The Baby Boomers’ Dilemma: Generativity or Stagnation?

The Baby Boomers’ Dilemma: Generativity or Stagnation?


Jacqueline Gatewood, Psy.D.

I remember when my youngest was going through the tantrum phase; my friends were quick to advise: “It’s just a stage. He’ll outgrow it.” And so it was—just a stage, one of many.
It seems that life is made up of going through stages and, according to theorists, this continues over a person’s lifespan. Perhaps one of the most notable theories is Erik Erickson’s psychosocial stages of development.1 His theory proposes eight stages to be completed over the lifespan, each depending on a successful progression from the previous stage.
In view of the current attention given to the Baby Boomer generation (those born from 1946-1964), Erickson’s 45 to 65-year-old middle adulthood stage seven is of particular interest because successful navigation impacts contentment in later life. Erickson presents a profile of the developmental tasks of middle adulthood that focuses on career and family.2 The dilemma (struggle) is to reconcile the disparity (conflict) between generativity (caring for others) and stagnation (self-absorption).
Generativity is generally defined as the need to create, cultivate, or promote things that will be part of one’s legacy. The hallmarks are typically involvements in home, family, work, and community. Together, they bring a sense of fulfillment, usefulness, and accomplishment by contributing through caring for the current and future generations by transmitting one’s values.
Stagnation, on the other hand, tends to produce a sense of disconnect and lack of involvement and productivity in the world around us. There is a focus on “self” where one becomes self-absorbed and self-centered, resulting in choices that are primarily self-serving. Ryff and Heincke describe the stagnant adult as one who “views self as having little impact on others; shows little interest in sharing knowledge or experience with others; reveals excessive self-concern and self-preoccupation; feels no obligation to guide the younger generation.”3
Since post-World War II, the Baby Boomer cohort is the largest in the history of our nation (77 million born during 1946-1964, currently representing about 40% of our population).4 A great deal of literature has focused on this group, who is in Erickson’s stage seven. They have been described as hard working, competitive, well-educated, and usually defined by professional accomplishments. This generation tends to be independent, self-reliant and optimistic, believing they can change the world, often through challenging the established values and customs. They value individual choice, ownership, prosperity, and community involvement. Volunteerism is a distinct aspect of Boomers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 25.8 million volunteered in a formal organization in 2005, 4% higher than the national average.5
The New York Times writer, Bill Keller,6 states that the Boomer generation has also been described in more negative terms, such as entitled, spoiled rotten, self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish and making greed respectable; he points to Begala’s condemnation that they are “the worst generation.” Begala reports a personal conversation with Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation who suggests that the parents of Boomers wanted to compensate for their own deprivation.7 Given these characterizations, how can these individuals meet Erickson’s level of generativity if they embody these attributes?
Randall suggests that the Boomers “revolutionized our society in their youth, they’re expected to revolutionize what it means to age in America.”8 When considering Erickson’s stage seven with regard to generativity (giving back), this demographic seems to exhibit some of the characteristics expected in this stage. However, they are also accused of the absolute opposite. One needs to look at the societal environment that produced Boomers to better understand how these attributes may help or hinder a successful transition through middle adulthood.
According to Maples and Abney, Baby Boomers hold a different worldview than previous generations due, in part, to post-war prosperity.9 They have grown up with a fair degree of world peace, physical health, and expectations of a better quality of life, unlike their parents who experienced the Great Depression and the hardship and sacrifice required during world wars. Their views have been greatly influenced by mass media and advancements in technologies. The concerns about aging have proliferated an all-time high emphasis on being “forever young.” Growing up in a culture that glamorizes youth has produced a Boomer population obsessed with their looks. The Associated Press reports that Boomers will be spending “billions” to counter the aging process; the cosmetic industry (including plastic surgeries), currently an $80 billion business, is projected to make $114 billion by 2015.10
The experiences of older and younger Boomers have many similarities; however, the older cohort is reported to have benefited from the post-war “aura” of optimism more than the younger Boomers who are somewhat more cynical and disengaged. Nevertheless, both groups were either in or against the Vietnam War, participated in various rights movements (civil, women’s, equal opportunity, individual), and engaged in flagrant drug use (flower children and Woodstock). They are financially more secure. According to Alan Farnham of ABC News, a study by Met Life “anticipates an inter-generational transfer of wealth totaling $11.6 trillion, including some $2.4 trillion that has already been gifted.”11
Personal relationships have also undergone changes as evidenced by the rise in the divorce rate. Schlesinger reports that 35% of all Boomers are divorced, making this the majority of all divorced people in the U.S.12 He further suggests this may be why Boomers are waiting longer to marry (about four years). Marriage is one of the established values altered by this generation.
On the other hand, the recent downturn in our economy, with its devastating impact on the financial world, job market, and housing industry, has placed a potentially huge roadblock in the Boomer’s journey into middle adulthood and painted a rather bleak picture of the future. What issues will mental health counselors and clinicians expect in the upcoming years with regard to Baby Boomers? What therapeutic modalities might be recommended to facilitate?
The Boomer generation appears to be more amenable to engaging in the therapeutic process. As clinicians consider the issues facing this population, they will need to be prepared to address various issues:
• impulsive and/or addictive behaviors
• resentment over the unexpected changes in the economy
• feeling trapped with responsibilities (e.g., aging parents)
• overly concerned with appearance (remaining young)
• holding on to the past as time runs out
• depression
• thoughts of one’s own mortality

Navigating stage seven may require Boomers to:
• find new ways to be creative
• seek a rebirth of “purpose”
• face unexpected hardships
• remain employed longer
• reevaluate their values and spiritual foundations
• accept the inevitable aging process
• gain new appreciation for family and friends

The choices of various therapeutic modalities are plentiful. Maples mentions “reality therapy, milieu therapy, reminiscence groups, and extension of the life review and re-motivation therapy” to target new dimensions for their lives and focus on the positive aspects of aging.13 Some may benefit from Jungian therapy that addresses transitions—one stage of life to another with emphasis on self, motivation, and spirituality. Others may respond to a Rogerian approach with its client-centered focus or the “here-and-now” emphasis of Gestalt work. Group therapy offers a special bonus in that support networks can be developed.
Whatever the choice, there should be an emphasis on avoiding stagnation by exploring ways to “give back,” promote generativity, and successfully transition to the next stage. This is not just another stage; it is the reward of a fulfilled life.

Jacqueline Gatewood, Psy.D., resides in Arizona and is a faculty member in the graduate psychology program at the University of Phoenix. She is also a consultant in ethical issues and a member of “The Greatest Generation.”

1 Erickson, E.R. (1950). Childhood in society. W.W. Norton: New York.

2 Ibid.

3 Ryff, C.D., & Heincke, S.G. (1983). Subjective organization of personality in adulthood and aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(4), 807-816.

4 U.S. Census Bureau.

5 U.S. Department of Labor.

6 Keller, B. The entitled generation.

7 Begala, P. (April, 2000). The worst generation. Esquire, Hearst Publications.

8 Randall, R.L. (April, 24, 2012). Baby boomers’ defining characteristics could help them redefine aging in America.

9 Maples, M.F. & Abney, P. Gero-counselors prepare: The silver tsunami is headed our way. In G. Watz & R. Yep (Eds.). Compelling Perspectives on Counseling. VISTAS, 41-44.

10 Associated Press. Boomers will be spending billions to counter aging. August 18, 2012.

11 Farnham. A. Baby boomers to inherit trillions. ABC News, Dec. 27, 2010.

12 Schlesinger, R. Why are so many baby boomers divorced? CBS News, Dec. 15, 2010.

13 Maples, M.F. Spirituality, wellness and the “silver” tsunami: Implications for counseling.