Erik Erikson is often credited as the father of lifespan developmental psychology. He was the ﬁrst psychologist to propose a theory that followed development throughout life, rather than treating everything beyond adolescence as a single stage. Erikson was a Freudian ego psychologist, meaning that he accepted Sigmund Freud’s ideas as essentially correct. Rather than focus on the instincts and unconscious conﬂicts over sexuality, however, Erikson was much more interested in the relationships between the individual and society and culture, and how these relationships inﬂuence the development of identity.
Freud proposed that development of the self occurs in a series of stages, but the ﬁnal stage begins in adolescence. Erikson reﬁned and expanded on all previous stage theories (including Piaget’s) by recognizing that psychological development does not stop at age twelve or thirteen. Erikson proposed eight separate stages, extending from birth to old age. According to Erikson, everyone proceeds through the stages in a universal and invariant sequence; the timing will vary, but everyone goes through them in the same order.
At each stage, a developmental crisis must be resolved, and success or failure in that resolution will inﬂuence what occurs in the later stages. Each stage is named by indicating both what must be learned in that stage and what the result of not learning it will be. If a stage is managed properly, in other words, a certain virtue or psychological strength will be carried away from it which will help in later stages. Failure to resolve the crisis in a particular stage will lead to a weakness or maladaptation that will endanger a person’s progress in all later stages. The infant’s task, for example, is known as trust versus mistrust. In this stage the child will either learn to mostly trust people and circumstances, or will instead become untrusting.
The various stages are as follows (age ranges, especially in adulthood, are just approximations and can vary dramatically):
- Age 0–1 (infancy). Trust vs. Mistrust: The task is to develop trust without completely losing the capacity for mistrust; to be completely trusting could be maladaptive and lead to being taken advantage of by others. It is up to the parents to help the infant to develop the feeling that the world is a safe place to be, and that people are reliable. If the parents are unreliable or neglectful, or if they reject or harm the child, then the result will be mistrust: the infant will become anxious and suspicious of people. The resulting social withdrawal could eventually result in depression or even psychosis. Note however that Erikson also believed that parents who were overprotective could also cause harm, by producing an overly trusting, gullible child.
- Age 2–3 (toddler). Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt: If parents and caregivers permit the toddler to explore and act upon his or her environment, the child will develop a sense of autonomy and independence. If the parents are discouraging of the child’s attempts to explore, however, the child may feel incapable of acting on his or her own, or will feel ashamed of having tried to do so. Giving children either too much help rather than letting them learn to do it themselves or unrestricted freedom to try things for themselves can result in their thinking too little of their own capabilities or believing themselves capable of anything, and developing no shame and doubt at all.
III. Age 3–6 (preschool). Initiative vs. Guilt: Initiative is simply feeling purposeful and able to try out new skills and responsibilities. Parents should encourage children to try out their ideas and use their imaginations. At this stage the children are also able to begin imagining the consequences of their actions, however, and so the capacity for guilt also appears. As with other stages, the goal is to develop a proper amount of guilt rather than either an excess or too little. Since Erikson is a Freudian, he also considers the role of the Oedipal conﬂict in this stage. In Erikson’s view the Oedipal crisis involves the child’s reluctance to give up his or her closeness to the opposite sex parent. The parent’s responsibility is to encourage the child to become more mature but not too harshly because if it is done improperly, the child learns to feel guilty about those feelings. Too much initiative and too little guilt produces ruthlessness—the person has the initiative to pursue goals, but doesn’t care about the consequences for anyone else. Left unchecked, this tendency can eventually develop into sociopathic behavior. Too much guilt and too little initiative results in a person so inhibited that he or she will not try new things. On the sexual front, due to the Oedipal conﬂict, this person may grow up to be incapable of achieving sexual satisfaction.
- Age 7–12 (school age). Industry vs. Inferiority: Here the key players include teachers and peers, not just parents. Depending on the encouragement and acceptance provided by each, the child will either learn to enjoy the feeling of success, and thus become more industrious, or will instead develop feelings of inferiority or incompetence. Erikson consistently sees too much of a good thing as bad, and industry is no exception. Children with too much industry develop a maladaptive tendency called narrow virtuosity. These are children who have been pushed hard into a single area of competence, without being allowed to develop other interests or even to “just be a kid.” This is frequently seen in prodigies.
- Age 12–18 (adolescence). Ego-Identity vs. Role Confusion: This is probably the best known of Erikson’s stages, as the phrase “identity crisis” has since passed into common usage. The adolescent’s task is to achieve ego-identity, which is nothing less than deciding who or what kind of person he or she really is, and how he or she will ﬁt into the rest of society. The adults’ role is to provide a society and role models worthy of respect. Erikson especially emphasized the importance of rites of passage in providing a clear demarcation line between childhood and adulthood. In a society that does not clearly provide these, the result may be uncertainty about one’s place in the world, which Erikson saw as related to the high rate of suicide among teens. Some adolescents deal with the identity crisis by taking a psychosocial moratorium, a break from growing up. This could be taking a year off to work before going to college, for example, or traveling for a summer before getting a job or going to school. Erikson thought this was healthy, since too many young people in modern society become obsessed with achieving success before they have adequately identiﬁed what would actually constitute success. As with other virtues, however, there is such a thing as too much identity. Some people become so involved with a particular role or a particular subculture that they become very intolerant of everyone else. This is fanaticism. Worse is the lack of identity, however. Some adolescents repudiate their need for identity and their membership in the world of adults, taking refuge in a group that will provide the identity for them, such as gangs, religious cults, hate groups, and so on.
- Late teens–about 30 (young adulthood). Intimacy vs. Isolation: The task here is to ﬁnd intimacy with another person to spend the rest of life with, rather than remaining in isolation. The ability to do this is heavily inﬂuenced by the results of the prior stage. If someone has no clear sense of who they are, it is difﬁcult to achieve intimacy with someone else. Too much intimacy— becoming intimate too freely and easily—results in promiscuity, in which relationships with others remain very shallow. Too little intimacy results in exclusion, which can result in developing hatefulness as a way of dealing with loneliness. Successful negotiation of this stage will of course result in love, here deﬁned as “mutuality of devotion,” by which Erikson refers not just to marital love but also to friendship and good relationships with co-workers.
VII. Late 20s–early 50s (middle adulthood). Generativity vs. Self-Absorption: This is the period during which people are actively raising children as well as pursuing careers. Generativity refers to the extension of love into the future by the things done today. This can be achieved by raising children well; or via teaching, art, social activism, music, or anything that may contribute to the welfare of future generations. Insufﬁcient generativity leads to extreme self-absorption or stagnation. The stagnant person is no longer a productive member of society. It is at this stage that a midlife crisis may arise, in which the person looks around at his or her life and wonders about the purpose of it all. If he or she has not accomplished enough in life, there may be a misguided attempt to recapture one’s youth. The person who is sufﬁciently generative, however, can usually weather such a crisis. Too much generativity causes a person to become overextended by trying too hard to be generative, leaving no time for rest and relaxation.
VIII. 50s and beyond (older adulthood). Integrity vs. Despair: The last stage begins around the age of retirement, after the children have moved away to pursue their own adult lives. The task is to develop ego integrity without an excess of despair. At this age people may come to feel less useful and more detached from society, accompanied by an increasing sense of biological obsolescence, as the body is no longer capable of all the things that it used to do. With the coming of menopause, this can be an especially trying time for women. There are also fears of things that were not so frightening at younger ages. Simply falling down can now be especially dangerous, for example. In addition to greater fear of illness (concerns about diabetes, heart disease, and various cancers are inevitably greater than they used to be), death becomes more familiar as others of the same generation begin to die. A certain amount of despair is to be expected, but too much can lead to paranoia, depression, hypochondriasis, and a preoccupation with regrets of the past. Being able to look back and come to terms with the life lived and the choices made, and thus become less fearful of death, is to achieve ego integrity; and Erikson calls wisdom the ability to face death without fear.
Erikson in many ways embodied the crises about which he wrote. Take the matter of his identity, for example: born in Germany to a Danish mother in1902, his name growing up was Erik Homburger. He never knew his biological father, who left before Erik was born. His mother subsequently married Dr. Homburger, who had treated her during her pregnancy. Erikson was part Jewish, but his appearance, blonde hair, blue eyes, was very Nordic, and so he had a difﬁcult time ﬁtting into either subculture in the Germany of the early twentieth century. After training in psychoanalysis with Anna Freud, he emigrated to the United States, where he took the opportunity to rename himself. The message buried in that new name is difﬁcult to interpret, but Erikson translates as “son of Erik,” suggesting he considered himself solely responsible for his identity, having overcome the inﬂuence of his parents.
- Erikson, E. H. Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.