Generativity in Retirement

March 15, 2010

In a recent article, New York Times Columnist David Brooks opined that, under the banner of “generativity,” senior citizens – who have the time, energy and the tools in his view – should band together to demand “changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren.” Mister Brooks says he has lost faith in our political leadership to effect the needed changes. It thus falls to our seniors to organize in support of lower benefits for seniors in order to provide more freedom, opportunity and financial wherewithal for later generations.

Well. I didn’t find Brooks’ arguments as presented in his article to be particularly persuasive but I believe he has a point that is worthy of attention. I’ll describe why I think that is the case, but first, what is this “generativity” thing?

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) was a famous psychoanalyst who studied the social development of humans. In his view, humans progress through eight “stages” of psychosocial development beginning with our first year of lives when we decide whether or not we are going to trust our parents, and progressing until the end of our lives at which time we hopefully will have achieved what he calls “wisdom.” The stage with which most people may be familiar is that of our teenage years when we have what he terms an “identity crisis” as we try to sort out who we are in relation to everyone else. (Of course, some of us may be familiar with people who are still trying to figure that out much later in life). Some people refer to Erikson’s stages as “tasks” that we need to complete in our lives.

“Generativity” is the term Erikson uses to describe an unselfish concern for the well being of future generations that arises during the middle years of our lives in the seventh of his development stages. In his view if we fail to develop this concern or caring for those who follow us chronologically, we stagnate in self-absorption and may well fail to find any meaning in our lives leading to what Elliott Jacques called a “mid-life crisis.”

In Erikson’s view, generativity is much larger than bearing and nurturing our children. It is larger than passing on information. It is more about passing on a culture of caring; of a society concerned with giving rather than getting; of a responsibility for protecting our seed corn rather than consuming it; of the need to preserve our physical world for those who follow, of preserving values that will sustain future generations through their challenges, as the values we have received from our forebears have supported us.

OK. If the above describes “generativity” (albeit in very brief and simplified form) what does it have to do with retirement?

John Kotre in his excellent book Outliving the Self has refined and distilled Erikson’s view of generativity to: a desire to invest one’s substance in forms of life and work that will outlive the self. We can do this at any point in our lives and many people do it throughout their lives. But when it comes to retirement, this is our last shot at it. And it may be our best shot – why is it that parents are frequently better at being grandparents than they were at being parents? Why does the desire to be teacher, helper, guide, coach, big brother/big sister (even if not always acted on) grow as we get older? Is it generativity at work? I think so. As we get closer to the end of our lives, I believe our concern with what we leave behind grows.

To Mr. Brooks’ point: seniors consume an outsize portion of our society’s financial resources and that portion is destined to grow. This leaves fewer and probably inadequate resources for the education of our young and in support of the economic growth needed to sustain our society for the long term.

So what can a senior in a generative frame of mind do to help? I suggest four things:

Social Security: Support gradually increasing the social security retirement age for full benefits to 69 as recommended by the American Academy of Actuaries. Better health care and healthier living have increased life expectancy and working lives. Social Security’s retirement age has not kept pace. Also, support changing Social Security’s inflation adjustment to be in line with actual inflation rather than the (higher) CPI.

Medicare: Support raising the age for Medicare eligibility in line with the Social Security retirement age. Also support reducing the taxpayer subsidies for Parts B and D for financially independent seniors.

Health Care Reform: Lobby for health care reform (not expansion) to reduce and control expenses, e.g. replace the employer-based health care tax exemption with a federal tax credit; implement tort reform; eliminate state regulation of insurance and create a national marketplace for coverage. Once costs are under control, then look at expansion issues.

End of Life Care: Finally, one item each of us can contribute without needing to wrestle with the federal octopus: implement a living will and a health care proxy to dictate our desired end of life health care. A “living will” tells health care providers and others about your wishes regarding treatment if you are in a coma or have become mentally incompetent and are not able to consult with them directly. A “health care proxy” designates someone you trust to make medical decisions that are in your best interests, as you have described them, if you are not able to make those decisions yourself.

Why are these two documents important? When asked, almost nine in ten seniors say they do not want their lives prolonged as long as possible through extraordinary means; rather, they’d prefer to be kept comfortable without extraordinary measures being taken. The living will and health care proxy help assure those wishes are followed. However less than 10% of seniors have put these documents in place. About 30% of all Medicare dollars are expended during the last year of life and the bulk of that is expended in the last few weeks. We spend enormous amounts of money prolonging the process of dying. Why? When the time comes, let us choose to pass on with grace and in comfort rather than in a desperate attempt to forgo the inevitable for a few more weeks. This brings me to Erikson’s eighth and final stage of development.

Erikson called his final stage “ego integrity” in which we, facing the end of our lives, accept that we have had success and failures, that we have lived our lives and grown old and that death is inevitable and soon to be upon us. If we are able to do this and face death with a healthy detachment, Erikson says we have developed wisdom. With respect to generativity at this stage he notes: “healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.”

R. Kevin Price

© 2008-2010 R.K. Price