to reach your full potential 
  • Inability to pursue dreams, goals, and passions  

6 ways to inspire generativity and reduce stagnation

If you or someone you know is experiencing this type of psychosocial crisis, don't panic. You can get support to overcome those obstacles so you don’t have to do it alone. We’ve compiled six ways to help inspire generativity and reduce stagnation. 

  • Get involved in your community. Are you finding ways to give back to the communities where you live? How are you connecting with community members? In what ways can you make a positive impact in your own community?  
  • Invest in learning new skills. Upskilling (and reskilling) challenge us to use our brains in new ways. By learning something new, we’re also increasing our productivity. 
  • Adopt a growth mindset. A growth mindset isn’t just being willing to grow and change. It’s looking at different aspects of your life with curiosity and humility. 
  • Work with a coach. With BetterUp, you’re making an investment in yourself. By working with a coach, you’ll be one step closer to reaching your full potential. After all, everyone needs support to help achieve their dreams. 

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Published July 18, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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