The Erikson Tournament: Stage 7 Explored

This is going to be a busy sort of post.  I recommend it to people who are thinking of retiring, to fans of Erik Erikson’s epigenetic stages, and to anyone who has been following these posts and who thinks I have painted myself into a corner.  There are three pieces here, after a beginning event and a review of the tournament metaphor.  The first is an attempt—long deferred already—to look at the inner workings of any of the Erikson stages.  It’s more complicated than I thought when I started.  The second is an attempt to apply the main value of Stage 7 to the life I am not living.  What, in other words, does “generativity” look like in my life right now?  In the third point, I apply these traits to a new setting—a retirement center—and try to think whether they will work there.

As I say, it’s complicated.  So let’s get to it.

Some sort of process began in my mind when I started offloading my books.  Right now—this feeling is roughly a month old at the moment—it seems like a long term change.  It feels the way a change feels when it is going to turn out to be permanent.  Here’s what “permanent” means.  Bette and I plan to be ready to move from our house to a retirement center in 2017.[1]  So I have roughly six years to work this out in principle.

So what does this mean for questions weightier than how many books I have?  Let’s look at Stage 7, which is where am supposed to be at this time of my life.  If I continue to look at Erikson’s epigenetic stages as matches in a tennis tournament, I got to Stage 7 by defeating my opponents in stages 1—6.  I have “defeated,” that is, mistrust, shame and doubt, guilt, inferiority, role confusion, and isolation and my current opponent is some form of self-absorption.   Erikson calls it “stagnation.”  “Self-absorbed” seems like a cruel thing to say to a man who writes a blog, but there it is.  Presuming that I win this one, my next opponent will be despair.[2]

So what is the current match like?  At this point, I am going to shift over to a book called Vital Involvement in Old Age.  I’m going to return, at the end, to what defeating “stagnation” looks like between now and 2017, but let’s look right now at the mechanics within a stage.  In the expanded view offered by Vital Involvement, there are five elements to account for in every stage.  I’m going to look at Stage 6 for my example because I am going to be concentrating on Stage 7 in these posts and here, the notion of the tennis tournament is again useful.  If I don’t “win my match” (meaning to be specified below), I don’t get to Stage 7

You are going to have to give me a little wiggle room in order to keep the tournament idea, but I think it’s worth it.  In a real tournament, you lose and you go home.  In the Erikson “tournament” you win big and move on more capable and confident than before; or you win but incur liabilities[3] or you are so mired in Stage 6 that you never really move on. 

So what are the elements of any stage?  The middle two columns represent the struggle most people have.  They want to find some balance between the achievement and the opposing value.  The first and fourth columns are clearly losses although just how bad and just what kind will vary from one stage to another.  The bottom row represents what the achievement, balanced by the struggle with the opposition, will result in.  It is the true goal of that stage.

Unconstrained Achievement

Achievement on Balance

The presence of the opposing value

The domination of the opposing value


Syntonic Value

Dystonic Value


Generalized “Master Value” of that Stage


Note that the achievement of the master value is not the triumph of the syntonic value over the dystonic value, as earlier work with Erikson suggested.  It is the achievement of the syntonic value constrained by the experience of the dystonic value.  A child is supposed to learn to trust, for instance, but he is not supposed to be completely gullible.  It is his experience with mistrust that enables him, in the famous phrase of Ronald Reagan, to “trust, but verify.”

In Stage 6, that looks like this. 

Unconstrained achievement: the syntonic value unconstrained

The key achievement

The key opposing force

The domination of the opposing force: the dystonic value triumphant.


Syntonic Value

Dystonic Value








In considering the transition to Stage 7, it is clear that I take with me the victories in Stage 6.  I take the defeats too, of course, but Stage 6 was a really good stage for me.  The same chart, considering  the goals and liabilities of Stage 7, looks like this.  Note that the forms are all the same, but new values are now being pursued—the previous ones now presupposed—and new liabilities are being considered and so on.

Unconstrained Achievement: the syntonic value unconstrained The key achievement The key opposing force The domination of the opposing force: the dystonic value triumphant.
Maladaptive Syntonic Value Dystonic Value Malignant
Overextension Generativity Stagnation Rejectivity



Again we see that “too much,” the unimpeded triumph of the syntonic value, is not good.  It results in the maladaptation that, in this stage, is called “overextension.”  The extension of the dystonic value again produces a malignant form, this time called “rejectivity.”[4] In any case, when my interest in generativity is appropriately modified by enough quiet self-oriented experience it is not driven over the cliff into “overextension.”  It retains the characteristics that are the reason we called it a good trait in the first place.  And what are those?  What, in other words, is “generativity?”

Generativity is a concern for making life a good home for others, just as I have (Stages 1—6) made it a good home for myself.  The term the authors use is not “others,” as I have, but “following generations.”  That is who a generative older person is to make this life a home for.  For reasons that are complex beyond the needs of this post, I don’t have much of an orientation toward the following generations.  The flavor of my generativity has more to do with “making things better.”  If I assume for the moment that generativity characterizes the life I am now living, I arrive finally at the question with which I began.  How shall I imagine the life I will be living at the retirement center in terms of generativity?

If I could keep on doing the things that now seem to me to be worthwhile in the “making the world a better place” sort of way, that would minimize the transition from one setting to another.  The setting would be different, but the kinds of things I am doing would be the same.  Here are three things I do that might transition well. 

1.         I provide contexts for discussions about things.

Anything that can be said to have a generalized focus works pretty well for me.  Not, with a few exceptions, what your vacation was like, but “vacations” works for me.  Bermuda works for me.  “Knowing when it’s time to go home” works for me.  You get the idea.  If it’s not just trading experiences—again, with a few exceptions—it’s “general;”  it’s an “it,” and I can find a context that enables me to talk about nearly any “it.”

That may seem a pale skill, but in fact, it works for topics more demanding that vacations.  It works for relationships; it works for politics; it works for religion; it works for sex.[5]

2.  I organize people around shared interests.

Seeing a number of people doing one at a time something I think we would all enjoy doing together is a kind of itch for me.  I am only guessing that there are always more people who would enjoy doing something together than there are people who can see that common thing and pursue it.  If that’s really true, there will be no reason for me to stop scratching that particular itch when Bette and I move to the senior center.

3.  I really enjoy teaching and learning.  In place of  “schools, Illich favored self-organizing groups of people who were taken with an interest in learning something.  As I remember it, he used the example of people who wanted to learn about Dickens.  I am one of those people who would really like to know more about Dickens and I am one of the people who would be likely to notice that there was a general interest in Dickens.  I am not, alas, someone who could teach a class on Dickens, but there are other subjects I really could teach and would like to.

Doing things like that is probably most of what generativity means to me now.  I imagine it is those same kinds of things that will matter to me when we retire from maintaining the homestead.  Doing those things well—maintaining my commitment to making things better—and not sliding over to relentless activism is what “winning” in Stage 7 looks like to me.  But, to return to the tennis metaphor one more time, if I really have an opponent, he is going to change tactics because every point I win, he loses.  He has already learned I can win points from the baseline, let’s say; now he needs to know if I can volley a good passing shot and protect against a lob.  In short, even within Stage 7, things change.  I’m happy I’ve been able to win so many points from the baseline, but I’m not always going to be able to play on the baseline and thinking ahead to some other way I could win some points seem like a good idea.


[1] I just this moment realized that I imagined it occurring in the fall of 2017 and right after that, I understood that I had been seeing it as a fall event because…you know…school is starting then.  We’ll be moving on “the academic calendar,” I guess.

[2] I distinguished earlier between the two tournaments, calling one “the physical tournament” and the other, after some hemming and hawing, “the spiritual tournament.”  We do lose the physical tournament, i.e., we die.  You heard it here first.  The relation of the second tournament to the first is captured by the slogan, “rising above decline.”  That’s what “winning” the spiritual tournament means to me.

[3] Not to get too tennisy,  but this might by a physical liability, like the hamstring injury, or a flaw in your game.  If you won in Stage 6, but also demonstrated that you have no facility at all to handle a ball lobbed to your backhand, you move on to Stage 7 with that weakness exposed.  Your opponent in Stage 7 got there by exploiting the weaknesses of his previous opponents.  He’s not inattentive and you have shown himself something you will wish you had not shown.

[4] To my ear, the really weak word in this set is “stagnation.”  What the Eriksons (and Kivnick) really want, it is clear, is something that will modify the normal and balanced drive to share the wealth of one’s life with others, something that will prevent it from being driven too far.  I’d want a word like “moderation” or “quiet reflection” or “self-oriented experience” or something.  Stagnation?  It just doesn’t sound good.

[5] I’m not sure just how widely it works for sex, but I didn’t want to leave politics and religion hanging out there by themselves.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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