What Is Generativity? Erikson's Generativity vs Stagnation

January 22, 2021

by Pam Boney


There is certainly a difference between a sapling and a full-grown plant, and it’s understood that even a colossal tree begins as a tiny shoot.  Humans, too, start small in a physical sense. But many of us recognize the life trajectory where we learn things over the months and years, often yielding a more developed persona later in life.  Our invisible personality changes over time, sometimes for better and sometimes not.  

As plants and trees develop, they can contribute nutrients to their ecosystem (e.g., phosphorus to the soil (for plants), leaf matter to herbivores, and oxygen to the air). Similarly, as individuals grow and age, they have the capacity to contribute resources to their communities.  When we change for the better, we tend to bestow assets to the system within which we reside (a term for this is “generativity''), but when the opposite comes to pass, we may instead make withdrawals and become a burden to the system.

What Is Generativity?

One theory that involves the idea of generativity is credited to Erik Erikson, which entails phases individuals navigate as they age and mature.  In his framework, the generativity definition is “primarily the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation, although there are individuals who, through misfortune or because of special or genuine gifts in other directions, do not apply this drive to their own offspring (p. 267).”  A more general generativity psychology definition is “the propensity and willingness to engage in acts that promote the wellbeing of younger generations as a way of ensuring the long-term survival of the species.”


Generativity vs Stagnation is the seventh stage of psychosocial development according to Erik Erikson. This happens around the ages of 40-65 after the other 6 theoretical life stages. The stage of generativity vs stagnation targets society in general as opposed to targets that tend to be more self-interested.

Someone who has reached the Generativity (versus Stagnation) stage is grappling with whether to use personal resources to benefit others (whether or not the benefactor is related by any or none of genes, family ties, or personal relationships to the beneficiaries). Generativity examples can include caring and showing your kids about life and guiding them through situations, people who volunteer in community work, environmental activism, or sports involvement. Examples of stagnation include maintaining great distance from others and refusing to lend aid to neighbors. In such cases, one can even become a detriment to society by using resources generated by others without some sort of requisite contribution to balance it out.  

Since Erikson’s stage of Generativity vs Stagnation is theorized to occur between the ages of 40 and 65, those who successfully embody generativity tend to be the people who have fruitfully completed the earlier stages of psycho-social development  (though it is not impossible, according to Erikson’s theory, to embody generativity even if one has passed through a prior stage unsuccessfully).  An individual behaving in a way that produces generativity encourages the next generations to continually expand their knowledge and personas.  Also typical for generative individuals is that they elicit passion within others for a range of domains including work, life, and the process of making new things. 

Supplemental Findings and their Utility for Businesses

For a more comprehensive background in generativity as it relates specifically to the work context, the following three paragraphs provide a smattering of generativity findings from various sources. First, in contrast to Erikson’s ideas distinguishing age forty as the beginning of the seventh stage of development, Peterson and Stewart witnessed the generativity versus stagnation struggle emerge earlier (i.e., in young adults).  Second, the notion that personal productivity is an antecedent for generativity has been supported. These, taken together, are good news for managers who encourage subordinates of a wide range of ages to perform well in their occupations.  

Third, two aspects (specifically “summed power” and “intimacy motivation”) of the Thematic Apperception Test (or TAT; a projective test of personality and of mental patterns) demonstrated predictive power for ensuing generative intentions.  Similar to using SAT scores to predict subsequent student performance in undergraduate studies, this knowledge could potentially be valuable if managers (who have the resources to deploy the TAT to subordinates or who have access to subordinates’ past TAT scores) are trying to determine who will later engage in generativity.  Those scoring low could be included in generativity development efforts to bridge the gap.  

Finally, two authors identified people scoring high on the breadth of interest and innovation to be more generative (where the breadth of interest is understood to mean the individual has a larger set of passions).  In a manner similar to our comment concerning the predictive power of certain TAT elements for future generativity, managers could potentially score subordinates for these two personality constructs if they want to assess the likelihood of certain individuals exhibiting generativity.  These findings and the findings about the TAT provide managers with a potential starting point — with some go-to constructs to measure and assess if they are trying to identify good candidates for generativity development.  

Unique Manifestations of Generativity Inside and Outside of the Work Context

A specific form of generativity is technical generativity.  An individual engaging in technical generativity is concerned with sharing personal skills and knowledge that benefit others.  Examples include a doctor teaching wound diagnosis, a chef explaining proper knife skills, and a writer providing coaching on how to optimally develop a story’s plot.  In all three of these examples, someone is teaching skills to a learner.

This provides an organic segue into some relevant generativity findings on teachers and the applicability of those findings for business coaches (like those working for Tilt 365).  Individuals in the teaching profession can make a vast, positive impact on the next generation due to the fact that teachers are in contact with students for so many of students’ developmental years.  We feel this finding can be extended to any organization in the coaching and development business sector since coaches tend to interact extensively with the people they support in personal transformation. Many clients go on to have a positive effect on the many people they lead or influence, long beyond the coaching engagement.

Thus, it is vital that teachers, coaches, and other professionals strongly embody generativity to maximize their influence on their pupils and clients. If certain instructors are found wanting in this realm, enabling them to participate in training and development that cultivate stronger sentiments of generativity would be beneficial. Since everyone (regardless of education, job description, or status within an organization) can, at some level, develop generativity, our belief is that this concept of generativity training and development is also relevant and viable for anyone in a business setting (even if they are not teachers or coaches).

Generativity as an Asset to Businesses and Society

We at Tilt 365 define generativity as “A cognitive pattern characterized by a well-developed set of character strengths and a balanced, fulfilled life.  Its outcomes include contributions to the world at large that extend beyond the individual actor.” Companies that are intentional about practicing generativity are going to be cognizant of the people they serve and their impact on them. This sense of responsibility is something we want to diffuse through society because it is vital for companies to care about their workers and the footprint they leave locally. Every time a business decides it is going to pursue generativity, that is a win for that organization because it means that they have made the commitment to cultivate any relevant business strengths present in their employees (e.g., the strengths of empathy, focus, trust, or confidence).  

Increased confidence might result in a more coherent presentation to upper management by a newer employee, and enhanced focus could enable a team to finalize an important project well before the deadline.  Even if individual teams within an organization commit to acting generatively, we believe the repercussions can be profound.  In terms of the benefit to the workplace itself, these repercussions of generativity can include enhanced work motivation and affective organizational commitment.  Also, in terms of potential benefits to society at large, individual teams practicing generativity could result in sponsorships between local youth sports teams (e.g., in which a team member’s child participates) and the relevant company.

Tilt’s Work with Generativity

With respect to our efforts to proliferate generativity, we believe we are providing not just business exchanges but also psychological gains and enhanced emotional well-being. Given that we are in the professional training and coaching field, we understand the need for strengths development in our various communities and organizations.  Tilt, therefore, values all of the following:  

  • Helping the next generation directly (which can manifest in encouraging those individuals to practice generativity), 
  • Convincing people that generativity is important both because of its value for the generative individual and also because of its impact on the next generation, and
  • Enhancing profitability within organizations by increasing the human-capital-enhancement capabilities of those organizations through enhanced generativity among managers and senior employees with respect to knowledge sharing.

When working toward a robust set of character strengths characteristic of generativity, the first step is to know what strengths you possess and what strengths you lack so that you know where to focus your energies.  Tilt’s True Tilt Personality Profile™ (TTP) and Positive Influence Predictor™ (PIP) strengths assessment enable the user to identify which character strengths they easily embody and which character strengths they need to work on developing.  Also, the PIP allows observers to rate an individual on perceived character strengths, potentially providing insights into blind spots.  Similarly, Tilt’s Team Agility Predictor (TAP) can help your team hone its strengths, enabling further generativity.  


Just as a farmer’s apple trees and livestock are her assets, people are important resources to a company.  If a farmer fails to fertilize and water her apple trees, there won’t be much fruit at harvest time.  Similarly, it would be a significant missed opportunity if organizations fail to develop the strengths of their workforce.  

As seen in the content of this blog, the concept of generativity is very much about developing human resources.  Incorporating our assessments is a great strategy for maximizing the potential of your teams. 

How will your organization focus its energies when our assessments identify strengths that need to be developed in your human capital?