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Who Guides the Next Generation? It’s Not (Just) Who You Think

Marital status, parenting, and guiding the next generation

"Generativity" is the term Erik Erikson used to describe "the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation." He contrasted generativity with "stagnation" in the 7th stage of his 8-stage model of personality development across the life span.

Dan McAdams is one of the leading psychologists in the study of identity, social motives, and life stories. Together with his co-author Ed de St. Aubin, he set out to develop and validate a scale to measure generativity and then see who is in fact nurturing and leading the next generation.

McAdams parts ways with Erikson in thinking that generativity can be a concern throughout adult life, and not just in middle adulthood, as Erikson suggested. So in his research, he included adults ranging in age from 19 to 68. The people he and his co-author recruited were not a representative national sample, but they were drawn from a number of different settings such as a supermarket, an urban hospital, and a community service agency.

Stereotypically, any measure of concern with the next generation would disfavor single people and anyone else who has no children. Even Erikson, though, did not assume that the stereotypes were true. He realized that not all parents are all that devoted to guiding the next generation, and that there are lots of ways to leave a mark other than by parenting. As McAdams and de St. Aubin noted, people can be generative:

"in a wide variety of life pursuits and in a vast array of life settings, as in work life and professional activities, volunteer endeavors, participation in religious and political organizations, neighborhood and community activism, friendships, and even one's leisure-time activities."

Here are some sample items from the 20-item Loyola Generativity Scale, designed to measure concern with the next generation:

  • I try to pass along the knowledge that I have gained through my experiences.
  • If I were unable to have children of my own, I would like to adopt children.
  • I have made many commitments to many different kinds of people, groups, and activities in my life.
  • I have a responsibility to improve the neighborhood in which I live.

The specific mention of children in one of the items would seem to favor people who are parents in their scores on the measure. The authors did compare parents to people who were not parents (separately from their marital status) and found that for men, parenting did matter. Fathers scored higher on generativity than men who were not fathers. For women, though, whether or not they were mothers made little difference in their concern for the next generation.

So what about marital status? The authors set aside anyone who was divorced or widowed, and just compared the married people to the people who had always been single. (So, as is typical in marital status research, the married group does not include everyone who ever got married. That select group is compared to all of the people who stayed single.)

Even with that possible advantage accorded to married people, they scored as no more concerned with the next generation than single people did. Whether they were men or women did not matter, either. Married men and single men, married women and single women, were all equally likely to contribute their guidance to the next generation.

McAdams, Dan P., & de St. Aubin, Ed. (1992). A theory of generativity and its assessment through self-report, behavioral acts, and narrative themes in autobiography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 1003-1015.

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