Posts Tagged ‘Erik Erikson’

Work and Philosophy: Psychological Interlude Chapter Two: Development (pt. ii)

December 3, 2012

Work and Philosophy:  Psychological Interlude

Chapter Two:  Development (pt. ii)



As people approach retirement, they enter the stage of Integrity vs. Despair.  We would expect that people would be concerned with the practicalities of retirement, such as pension and long-term health care.  However, Erikson says that the deeper need is to feel that one’s life was worthwhile.  The person who successfully resolves this stage has successfully resolved them all (even if retroactively) and will be content; the person who has not will be haunted by regrets, disgust, or possibly the desire to turn back the clock and somehow redo what was not done right before.   It would not be surprising then if many older workers, or managers, would want to return to the youth they let slip away too fast, or never really had.  No wonder that there should be a booming market for testosterone boosters and plastic surgery!  In the U.S.A. where the employer is often also the health care provider, this is a workplace issue.  Will employers provide health insurance that covers various varieties of medical rejuvenation?  Will older workers seeking to replay their Intimacy vs. Isolation battle side with younger workers dealing with Generativity vs. Stagnation, or will they seek to deny contraception coverage to them in order to fund their own Viagra?

Developmental theory suggests that what people want from work will change with time, and that people at different stages of life will have very different views of what is just or necessary.  This may lead different generations to clash over moral obligations of society and of employers, particularly if one or both sides of the conflict have failed to positively resolve some developmental crisis.  Erikson confirms that the younger, Stage 6 workers may well be sexually needy and promiscuous, or isolated and alienated, depending on how they failed to achieve real intimacy; and older workers or employers may see all young adults as examples of the maladaptation of some.  Likewise, some older workers can be greedy and cynical, self-important and dogmatic, or just bitter; and younger workers (or perhaps younger employers or managers) may come to see all older workers through that same lens.

Even leaving aside these potential generational conflicts, and dealing only with relatively well-adjusted people, the worker’s needs change with time, and his or her attitudes towards work will change.  The job that once seemed wonderful because of all the exciting, happy coworkers may come to seem dead-end or just trivial.  The job that was once prized for its opportunities may fail at delivering long-term security.  The stereotypical “good job” once implied you worked your whole life for one employer, retired with a pension and health benefits, and in between you were satisfied to get a good paycheck and fair raises for continued good work and loyalty to the company.  That has largely broken down.  Once one might be “married to the job;” but now most Americans change jobs and spouses pretty freely, and have even less faith in their employers than they do in their marriage partners.  Throughout the 1980’s until today, we have seen repeated, spectacular examples of companies driven into bankruptcy by the poor decisions, greed and sometimes utter criminality of their executives; and always, it is the workers who lose their pensions and health care while the executives bail out with golden parachutes.  For every one who goes to jail for a few years, hundreds go from prosperity to prosperity at new companies while their former employees are left in the rubble of the old ones.  Losing faith in the free market and employers to provide adequately for them regardless of their own efforts, many fight to preserve their Medicare and Social Security, while simultaneously attacking those who still have jobs and are demanding wage and health security for themselves.  Anyone who listened to the health care debates in 2009 will remember that while the pundits and demagogues framed their objections in terms of “individual liberty,” the loudest, most passionate and most repeated cries were, “Leave my Medicare alone!”

What has happened is that whereas health care was part of the worker-employer contract for many years, now more and more employers are finding ways to break that contract, or are just failing to honor it by failing to survive through the greed and folly of those at the top.  Consequently, over the years workers have sought to use government as part of the labor institution.  It would be the guarantor of last resort for pensions and health benefits, the arbiter in disputes of worker safety and fairness, and so on.  Younger workers, who often valued autonomy more than security, did not care for this and were happy enough with jobs that offered immediate paychecks and little else; older workers often cared only about preserving the benefits they relied on.  And the majority, in that Generativity vs. Stagnation, have conflicting priorities.  Some may want a more creative job; others a more flexible one that allows them to pursue non-work creativity and particularly family; others may want chances for advancement in exchange for their labor; and others, having fallen into the trap of self-absorption, cared only for immediate profits no matter the expense to others.

My point is, the notion of a “free market” hermetically sealed off from “government” is artificial.  Not only does the government intervene in the market for its own ends; those in the market need government to intervene, both to protect individuals from exploitation by others and to take up the slack when workers’ needs are not matched by their work opportunities.  Social Security and Medicare are interventions in the market, as Ayn Rand said; but before government intervened to provide them it was negotiated between employers and employees.  And by “negotiated,” of course, I mean workers in unsafe conditions receiving starvation wages; workers striking to try to force employers to pay a living wage; employers hiring thugs to beat up strikers; strikers fighting back, attacking scabs, rioting; and the government finally intervening in the form of police joining the strikebreakers.  And when unions are outlawed, as they often were, then only outlaws have unions; no wonder the Mafia took them over!

In the intersection between law, developmental psychology and work, the law and employers do intervene to regulate the Intimacy vs. Isolation activities of workers—-generally in favor of Isolation.  The company picnics and office parties that used to encourage non-business interaction between coworkers have largely vanished, partly due to legal liabilities.   The employer who can keep the worker as busy and tied to the job as possible will see profits; whether that satisfies the worker’s psychological needs is the worker’s problem.  The Generativity vs. Isolation crisis was traditionally resolved by having the father work and seek career advancement, while the mother took care of the family side of generativity.  Employers, for their parts, knew they had to pay the man enough to support his family on one paycheck.  Now, employers know they can effectively get the same worker for half the price, since workers accept that both spouses will work; what was once a choice or luxury for many is now the social default.  In addition, most marriages end in divorce, and most parents will end up as either both employees and primary caregivers of children, or paying child support.  For younger workers (Stage 6) this may be seen as a future problem only; and for older ones (Stage 8) it is the past.  Will either be willing to give up some potential wages or benefits for someone else’s problem?  Will they be willing to pay taxes to help Stage 7 workers meet their workplace needs?  When workers have needs the marketplace won’t meet, they will seek other means to meet those needs, which very often means appealing to government.  And in addition to class and gender differences, generational and developmental differences may place working citizens in conflict with one another, turning the marketplace and the political sphere into a single continuous battlefield.

Work and Philosophy: Psychological Interlude Chapter Two: Development (pt. i)

November 26, 2012

Work and Philosophy:  Psychological Interlude

Chapter Two:  Development



Like gender, developmental psychology is a topic philosophy has tended to downplay.  Most philosophers, before the 19th Century at least, have tended to look for the essential human nature, or the nature of “personhood.”  If developmental realities were accommodated at all, it was to ask when personhood emerged and whether it could be lost; so there was one normative human state, and other stages of life were measured relative to these.  Within adulthood, personhood tended to be seen as fairly static; one either is or is not a person.  Aristotle has some notion of what we might call “stages of life,” when he identifies middle age as the only truly good life.[1]  Before the age of 30, a man lacks the maturity and steadiness of emotion to be truly happy; after 40, he begins to lose the autonomy necessary, and becomes old and bitter in life (and if he’s not a man, or is poor, he also lacks autonomy and cannot live the truly good life).

Medical psychology has dealt with developmental theory since Freud devised his theory of the psychosexual stages of life:  oral, anal and genital.  These biological theories have been elaborated and adjusted by generations of Freudian theorists since, most remarkably by Carol Gilligan, who shifted away from Freud’s male-normative theory to a more gynocentric understanding of human nature.  More universally influential, and more useful for my purposes is the theory of Erik Erikson, and the psychosocial eight stages of life.[2]  Rather than exclusively discuss the biological and sexual maturity of the individual, Erikson focused primarily on the social life and history of the individual.  Essentially, he identified eight stages of social development that every person must go through, each with its particular crisis.  The person who positively resolves the challenges of that stage is better equipped to move on to the next one; the person who doesn’t, is handicapped and possibly trapped in a state of arrested development.  It is possible to revisit past stages, to try to set right what went wrong.  Also, the stages are not rigid; the six-year old might be working through Stage 3 or 4, or transitioning between both at the same time, so two people of the same age might have different psychological agendas.  However, the broader reality is that our human nature changes as we age, and what we seek from life will vary.

For my purposes (examining the intersection of philosophy and psychology in understanding the concept of work) the most relevant are the stages that encompass a typical working life:  stages 6-8.  From 18-40, approximately, the young adult is typically working out the crisis of Intimacy vs. Isolation.  Having moved out of the family home, one is trying to establish an identity as an independent adult, establishing new peer relationships, looking for love, and so on.  When this goes right, one meets a love partner with whom one can form a family, setting the stage for the next phase of life.  When it is not navigated successfully, one can end up isolated, lonely, alienated and/or socially withdrawn.

From about 30-50, the adult is dealing with the conflict between Generativity and Stagnation.  Here, one is trying to achieve, to be creative, to be successful.  One of the primary areas of concern is also the most primal:  reproduction and parenthood.  However, there are other areas of creativity with which one can become concerned as well, such as satisfaction and achievement at work; and these can come into conflict with each other.  The essential point is not just physical reproduction, but the wider move beyond self-interest into unconditional giving, contributing to the world and the society that has nurtured one up to this point.

Somewhere after the age of 50, one enters into the stage of Integrity vs. Despair.  One begins to face up to one’s mortality, and starts to look back on life.  The positive individual will integrate the life that he or she has led, and be able to accept and celebrate it overall and leave it in relative peace; the negative will be filled with regrets and resentments.  As parents, one would be seeing one’s children leave home (perhaps), become adults, begin careers and families of their own.  One might see how one’s life will continue on in the future, through the energy passed on to one’s descendents.

The vocational counseling I have received (and as a former candidate of the Presbyterian ministry, I have undergone a veritable battery of screening and counseling sessions) has not dealt much with gender or developmental issues, and with some reason.  To say to someone, “Your developmental stage is not right for this job,” would be like saying, “Your gender is not right.”  It is not right, and in some cases it is legally forbidden to tell a person that he or she is the wrong age or wrong gender for a specific job.  On the other hand, it is important and worthwhile to take one’s own psychological needs into account, and to realize how the needs of others will affect what they see as “fair and just” in the workplace.  Erikson’s theories suggest that as young adults enter the workplace, they should have resolved most of their identity crises already.  If they have not, they are liable to “maladjustment” or even neurosis.  They may still be fighting what should have been old battles, and they can in fact still win them; others may be stuck reliving lost battles from high school for the rest of their lives.  But for the “normal” ones who are “on schedule,” the young adults are most likely to see the workplace as one more arena for social interaction with peers.  Before one can firmly deal with the notion of building a career, one needs to finish building one’s self identity; and that is done by positively resolving the Intimacy vs. Isolation conflict.  The person who voluntarily or involuntarily sacrifices all social life for work risks later feelings of isolation and worthlessness.  As Ecclesiastes puts it:  “Again, I saw vanity under the sun:  the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. “[3]  If one is to avoid seeing one’s own life as “vanity and an unhappy business,” one must have more than just work; one must have friends, and hopefully love and family.  The person who builds Stage Seven on a broken Stage Six will pay for it later with stagnation and regret.  But if younger workers are seeking social opportunities, workplaces are increasingly worried about the effects of failed relationships; so they may seek to limit worker interactions.  Some companies forbid coworkers from dating; others require them to sign a “dating contract” with the company to basically establish that the company will not be liable for any negative fallout.  And more broadly, my wife’s former boss (and this was a religious institution!) told employees they were not allowed to socialize outside the workplace—not just “no dating” but no meeting outside the workplace at all.  Assuming this were enforceable, it would be unfair to any worker, but really deadly to younger ones who are just now working to establish peer relationships.  By contrast, a workplace that seeks to give workers what they need might want to find ways to allow safe, controlled but still autonomous worker-to-worker interactions—-because workers will find ways to interact, and the employer who unreasonably attempts to squelch a basic human need of the employees will simply be ignored and circumvented.  If employers want to be kept in that particular loop, they need to recognize its validity for employees.

The bulk of one’s working life will be spent in Stage Seven.  This is the age of parenthood for many, of midlife crises for some, of concern for career advancement and recognition.  It is the time of “giving back.”  Andrew Carnegie said that the first half of one’s life should be spent in making money, and the second half in giving it away.  Erikson would see the sense in that.  Now that one has one’s love, one’s friends, one’s family, Erikson says one should stop worrying about oneself and start focusing on the others in one’s life.  And once one has given oneself to them as much as they require, one should start unconditional giving back to the world.  The person who has failed to positively resolve this crisis, Erikson says, falls into “stagnation” or “self-absorption.”  As writer Alan Chapman put it;


Stagnation is an extension of intimacy which turns inward in the form of self-interest and self-absorption. It’s the disposition that represents feelings of selfishness, self-indulgence, greed, lack of interest in young people and future generations, and the wider world.



Interestingly, that seems to be the primary conflict in our political discourse today.  Some argue “it takes a village to raise a child,” that we have to look at how what we do will affect “the least of these,” and how our actions affect the wider world and the future.  Others argue that “greed is good,” that taxing them to help others is “punishing me for my success,” and that worrying about the future (global warming, educating the next generation, etc.) would hurt today’s prosperity and chance to immediately enjoy life.  More specifically, in the workplace we can see that worker satisfaction is going to be tied up with opportunities to positively express and resolve the needs of generativity, and that conflicts will occur as people are drawn into greed, selfishness and immediate self-indulgence.  For many, the need for generativity will mean opportunities for career advancement; for others, it will mean opportunities for parenthood and family.  And many will want a workplace that allows for both, rather than setting family and career in conflict.  This is the age where one wants to work and one wants one’s work to have positive results, both for oneself and for the wider world.  On the other hand, those who are not successfully resolving the question of generativity are likely to be moved by selfishness alone, so many will be pushed by greed and self-absorption.  The workplace will have to accommodate them too, either by allowing their self-absorption, harnessing and manipulating it (the stereotypical “capitalist” position), or by creating opportunities to more positively resolve the generativity issue.

To be continued….

[1] Susan Haslip, “Aristotle’s Theory of the Good Life:  A Consideration of the Role of Luck in the Good Life and the Concept of Self-Sufficiency;”  Quodlibet Journal volume 5, number 1, 2003 (

[2] For a short summary, see “Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Crisis Life Cycle Model:  the eight stages of human development; ( accessed October 11, 2012.

[3] Ecclesiastes 4:7-8