I have been thinking about generation gaps recently. This was a hot topic back in the 1970s. Then it reflected a social shift away from social norms that dictated who could date/marry whom (straights only, no interracial dating or marriage), where you could live (red zoning), what kind of work you could do (blue collar/white collar and gendered jobs), and what you did with grandma and grandpa when they got old.
Developmental Expectations and Social Norms
For white, middle-class youth, there were developmental expectations that went along with these social norms. For example, when you turned 18, you moved out of the house and either started your career in a blue-collar job or went to college.
Girls were expected to find a husband soon after they graduated (either high school or college) or to stay at home until they got married. Boys were expected to sow their oats and then settle down.
Mom stayed at home and Dad went to work. Grandma and Grandpa lived close by and, in their retirement, baby sat on occasion or volunteered. Then they disappeared from the picture, dying either by stroke, heart attack or pneumonia, usually in their mid-60s.
Dawning of the Age of Aquarius
That was how it used to be. When things changed in the 1970s, all hell broke loose! Formerly compliant children broke all manner of social norms, not just in what they wore, but in how they cohabitated and who they cohabitated with!
Moms who had stayed at home previously, moved into the workforce in large numbers. They read MS magazine and started consciousness raising groups. Blacks (still called Negros then) broke down real estate barriers and moved into White suburbs.
Too many young men returned from Viet Nam bearing scars that would impact them for the rest of their lives, and too many never came home. This generation saw the first humans to walk on the moon, the rise of the Hippies, and an unbelievable flowering of the arts, especially music.
Before We Were Baby Boomers
We weren’t known as Baby Boomers then; we were Flower Children. There was huge transformation in the social fabric as Flower Children grew into adulthood. Four things underscored this shift: 1) the eradication of polio and mass inoculations for childhood diseases (measles, mumps and chicken pox), 2) a stable economy (yes, I know there were periods of inflation), 3) public service campaigns for seat belts and smoking cessation, and 4) political change marked by peaceful protest.
One outcome of these factors was an increased lifespan along with improved quality of life. Because of Medicare (passed in 1965), more aging adults had access to medical care. Because the American economy was clicking along, more of us were able to have a five-day work week. Because of political protest, communities of color came together to demand changes be made to unfair and inequitable laws, and judges began to enforce these, and newly elected politicians saw that laws and regulations were changed.
The Gap Between Health Span and Quality of Life Span
According to the U.S. Census, in 1960 men could expect to live to age 66.6, on average, while women lived to age 73.1. This varied between races, with people of color living shorter lives. By 2020 (before COVID), life expectancy was 78.8 years. Even with COVID, that number has only dropped by a year. This is a huge increase in life span – they moved the goal line!
Erik Erikson’s Adult Stages of Psychosocial Development
The well-known developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, lived to a ripe old age of 91. His theory addressed what he called the “tasks” of life at different stages.
In early adulthood, Erikson suggested we work on skills related to intimacy and commitment to others. If successful, the result is a long and happy marriage and respect and standing in the community. If unsuccessful, the individual is unable to form lasting, loving commitments, resulting in isolation.
In middle age we are focused on family and community. If successful here, we find ourselves joining the PTA or church groups and seeing that we take care of our loved ones and our larger social circle. We also are focused on career goals, securing both status and standing at work and in our circles of influence. If unsuccessful, we take on Scrooge-like qualities, caring only for our own needs, often at the expense of others.
In later life, we taper down in our social roles, move at a quieter pace and confront the inevitability of our death. If we are successful, we review our life and come to terms with our short-comings and make amends as needed. If we are unsuccessful, we fear death and become bitter.
The Ninth Stage
When Erikson first published his theory back in 1950, his original eight stages fit neatly into the arc of life. By the time he died (1991), the lifespan had increased. So, in his final book, “The Life Cycle Completed,” he added a ninth stage to his model. This he called “gerotranscendance” – transcending age.
Joan Erikson, his wife and co-author, completed this book after her husband’s death. She writes:
To reach for gerotranscendance is to rise above, exceed, outdo, go beyond, independent of the universe and time. It involves surpassing all human knowledge and experience. . . Transcendance may be a regaining of lost skills, including play, activity, joy, and song, and above all, a major leap above and beyond the fear of death. It provides an opening forward into the unknown with a trusting leap. Oddly enough, this all demands of us an honest and steadfast humility. (p. 127)
Individual Gerotranscendance; Social Stagnation
With age we are inevitably faced with challenges. How we manage those challenges will either keep us stuck at a particular developmental stage no matter what our chronological age, or will broaden and enrich our lives creating more opportunities to fully experience what it means to be human.
Erikson’s model offers two possible outcomes for each stage suggesting that not all of us inevitably move on as we grow older. Right now, there are many Americans who seem stuck in the early adult stage, where they have not been successful in creating intimacy and instead, are experiencing feelings of isolation and not being understood. The consequence for those of us who have matured is akin to dragging a semi-truck behind us. It takes more work to move forward and it takes longer to cover all the ground.
Closing the Gap
Joan Erikson wrote, “…an individual life cycle cannot be adequately understood apart from the social context in which it comes to fruition… Erik notes: Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life.”… As a result, our society does not truly know how to integrate elders into its primary patterns and conventions or into its vital functioning. Rather than be included, aged individuals are often ostracized, neglected, and overlooked; elders are seen no longer as bearers of wisdom but as embodiments of shame.”
What the Eriksons did not factor into their model was the slower and even reductive pace of social change that is our lot. What seemed so hope-filled at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius is now a divergent antipathy between political parties, vast gaps in wealth, decimation of the environment, and a loss of trust in our political and justice systems.
So, while the goal line is further and further away, we are still acting as if the game is being played on the old field. That needs to change.
Erikson, E. and Erikson, J. The Life Cycle Completed (1997), W. W. Norton Company, New York