The Stories We Tell: Themes of generativity and redemption

By Lisa Stone, BA

By nature, human beings are story tellers. We like to tell stories of heroes, villains, families, love, war, and the average person. Research also indicates that we think of our lives as stories, or as a narrative. The older you get, the more complex and richer your story becomes. Dr. Dan McAdams is a professor of psychology at Northwestern University who has spent his career researching common themes in people’s life stories. He has especially looked at how the life stories of individuals change over the course of adulthood. One theme that has been persistent throughout his research is the idea of generativity.

What is Generativity?
Generativity is a concept developed by psychologist Erik Erikson in the 1950s. It refers to the concerns individuals feel for the next generation. People who are highly generative care about the well-being of future generations and work to positively contribute to their future. Generativity can be displayed in a multitude of ways, including parenting, volunteering, activism, and mentoring. Erikson believed that generativity developed when people entered midlife, around age 40. In his research, McAdams has found that this concern for future generations begins in middle adulthood but extends beyond and continues throughout older adulthood.

What Does a Generative Life Story Look Like?
In their research, McAdams and his team interview hundreds of adults, asking them to tell the story of their lives, from childhood until the present. His team then analyzes the narratives people tell and look for common themes. Adults with high levels of generative themes usually talk about the meaning they derive from watching their children and other family members develop, the community activities they engage in, and the civic responsibility they feel for the future generations. Overall, generative middle-aged and older adults reference a concern for the future at a higher frequency.

 How Does a Generative Life Story Develop?
McAdams is particularly interested in how adults develop generativity and how they communicate it through their life stories. A common theme developed, which McAdams calls “redemption.” Those that frame their narrative as redemptive often have six major events that comprise their life story.

  1. Early Advantage. They begin by telling about an advantage they had early in life – a special advantage, blessing, or a “call” to do good in the world.
  2. Suffering of Others. Generative adults then discuss how they had an experience in which they witnessed the suffering or death of others.
  3. Moral Steadfastness. Next, these individuals talk about how they developed a clear sense of right and wrong and discuss that they stuck to these values for the rest of their lives.
  4. Generative adults talk about how they had a negative experience (a death, divorce, job loss) that lead to a positive outcome in the end (strengthened religious connection, a happier life, a better job).
  5. Power vs. Love. Throughout their stories, generative adults talk about their struggle between power (having a good job, attaining success) and love (raising a family, having a good marriage).
  6. Prosocial Goals. The life story usually ends by the adult discussing their goals for the future that involve furthering their community and broader society.

 The life story of redemption is well-suited for the generative older adult. It talks about how the storyteller was fortunate from early on in life, realized the world isn’t perfect, experienced their own negative event, and then worked to make the world better for future generations. Older adults become generative because over the course of their lifetime, they saw first-hand the problems in the world and felt the need to be a positive part of the future. Dr. Dan McAdams’ research gives us a positive way to frame the story of our lives and serves as an inspiration for all of us to be more generative and positive in the world we live.

For additional support related to your life story, contact the UCCS Aging Center at 719-255-8002.

Lisa Stone is a UCCS clinical psychology doctoral student and psychology trainee at the UCCS Aging Center. For more information, contact her at lstone4@uccs.edu or call the Aging Center at 719-255-8002. Visit https://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/foley/ for more information about Dr. Dan McAdam’s research into life stories.

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