There are many choices available to each of us during a lifetime. These choices can lead us to a self-renewing life or to stagnation and decline. Many of these decisions concern the way and the extent to which we care about other people, our heritage and our community.
We make choices. We may suffer from the wounds of betrayal and alienation—in some ways the violation of our life covenant—but we still have a chance to turn toward new purposes. We can shift from the wounded leader to the generative teacher. We can be transformed from the person who was left behind to the person who is helping a new generation lead the way into the future. Though we may have lost the opportunity to play an active role as parent to our children, a second form of parenting is available in abundance during late midlife. We can be parents to our organizations, to people for whom we serve as mentors, and to young people in our community. We can savor the joys of caring for our grandchildren and can become valuable volunteers in nonprofit organizations. Just as life seems to take away opportunities for active leadership, public recognition and parenting, it offers a second opportunity for new forms of parenting. Many ways in which to be a “parent” are available at all points in our life. We can be a parent not only to children and other people but also to ideas, subordinates, people we mentor, institutions, communities, and even cultures.
In essence, our need for generativity concerns two primarily factors. First, generativity is about extending our presence and influence with our own children, with the next generation, with our heritage, and with our community. We become gardeners who tend the garden. We want the flowers, the trees and the plants to live long after we do and to represent, in some important and tangible way, the manner in which we make an appearance on this earth. We want the garden to reassure us and the world that we made a difference.
There is a second primary factor in understanding the path to generativity. Generativity is about caring for that about which one truly cares. We can’t attend equally to every flower in the garden; we must determine which of the flowers we care about most and then devote deep, caring attention to them. So, in life, we must identify those few things about which we truly care when we reach our Autumnal years. This is what generativity is all about. We want to touch the important people in our lives and accomplish things as men and women of Autumn that leave a lasting impression.
We express and experience generativity through the enactment of four different, though interrelated, deep caring roles. First, there is the generativity that we experience as parents— even when our children are grown up and we are no longer their primary caretakers. Indeed, caring about our children does not fade away as we grow older; rather, it takes on a new form and is accompanied by the delight that comes with seeing our children succeed in their own lives and finding their own distinctive identity. The expression of this first mode of generativity need not be limited to the care for children we have raised from birth.
Second, there is the generativity that comes with caring about young men and women who are not part of our immediate or extended family. This type of generativity often is engaged when we are older and in a position of some power or influence in an organization. We care for the next generation of leaders or the next generation of craftsmen and artisans in our field. We often are generative in this second way through our role as mentors. We run interference for younger people or for those who look up to us. We collaborate with them on projects, such as writing a book together with a newcomer in the field. We serve as role models that new people in our company emulate through job performance, personal values, and even lifestyle. We serve as mentors when we listen carefully to younger people talk about their problems and accomplishments. We serve as mentors when we encourage our protégés to take risks or to push beyond initial achievements. We sponsor younger people by inviting them into our world, our exclusive club or inner group.
There is a third way in which generativity is expressed. As guardians, we take responsibility for the cultural values and riches from which we all benefit, offering our concern beyond specific individuals in our society. We engage a social radius that extends beyond our immediate personal surroundings. Our domain of concern is no longer just our family, our organization, or even our community. We now care about the more fundamental legacies in our life and engage this caring through wisdom and integration of soul and spirit. While this third way to express generativity can be identified as a form of resistance to change, or as an overdose of nostalgia, it also can be seen as an expression of deep caring for that which remains valid in contemporary times and which continues as a source of wisdom regardless of its date of origin or the quaint way in which it is stated, painted, or sung.
Generativity is to be found in yet a fourth way. Men and women are generative in their care for the community in which they lived. When we are generative in late midlife we establish, support, or help to expand networking in our community. We move beyond our own family and the organizations in which we have worked. We are particularly suited at this time in our life to such roles as teacher, trainer or coach to the leaders or managers of nonprofit organizations or community action forums. These community-based generative services are not just about quiet leadership; they are also about voluntary community engagement (a key ingredient in any attempt to increase “social capital” or “community capital”). We don’t retire, we just quit working for money.
Insofar as men and women are serving in generative roles when working with other people, with an organization, or with their community during senior years, they are likely to be more inclined than ever before to exert authority in a collaborative and nurturing manner. And as they teach and mentor, they are also willing to take less credit and be less visible as they age. They already have acquired whatever power and recognition they are likely to get in their lives. They have had their “day in the sun.” These men and women now gain more gratification from watching their organizational or community or cultural “children” succeed than from succeeding themselves. They have shifted from a primary focus on their own success to a focus on significance—making a difference in the world. They care deeply.