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Interview: Australians Reach Out to Future Generations


Dr. Jeni Warburton

Recently, Dr. Jeni Warburton and her colleagues at The Australasian Centre on Ageing, used Erik Erikson’s theory of generativity as a lens to study how older Australians view involvement in their families and communities, and how they understand successful aging.

The study involved 184 culturally and ethnically diverse Australians living in the state of Queensland. They ranged in age from 55 to 93 years and included males and females from a mix of socio-economic backgrounds. The study is published in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development (Volume 63, Number 2, 2006).

AHB wanted to learn more, so we tracked Dr. Warburton down in Brisbane, Australia.

Ruth Dempsey: What is generativity? And why is Erikson’s theory important?

Jeni Warburton: Although there are many theories of human development, few have explored changes in the second half of life. Instead, most have said the physical, psychological and emotional aspects of the self decline as people age. The primary exception to this negative view of later life is the work of Erik Erikson, a pupil of Sigmund Freud.

Erikson believed personality development takes a lifetime. He describes development as a series of eight stages, each presenting a unique challenge or crisis for psychological growth. The successful resolution of each crisis creates a new facet of personality.

Generativity and its polar opposite, stagnation, is the seventh stage of Erikson’s model. It occurs in middle to late adulthood. The final challenge in the eighth stage is between integrity and despair as people try to make sense of their lives in old age.

Generativity is about investing time and energy in caring for others. Generative activities include emotional support for young people, involvement in the community and caring for grandchildren.

The fact that Erikson, unlike others, includes later life in his theory of lifespan development highlights the possibilities of aging. It focuses on the ways older people can contribute to society and live positive lives.

RD: Specifically, you looked at how older Australians view their involvement in the community . . .

JW: Yes, we interviewed diverse groups of older people. And many described how they and their peers contribute to their families and their communities in ways that can be called "generative acts". Most regarded these activities as a very positive dimension of their lives.

By contrast, some participants described the dangers and risks associated with the opposite scenario, which included withdrawal, boredom or isolation.

They described generativity as passing on what they had learned through life to the younger generation. This included their values: teaching the young the importance of caring for and consideration for others. Some talked about passing on cultural traditions and others about providing support to families, particularly as grandparents.

RD: Perhaps you can elaborate a bit more on how they see relationships?

JW: Respondents, for example, agreed that being a grandparent was quite different from being a parent. It required less responsibility and it was more fun.

Many older people described a special relationship with the young. Many of these were family relationships, but others talked of being a "surrogate grandparent" to neighbourhood children. One woman described how she liked to cook with the children next door. She felt both she and the children benefited from the relationship.

Others described relationships with troubled young people, and how older people have a special role here. This was particularly the case with older Indigenous people, who described helping young men through the court system or with addictions.

RD: They see their involvement as a two-way street. Is that right?

JW: Yes, most respondents described passing on their experiences, wisdom and values to the young as a way of making society a better place. In return, these acts boosted their own feelings of satisfaction and well-being. Some even suggested that they had got more back than they had given.

Other respondents talked about the reciprocal and cyclical nature of family relationships. You help them out when there is a need, and they help you when you need it. Building a strong grandparent relationship can provide mutual support.

RD: They feel strongly about passing on their culture?

JW: Yes, some respondents described passing on "dying" arts such as crochet or bread-making.

In a migrant country like Australia, the older generation is the one with experience of the home country. So they can pass on traditional knowledge relating to weddings or christenings, for example.

Among Australia’s Indigenous population, the elders have a formal cultural role. They enact welcomings, they perform ceremonies and tribal customs. They also pass on stories of their history and culture to the younger generation, describing their links with the land.

RD: This suggests older people can make an important contribution to the community, what barriers do they face?

JW: Our study shows older people can contribute to strengthening community. Many respondents were actively engaged in supporting future generations.

However, I would say that there is still plenty of work to be done to challenge the stereotypical view that aging is a time of loss and decline. Ageism is still prevalent across western countries, and, as a result, older people themselves tend to underestimate their value.

RD: Finally, I wonder, if there is something that stands out for you?

JW: Yes. Many older people actively contribute to society. And without their contributions, our communities would be poorer places.

Editor’s Note: Readers interested in learning more about Erikson’s theory, can check out: Life Cycle Completed (W.W. Norton: 1998). This extended version contains new chapters by Joan Erikson on the ninth stage of development. Also, see A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from An Unconventional Woman (Broadway) by Joan Anderson.