Erik Erikson on Identity Development and Generational Change

Erik Erikson’s material on identity development is a useful resource when considering the emergence of distinct generational values.

Life Story

Erik EriksonWhen looking at Erikson’s theories it’s helpful to look at his personal context.

Erik was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1902. His mother was Karla Abrahamson who raised him alone for the first three years of his life. His biological father was Danish and left the home before Erik was born. He was adopted by his Jewish stepfather and took the name Erik Homberger. As a child Erik was rejected by his Jewish neighbours because of his Nordic looks. At school he was teased for being Jewish. It’s not much wonder Eric became interested in the development of identity!

Erik became an artist and a teacher in the 1920s, changing his name to Erikson. Erickson married Joan Serson in 1930 while studying at Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. On graduation he moved to Boston where he established a psychoanalysis practice. He enrolled in a doctoral program at Harvard but dopped out after a few months. Eventually Erikson taught at Harvard. He won the Pulitzer prize for his writing on Mahatma Gandhi. He died in 1994.

Erikson Theories

Erikson outlined an intrinsic relationship between psychosocial and psychosexual stages. He taught that psychosocial development incorporates the influences of society, history, and culture. He worked to develop theories that could encompass the entire lifespan development, building on Freud’s five stages of early life.

Erikson focused his work around the ‘epigenetic principle’ in which all developmental stages are present at birth but unfold according to an innate plan, with each stage building on preceding stages and paving way for subsequent stages.

Erikson’s eight psychosocial stages of development are:

  1. Trust versus Mistrust
    First year of life
    Is my world predictable or supportive?
    Conflict centred on learning to trust others & the world
    ‘I am what I am given’
    Central Task: Receive Care
  2. Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt
    2nd and 3rd years of life
    Can I do things myself or must I always rely on others?
    Conflict created by growing self control pitted against feelings of shame or doubt
    ‘I am what I will be’
    Central Task: Imitation
  3. Initiative versus Guilt
    4th through to 6th years of life
    Am I good or am I bad?
    Conflict centred on learning to take initiative instead of feeling guilty about one’s actions
    ‘I am what I can imagine I will be’
    Central Task: Identification
  4. Industry versus Inferiority
    Age 6 through to puberty
    Am I competent or am I worthless?
    Conflict arises when feelings of inferiority develop if industrious behaviour is discouraged
    ‘I am what I will learn’
    Central Task: Education
  5. Identity versus Role Confusion
    Who am I and where am I going?
    Conflict involves establishing a consistent personal identity
    ‘Who am I?’
    Central Task: Role Experimentation
  6. Intimacy versus Isolation
    Early adulthood
    Shall I live my life with another or live alone?
    Conflict centred on establishing intimacy with friends, family, lover or spouse
    ‘We are what we love’
    Central Task: Caregiving
  7. Generativity versus self-absorption
    Middle adulthood
    Will I produce something of real value?
    Conflict between stagnant self-interest & interest in future generations
    ‘I am what I create’
    Central Task: Creativity
  8. Integrity versus Despair
    Late adulthood
    Have I lived a full life?
    Conflict between sense of personal integrity & despair over regretted life events
    ‘I am what survives of me’
    Central Task: Introspection

Later students of Erikson added two more stages to cater for an extended adolescence and an extended later adulthood.

  • Group Identity versus Alienation
    Early Adolescence (12-18)
    Who am I with?
    Conflict between conformity and standing alone
    ‘I belong’
    Central Task: Peer Group
  • Immortality versus Extinction
    Old Age (75 years – death)
    Who will succeed me?
    Conflict between legacy and loss
    Central Task: Social Support

Generations and Identity Development

So what are the connections between Erikson’s eight stages and the development of emerging generations? Some generational theorists have claimed that distinct generational values are formed in the years of early adulthood in which whole generations are affected by nation-wide or world-wide common experiences. If we take Erikson’s work seriously we have to consider the effect of parenting styles and education approaches on whole generations. A cohort who grow up unsure of identity are likely to approach early adulthood with a handicap. The healthy nurture of new generations could be stunted by a cohort who focus on their own self-interest at the expense of children, adolescents and early adults.

The Generations in Conversation group looked at how the church resources people in each of these psychosocial stages. Of particular interest was the tension between the early adult and middle adult stages. Worship styles made popular by groups such as Hillsong are focusing on the quest for intimacy experienced by early adults. ‘Praise and worship’ songs are full of the language of love. We noticed that many people in their thirties and older are tiring of this approach and are looking for a spirituality that leads to action rather than intimacy.

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