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Last week I wrote about psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of “life crises” and his interest in how our interactions with our environment shape our personality. We explored the first three of his eight stages of psychosocial development. This week I want to complete the theory.

Stage 4: Elementary and Middle School Years (6 to 12) years

Crisis: Competence (aka “Industry”) vs Inferiority

 School is an important event at this stage. Children learn to make things, use tools, and acquire the skills to be a worker and a potential provider. And they do all these while making the transition from the world of home into the world of their peers.

Positive outcome: If children can discover pleasure in intellectual stimulation, being productive and seeking success, they will develop a sense of competence.

Negative outcome: If not, they will develop a sense of inferiority. Erikson also believes that racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination contribute to a strong sense of inferiority. If a child believes that success is related to who you are rather than how hard you try, then why try?

Stage 5: Adolescence (12 to 18 years)

Crisis: Identity vs Role Confusion

This is the time when we ask the question “Who am I?” To answer this question successfully, Erikson suggests that the adolescent must integrate the healthy resolution of all earlier conflicts. Did we develop the basic sense of trust? Do we have a strong sense of independence and competence, and feel in control of our lives? Adolescents who have successfully dealt with earlier conflicts are ready for the “identity crisis”, which Erikson considers the single most significant conflict a person must face.

Positive outcome: If the adolescent solves this conflict successfully, he will come out of this stage with a strong identity, and ready to plan for the future. Erikson says, however, that this process is assisted by a mainstream adult culture that is worthy of the teenager’s respect, with good adult role models and open lines of communication.

Negative outcome: If not, the adolescent will sink into confusion, unable to make decisions and choices, especially about vocation, sexual orientation, and his or her role in life in general

Stage 6: Young Adulthood (19 to 40 years)

Crisis: Intimacy vs Isolation

 In this stage, the most important events are love relationships. No matter how successful you are with your work, says Erikson, you are not developmentally complete until you are capable of intimacy. Erikson defines intimacy as the ability to be close to others as a lover, friend or participant in society. An individual who has not developed a sense of identity usually will fear a committed relationship and may retreat into isolation.

Positive outcome: Adult individuals can form close relationships and share with others if they have achieved a sense of identity.

Negative outcome: If not, they will fear commitment, feel isolated and be unable to depend on anybody in the world.

Stage 7: Middle Adulthood (40 to 65 years)

Crisis: Generativity vs Stagnation

By “generativity” Erikson refers to the adult’s ability to look outside oneself and care for others, through parenting, for instance. Erikson suggests that adults need children as much as children need adults, and that this stage reflects the need to create a living legacy.

Positive outcome: People can solve this crisis by having and nurturing children, or helping the next generation in other ways.

Negative outcome: If this crisis is not resolved successfully, the person will remain self-centred and experience stagnation later in life.

This is the stage of the “midlife crisis” when the person asks “What am I doing this for?” instead of “Who am I doing this for?” In their panic at not having experienced or achieved what they believe they should have when they where younger, men, in particular – stereotypically – will dump their wives, ditch their jobs, buy hip new clothes and flashy cars, and hang out at singles bars. They seldom find what they’re looking for because they are looking for the wrong thing.

Stage 8: Late Adulthood (65 to death)

Crisis: Integrity vs Despair

Old age is a time for reflecting upon one’s life and its role in the bigger scheme of things, seeing it either filled with pleasure and satisfaction or with disappointments and failures.

Positive outcome: If the adult has achieved a sense of fulfilment about life and a sense of unity within himself and with others, he or she will accept death with a sense of integrity. Just as the healthy child will not fear life, says Erikson, the healthy adult will not fear death.

Negative outcome: If not, the individual will despair and fear death.

Some psychologists dismiss Erikson’s theory as not being sophisticated enough but sometimes the most effective truths are the simplest.


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