Untapped Richness in Erik H. Erikson's Rootstock

Helen Q. Kivnick, PhD, LP; Courtney K. Wells, MSW, MPH


Gerontologist. 2014;54(1):40-50. 

In This Article

Erik H. Erikson

Erik H. Erikson is widely regarded as a major thinker of the 20th century (Hoare, 2002). Crossing boundaries of nationality, medium of expression, and professional and theoretical discipline, he nonetheless managed to write for both academic and general audiences. In so doing, he articulated what have become widely accepted "truths" about how human beings live and develop over a lifetime, from infancy through older adulthood, in the company of other human beings, and in the context of the larger living and nonliving worlds.

In this section, we provide a contextualizing summary of Erikson's life, career, and thinking. In particular, we identify conceptual threads that emerge, in retrospect, as having been consistent throughout his work, despite their movement into and out of the public intellectual limelight.


Erik H. Erikson was born in 1902 and raised in Karlsruhe, Germany. In late adolescence, he joined Freud's psychoanalytic circle in Vienna. By the time Erikson completed his psychoanalytic training in 1933, he had married fellow analysand Joan Serson. They and their young children fled Europe's gathering political, ideological, and inevitably military storm, heading for Boston where he was welcomed as the city's first child analyst. Over the course of his career, Erikson held academic positions at Harvard, Yale, and the University of California, Berkeley. He played major, intellectual roles at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, University of Pittsburgh's Western Psychiatric Institute, Austen Riggs Center (Stockbridge, MA), and the Psychiatry department at San Francisco's Mount Zion Hospital. He wrote 14 books and numerous articles and maintained a long-term clinical practice (Coles, 1970; Wallerstein, 1996).

Reputation and Thought

Erikson came of intellectual age in an era when philosophical, scientific, and religious thought were breaking new ground in humankind's ongoing struggle to understand the roles and powers of God, humanity, physical world, and destiny. Over the middle of the 20th century, Erikson's name became most closely associated with his description of the eight stages of psychosocial development. He articulated these stages in Childhood and Society (1950), surpassing then-current psychological thought in three important ways. First, he broadened Freud's concept of psychosexual development into the bio-psychosocial (later primarily emphasizing the psychosocial) by extensively describing the crucial importance of family system and society/culture in individual development (Brenman-Gibson, 1997; Eagle, 1997; Golland, 1997; Hoare, 2005). Second, he extended Freud's developmental stages by expanding the temporal understanding of human development from a process that culminates with the completion of adolescence, to one that continues both into adulthood and throughout the entire life span (Douvan, 1997; Eagle, 1997; Hill & Burrow, 2012; Hoare, 2005). Third, he directed attention to the development of psychosocial health, departing from then-contemporary focus on the genesis and remediation of problems.

In recognizing him as laying a foundation for multidisciplinary thinking about development across the life span, contemporary scholars have credited him as a pioneer of such areas in psychology as adult development (Douvan, 1997), psychohistory (Pietikainen & Ihanus, 2003), life-span development (Golland, 1997), and positive psychology (Hill & Burrow, 2012; Ryff, 1989). His thinking and writing transcended the many disciplines and subject matters that emerged as 20th century scholars, practitioners, politicians, and activists sought to make sense of human beings' struggle to live with one another in a world, we still cannot fully understand or master. Erikson resisted the limits of such disciplinary boundaries as psychology, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, cultural anthropology, and humanistic philosophy (Hoare, 2005), looking to the horizon, itself, as the only meaningful border for his unique understanding of human nature, over time, in social communities and in spatially and temporally infinite environments.

By the time Childhood and Society appeared, Erikson's thinking had expanded beyond the psychoanalytic practice of healing troubled children. What he called his "encompassing psychological theory" (pp. 424) is now best known in terms of the epigenetic chart (pp. 269) through which he presented its eight successive "critical periods." Figure 1 reproduces a version of this original chart. In each stage, he described the human "organism" as developing an "ego quality" that enables "him to integrate the timetable of the organism with the structure of social institutions" (pp. 246–247). Note that even these early words imply a simultaneous consideration of internal psychological constructs, elements of human biological constitution, and features of social interaction and organization—along with connections and influences among all three domains. Note, too, that as early as 1950, his ideas about individual psychological development included the influence of the external (social; cultural; physical) environment.

Figure 1.

Figure is reproduced from Vital Involvement in Old Age with permission from W. W. Norton. Material in grayed italics represents wording from Erikson's original 1950 presentation of his theory, which he had changed by the late 1970s.

Throughout the rest of his career, Erikson's projects explored different elements of his truly encompassing psychological theory. He practiced clinical and scholarly psychoanalysis, considered the role of social history in the development of extraordinary individuals (e.g., Erikson, 1958; Erikson, 1969) and social movements (Erikson, 1969; Erikson, 1975; Erikson, 1980), explored identity development (Erikson, 1968; Erikson, 1980), and reviewed the completed life cycle (Erikson, 1982). Finally, together with two colleagues, he explicitly considered the psychosocial experience of old age (Erikson, Erikson, & Kivnick, 1986).

Vital Involvement in Old Age Project

As Erikson and colleagues (1986) presented their research findings in Vital Involvement in Old Age, we see how the influence of external environment remained fundamental to his unique way of looking at people living in the world in particular historical moments. The 5-year long Vital Involvement study was based on careful "observation" of individual elders, analogous to Erikson's career-long observations of individuals and social movements (e.g., Erikson, 1958; Erikson, 1959; Erikson, 1968; Erikson, 1975). The first author of the current article was the youngest of three investigators on the Vital Involvement research team, which ranged from 30 to 78 years of age at the project's outset. Because the findings of this 1980–1986 project (Erikson's final research work) are the essence of the current article, we discuss the process of that project in some detail, to clarify the thinking that underlies these findings.

In 1980, Erikson and colleagues articulated the general questions: (1) "Now that it's 50 years after Erikson began writing about integrity vs. despair and old age, what kind of sense do these concepts make?" (2) "Now that so many people are in a position to see 'how it all turns out', what does 'it' (old age) actually look like?" We conducted two semistructured interviews with each of 29 elders whom Erikson had worked particularly closely in Berkeley's Guidance Study since 1928. In these interviews, we colloquially worded questions to encourage participants to think out loud about how what we describe as the adaptive psychosocial strengths associated with each stage (see Figure 1) had played out in their own lives. Interviews were tape recorded and transcribed.

The process of data collection, organization, and ongoing analysis unfolded in three overlapping steps. First, for each participant we created a 22×17" paper chart based on Figure 1, for noting central life events, memories, and researcher observations—organized by psychosocial theme and by life stage or period—as information surfaced in the interview. As a team, we discussed the thematic (chart column) and temporal (chart row) placement of each data item, achieving consensus about where to place particular data items both by clarifying our continually emerging understanding of each theme and stage, and also by coming to understand existing overlaps in thematic- and stage-based content. Second, we reread material in the Guidance Study files that had been collected on each family and its unique developmental trajectory, over the Study's then-55 years, adding information to each participant's chart. We created follow-up interview questions for each elder, seeking to fill in gaps, clarify misunderstandings, and help us understand apparent inconsistencies. Based on interview transcriptions, we continued to add to each psychosocial chart: (1) participants' life events, memories, and reflections and (2) researcher observations, comments, and analytic ideas.

Figure 2 represents a miniaturization (in blank form) of the psychosocial chart that evolved into the structure for our understanding of each elder's life cycle. We numbered all 64 chart cells as a way to clarify, among ourselves, where we were placing (by theme and stage) such life events as one man's disfiguring school-age injury (#26), early- and middle-adult career competence and satisfaction (#44; 52), and old-age satisfaction with two, successive, long-term marriages (#62). As indicated by these examples, events and attributes related to particular themes (e.g., industry & inferiority's issues of work, career, and competence, as in the earlier example) were by no means limited to the chart cell (#28) or stage (e.g., School Age) in which that theme is described as focal. Also as indicated by the examples, life cycle-based data placed in each cell reflected both positive and negative tendencies of each theme, and the importance of each identified thematic strength as a conceptual indicator of successful thematic development (e.g., cell #28 identifies COMP ETENCE as the strength that emerges from a robust balance between industry and inferiority). Figure 3 therefore replaces the word "vs." originally used in describing each theme with the more accurate "&".

Figure 2.

Revision of Erikson's chart of eight psychosocial life stages, reflecting the clarifications implied by the three principles elucidated in this article.

Reviewing each participant's chart clarified the life events, experiences, attributes, and attitudes that characterized her/his psychosocial development, in each theme (chart column), over the course of the entire life cycle. Across individual charts, columns differed in density of data, in relative balance between positive and negative items, and of course in specific thematic content. Not surprisingly, major personal life events (e.g., marriage; death), and historical events and discoveries (e.g., earthquake; great depression; antibiotics) impacted participants' psychosocial development in terms of multiple themes (several cells in a chart row), rather than influencing only the then-focal theme. Finally, close readings of individual charts gave us an idea of each elder's lifelong, personal thematic strengths and weaknesses, in ways that helped explain what originally appeared to be contradictions.


But what did these individual charts and their person-level insights tell us about our initial questions? What kind of sense did integrity versus despair make as a focus for a stage of life that was now lasting so very long and varying so greatly, across even our 29 participants? Considering the life cycle as an integrated whole, what kinds of connections were we seeing between "how it had all turned out" for our participants, and their earlier lives?

Across charts, we saw commonalities in life events, experiences, and concerns associated with each theme (column) in different life periods (chart rows). For example, in old adulthood participants experienced pride in the size and achievements of the generations they had spawned; they struggled to nurture members of their adult child's household while, simultaneously, receiving ongoing physical care from those same family members. These issues differed from those that had catalyzed their earlier-life work around generativity and stagnation, for example, keeping children well fed, clothed, and housed; building a business or a professional field. We began to concentrate on lifelong commonalities we saw underlying work on each psychosocial theme (e.g., generativity and stagnation), in far less constrained chronological periods than conventionally connoted by the term "stages." We found ourselves articulating the balancing of psychosocial themes—of all eight psychosocial themes—as a process that pervades the entire life cycle, that is integral to life in time. And we gradually recognized that rather than considering the life review process' tension between integrity and despair as dominating the ever-longer period of old age, we should be trying to understand this tension largely as it informs old age's unique efforts around renewing, reexperiencing, and "reresolving" all eight themes.

This thinking (that eventually became the principle we called Life in Time) prompted two additional insights. First, regardless of undeniable positive and negative connotations of opposing thematic tendencies, all participants' lives included both positive and negative tendencies for each theme. Depending on life circumstances, what had once functioned as a weakness or obstacle could serve, at a later time, as a valuable life strength—and vice versa. Second, for our participants the real-life process of balancing old age integrity with despair was not primarily one of rumination and reflection. Rather, it was fundamentally grounded in their engagement, their vital involvement, with life's people, materials, activities, ideas, institutions, and so forth. that were every bit as important as their involvement in reminiscence. Indeed, the charts indicated that this vital involvement characterized each period's balancing process around psychosocial tendencies.

We considered these three principles as our major finding: Life in Time, Dynamic Balance of Opposites, and Vital Involvement. Although they did not directly answer our initial research questions and this qualitative, subjective, small sample approach to science clearly limits generalizability and replicability, the principles provided, all together, a scaffolding for addressing these questions and a multitude of others in research and practice fields as disparate as gerontology, life-course development, family science and therapy, person-centered care, civic engagement, arts-based programming, and more. The principles, as we were discussing them, greatly increased the complexity and explanatory power of Erikson's theory as it had become widely understood. Considered together, they appeared to constitute a structure for our understanding of how our participants lived and aged. Perhaps they could also inform gerontology's understanding of current aging processes, and our integrating this understanding into practice and research.

The book Vital Involvement in Old Age contextualizes this study and its findings within highlights of Erikson's earlier work. After presenting the principles, the book illustrates them in terms of: (1) The lives of then-contemporary elders; (2) Ingmar Bergman's iconic film Wild Strawberries; and (3) The original team's multi-generational vision of a society that promotes elders' individual well-being and engagement with community.