The process of aging is not a smooth, continuous trajectory from youth to old age. It happens in several distinct, identifiable steps or stages. These stages are actually demarcated by significant life events—the last child leaving home, a promotion, retirement—but colloquially and emotionally we tend to think of aging’s stages as decades: our fifties, the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, and beyond. A birthday with a zero—my God, I’m fifty!—is a major, often bittersweet, signpost. While everyone’s path of aging is unique, each decade has characteristics common to most people in them.
In my book-in-process Men Aging Well, I have drawn upon the schema of eight life stages developed by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson to understand these decades better. Erikson’s stages begin with infancy—a stage which he calls “basic trust”–and continue into old age, the stage he calls “ego integrity.” My aging book concentrates on Erikson’s last two stages: Generativity and Ego Integrity. Generativity—spanning the ages 40 to 65—means a time of mature adulthood when a person contributes to society through children and family, career and livelihood. Ego Integrity typically begins around age 65, when a person starts to sum up their life and looks to feel satisfied with how his life has unfolded and what he has done.
According to Erikson’s stages, Generativity spans a person’s third, fourth and fifth decades of life. For men, this is when they develop career and family (if they have one) and arrive, in their fifties, at their peak earning power. Career and income are central to their lives as having enough money for retirement becomes a concern. During a man’s sixties Generativity winds down and the challenges of Ego Integrity—taking stock of the life you have lived–begin to appear.
Men often don’t recognize this shift. My friend Steve was 65 when my book Aging as a Spiritual Practice was published. I gave him a copy but he told me he didn’t want to read it. “I’ll read it when I’m old,” he said. “Eighty or so.” Two years later Steve died of a fast-growing cancer. He and his wife were completely unprepared. Cancer, they had thought, was something that happened when you were “old.”
In my interviews with men of various ages, I am noticing a different “tonality” in their responses depending on the decade they are in. Men in their fifties are at the cusp between youth and age—the time of life that used to be called “mid-life crisis” and that used to happen in a man’s forties. These men know that aging is starting to happen, but their feeling tone is still largely youthful. Men in their sixties are looking past the “top of the mountain” and seeing the downhill slope of impending aging; this decade is when the shift happens from Generativity to Ego Integrity. In Ego Integrity a man’s life question changes from “How am I doing?” to “How did I do?”—although both questions are simultaneously present. My friend Steve, mentioned above, still had a fifties outlook in his mid-sixties. He hadn’t started asking the Ego Integrity question, and so his cancer blindsided him.
For men in their seventies and eighties, aging is an increasingly inescapable fact. Doctor and dentist appointments, medical tests, medical conditions, sore backs, hips and knees, are a fact of life. At this point most of a man’s life is behind him. The Ego Integrity question “How did I do?” can compel some seventies men to attempt one last go at unattained life goals—places to visit, investments to make, new relationships to try. But the clock is ticking and, in the words of one interviewee, “I’m starting to hear the footsteps.” He meant the footsteps of mortality.
In a man’s eighties come the great divide. If his health is reasonably good, Ego Integrity includes a healthy dose of gratitude. If not, then dealing with ill-health and physical and/or mental decline predominates.
The decade you are in defines, but does not limit, who you are and how you age. Generativity and Ego Integrity are the two developmental challenges that complete the human life cycle, according to Erikson.