Milestones after Midlife: Experience and Generativity

by Jennifer Martin Rieck, LPC

My ten year old daughter is absolutely obsessed with horses. She has been for years, even though we don’t have horses and she has rarely even seen a horse in real life. She developed an obsession with horses after playing the game Star Stable on our computer. In the game she earns money in order to purchase horses. She selects horses to buy, maintains the stables, grooms and cares for the horses, and goes on missions riding the horses. Although she has been able to ride a horse a handful of times, always led by an adult or attached to some sort of contraption at the fair, she has never truly experienced being a horseback rider. Even so, she can list off just about every breed of horse and tell you what makes each horse different. Recently, I found a Groupon for two discounted private horseback riding lessons at a nearby stable and so I purchased them. I was so excited for my daughter to actually experience horseback riding in the real world and to watch her put to use all of her knowledge of horses. Today was the day that she finally was able to mount a horse and freely ride it around by herself with the guidance of a teacher. It was so amazing for me to watch her, so confident and sure of herself despite any real prior experience. She literally had no reservations, she got on the horse confidently and caught on quickly according to her teacher.

As I sat in a room above the stables watching all of this unfold, I found myself imagining what it would have been like to live before automobiles, to live in the country on a vast piece of land and to ride a horse around vast expanses of untamed land. I thought to myself that an experience like that must be so liberating and exciting. I started to feel that I might like to take a horseback riding lesson and I wondered why I had never thought to take lessons myself. Immediately my internal voice kicked in stating that it was too late for me to learn to ride a horse. “I am in my forties”, it said, “and if I haven’t learned before I would look silly trying to learn now. There would be no point to taking lessons as it wouldn’t be a career for me, nor a hobby that I would be able to excel at.” I was actually a bit surprised by my internal reaction to the thought of trying something new, something I had never even imagined doing before, having a new experience simply for the experience of it. I considered the difference in myself and my children, whom every semester seem to switch from dance to piano to gymnastics to violin to karate. They have no reservation about learning something from scratch, starting over as a novice at a new sport, or taking risks by exposing their lack of knowledge or skill at something. They simply do it for the experience.

What is Generativity?

I have been thinking a lot about my reaction and how it is probably a pretty universal reality for people in middle age. We often don’t think it reasonable, or even possible, that we could become skilled at and/or benefit from something new at middle age. I have been pondering about how research shows that what many people call “midlife crisis” is actually a pretty universal experience for people and is considered by human growth and development experts to be a normal transitional stage in life, typically occurring in men around aged 40 and women around age 35. Erik Erikson, a famous developmental psychologist, first discussed this stage in the 1950’s. Erikson described the midlife growth goal as achieving Generativity, or moving from a focus on self to a focus on helping the next generation, as a way to make a positive imprint on the world. Without progression towards Generativity in midlife, people

“Erikson described the midlife growth goal as achieving Gnerativity, or moving from a focus on self to a focus on helping the next generation, as a way to make a positive imprint on the world.”

often give into what he deemed Stagnation, or a sense of failure and lack of contribution. In his opinion, healthy individuals during middle age naturally shift into finding meaning by becoming more outwardly focused than they were previously.

Stagnation and Experiences

Erikson’s concept of Generativity makes a lot of sense to me, as I can see this occurring in my own life. However, when I reflect on this stage of life, I sometimes wonder if experiences of Stagnation, apathy, or crisis, might also have to do with a deep sense of not knowing what is supposed to happen next in our lives. I’ve often thought about the fact that the first half of life comes with a pretty clear roadmap. From the time we are born into the world as infants there are milestones always in front of us. From our first solid food, to our first crawl and walk, to preschool, grade school, high school, driving, legally drinking alcohol, college, careers, marrying, children – we usually know what the “next” big thing expected of us is. We are in continual pursuit of our next big milestone, usually with in-place cheerleaders such as parents and family members. However, somewhere in midlife we find ourselves having had our children and potentially our house, career, car, dog, and white picket fence, and also having another forty or fifty years with no other laid out milestones. The only other big event that typically occurs after those things is an over-the-hill birthday party when we turn forty and are met with black balloons, slaps on the back, and jokes about our old age. Let’s be honest, that can be a daunting prospect. There is literally no guide waiting for us at the end of the party to tell us what the next expectation is or what the next milepost is supposed to even say. That alone seems like reason for panic if you ask me.

I wonder if our experiences during midlife would be somewhat different if there was no embarrassment around not being good at something new or if attempting to try out a new hobby or venture was something that was encouraged or even expected in midlife. What if when we picked up a human growth and development text book it stated that, at thirty-five or forty years of age, the next milestone to reach was to not care what anyone thinks about us, that it was time for new experiences, time to reclaim the wonder of possibilities we had as children? What if we we knew from elementary school that what came after college, marriage, children, and career, was an existential freedom to just be and to pursue a healthy exploration of what we hadn’t yet had the freedom to experience? What if, along with the expectation of exploration, also came the guarantee of judgment-free support and admiration from everyone around us, despite how bad we first were at our new hobbies or life paths and regardless of whether our choices made “sense” or tangibly achieved anything? I’m guessing that midlife might not feel like such a crisis, but rather like a newness and freedom that wasn’t previously available to us.

Exploring Your Experience and Expectations of Mid-Life

If you are someone in midlife, how does the concept of Generativity and Stagnation seem to fit with your life experience so far?

If you are someone younger than midlife, can you identify goals and milestones that you have for yourself past midlife?

If you are in midlife and Stagnation seems to be your experience, much more so than Generativity, how can you pursue change? Would pouring into the next generation bring meaning to your life? This could be done by mentoring, teaching, or simply supporting younger individuals in various ways. Focusing on what legacy you wish to leave may bring about clarity as to how you could pursue Generativity in the most meaningful way for you.

If you are in midlife and struggle with finding meaning, perhaps giving yourself permission to explore new experiences or even new jobs might bring about a newness and excitement for life. It is common for individuals to change careers several times during their lives, and though this might not always be of the greatest financial benefit, perhaps at this point in your life finding meaning in your work may be the thing that is most important to you. If this is the case, perhaps letting go of some material things and downsizing your home might allow you the financial freedom to pursue a big change in vocation.

Whatever your experience has been in midlife so far, it is never too late to give yourself permission to change. Many of us chose our career paths when we were young and in college, but often we are quite different in midlife than we were at eighteen. Expecting that you could have chosen a career that would be the best fit for your entire life is often unreasonable. Embrace change. Embrace the you that exists now, and as they say, “get back in the saddle again.”

To read more about Human Growth and Development Stages, see Rework the Resistance.

Published by thinkagainjenn

Jennifer Martin Rieck is a Licensed Professional Counselor and writer in Libertyville, Illinois.

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