The final stage of human development? Erikson's view of integrity and old age

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Chris Gilleard


This paper considers the significance for ageing studies of Erikson’s theory of adult development, particularly his last stage the crisis of ‘integrity’ versus ‘despair’. Because his model assumes a clear pattern of lifelong upward development, culminating with the ‘achievement’ of integrity and wisdom, it can be seen as helping underpin gerontology’s moral imperative to confer meaning and value upon old age. Despite the difficulties in empirically demonstrating the stage-like nature of adult development, and the dubious evidence that integrity is an essential feature of a successful old age, the inherent directionality of Erikson’s model supplies ageing with a purposive quality in contradistinction to alternative ‘decline’ narratives. Rather than continue a potentially fruitless search for proof , it might be better to conceptualise his adult ‘stages’ of identity, intimacy, generativity and integrity as key narrative themes running through the development of adult character, articulated, expressed and struggled over in various ways throughout adulthood including late life.


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