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Erik Erikson’s Eight Ages of Man 

by David Elkind


One man in his time plays many psychosocial parts 

At a recent faculty reception I happened to join a small group in 

which a young mother was talking about her “identity crises.”  She and 

her husband, she said, had decided not to have any more children and 

she was depressed at the thought of being past the child-bearing stage.  

It was as if, she continued, she had been robbed of some part of herself 

and now needed to find a new function to replace the old one. 

When I remarked that her story sounded like a case history from a 

book by Erik Erikson, she replied, “Who’s Erikson?”  It is a reflection on 

the intellectual modesty and literary decorum of Erik H. Erikson, 

psychoanalyst and professor of developmental psychology at Harvard, 

that so few of the many people who today talk about the “identity crises” 

know anything of the man who pointed out its pervasiveness as a 

problem in contemporary society two decades ago. 

Erikson had, however contributed more to social science than his 

delineation of identity problems in modern man.  His descriptions of the 

stages of the life cycle, for example, have advanced psychoanalytic 

theory to the point where it can now describe the development of the 

healthy personality on its own terms and not merely as the opposite of a 

sick one.  Likewise, Erikson’s emphasis upon the problems unique to 

adolescents and adults living in today’s society has helped to rectify the 

one-sided emphasis on childhood as the beginning and end of 

personality development. 

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Finally, in his biographical studies, such as Young Man Luther and 

Gandhi’s Truth (which has just won a National Book Award in philosophy 

and religion), Erikson emphasizes the inherent strengths of the human 

personality by showing how individuals can use their neurotic symptoms 

and conflicts for creative and constructive social purposes while healing 

themselves in the process. 

It is important to emphasize that Erikson’s contributions are 

genuine advances in psychoanalysis in the sense that Erikson accepts 

and builds upon many of the basic tenets of Freudian theory.  In this 

regard, Erikson differs from Freud’s early co-workers such as Jung and 

Adler who, when they broke with Freud, rejected his theories and 

substituted their own. 

Likewise, Erikson also differs from the so-called neo-Freudians 

such as Horney, Kardiner and Sullivan who (mistakenly, as it turned out) 

assumed that Freudian theory had nothing to say about man’s relation to 

reality and to his culture.  While it is true that Freud emphasized, even 

mythologized, sexuality, he did so to counteract the rigid sexual taboos 

of his time, which, at that point in history, were frequently the cause of 

neuroses.  In his later writings, however, Freud began to concern himself 

with the executive agency of the personality, namely the ego, which is 

also the repository of the individual’s attitudes and concepts about 

himself and his world. 

It is with the psychosocial development of the ego that Erikson’s 

observations and theoretical constructions are primarily concerned.  

Erikson has thus been able to introduce innovations into psychoanalytic 

theory without either rejecting or ignoring Freud’s monumental 


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The man who has accomplished this notable feat is a handsome 

Dane, whose white hair, mustache, resonant accent and gentle manner 

are reminiscent of actors like Jean Hersholt and Paul Muni.  Although he 

is warm and outgoing with friends, Erikson is a rather shy man who is 

uncomfortable in the spotlight of public recognition.  This trait, together 

with his ethical reservations about making public even disguised case 

material, may help to account for Erikson’s reluctance to publish his 

observations and conceptions (his first book appeared in 1950, when he 

was 48). 

In recent years this reluctance to publish has diminished and he 

had been appearing in print at an increasing pace.  Since 1960 he has 

published three books, Insight & ResponsibilityIdentity: Youth & Crisis 

and Gandhi’s Truth, as well as editing a fourth, Youth: Change & 

Challenge.  Despite the accolades and recognition these books have 

won for him, both in America and abroad, Erikson is still surprised at the 

popular interest they have generated and is a little troubled about the 

possibility of being misunderstood and misinterpreted.  While he would 

prefer that his books spoke for themselves and that he was left out of the 

picture, he has had to accede to popular demand for more information 

about himself and his work. 

The course of Erikson’s professional career has been as diverse as 

it has been unconventional.  He was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1902 

of Danish parents.  Not long after his birth his father died, and his mother 

later married the pediatrician who had cured her son of a childhood 

illness.  Erikson’s stepfather urged him to become a physician, but the 

boy declined and became an artist instead—an artist who did portraits of 

children.  Erikson says of his post-adolescent years, “I was an artist then, 

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which in Europe is a euphemism for a young man with some talent and 

nowhere to go.”  During this period he settled in Vienna and worked as a 

tutor in a family friendly with Freud’s.  He met Freud on informal 

occasions when the families went on outings together. 

These encounters may have been the impetus to accept a teaching 

appointment at an American school in Vienna founded by Dorothy 

Burlingham and directed by Peter Blos (both now well known on the 

American psychiatric scene).  During these years (the late nineteen-

twenties) he also undertook and completed psychoanalytic training with 

Ana Freud and August Aichhorn.  Even at the outset of his career, 

Erikson gave evidence of the breadth of his interests and activities by 

being trained and certified as a Montessori teacher.  Not surprisingly, in 

view of that training, Erikson’s first articles dealt with psychoanalysis and 


It was while in Vienna that Erikson met and married Joan Mowat 

Serson, an American artist of Canadian descent.  They came to America 

in 1933, when Erikson was invited to practice and teach in Boston.  

Erikson was, in fact, one of the first if not the first child-analyst in the 

Boston area.  During the next two decades he held clinical and academic 

appointments at Harvard, Yale and Berkeley.  In 1951 he joined a group 

of psychiatrists and psychologists who moved to Stockbridge, 

Massachusetts, to start a new program at the Austen Riggs Center, a 

private residential treatment center for disturbed young people.  Erikson 

remained at Riggs until 1961, when he was appointed professor of 

human development and lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard.  Throughout 

his career he has always held two of three appointments simultaneously 

and had traveled extensively. 

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 because he had been an artist first, Erikson has never 

been a conventional psychoanalyst.  When he was treating children, for 

example, he always insisted on visiting his young patients’ homes and on 

having dinner with the families.  Likewise, in the nineteen-thirties, when 

anthropological investigation was described to him by his friends 

Scudder McKeel, Alfred Kroeber and Margaret Mead, he decided to do 

field work on an Indian reservation.  “When I realized that Sioux is the 

name which we [in Europe] pronounced ‘See ux’ and which for us was 

the American Indian, I could not resist.”  Erikson thus antedated the 

anthropologists who swept over the Indian reservations in the post-

Depression years.  (So numerous were the field workers at that time that 

the stock joke was that an Indian family could be defined as a mother, a 

father, children and an anthropologist.) 

Erikson did field work not only with the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge, 

South Dakota (the tribe that slew Custer and was in turn slaughtered at 

the Battle of Wounded Knee), but also with the salmon-fishing Yurok of 

Northern California.  His reports on these experiences revealed his 

special gift for sensing and entering into the world views and modes of 

thinking of cultures other than his own. 

It was while he was working with the Indians that Erikson began to 

note syndromes which he could not explain within the confines of 

traditional psychoanalytic theory.  Central to many an adult Indian’s 

emotional problems seemed to be his sense of uprootedness and lack of 

continuity between his present life-style and that portrayed in tribal 

history.  Not only did the Indian sense a break with the past, but he could 

not identify with a future requiring assimilation of the white culture’s 

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values.  The problems faced by such men, Erikson recognized, had to do 

with the ego and with culture and only incidentally with sexual drives. 

The impressions Erikson gained on the reservations where 

reinforced during World War II when he worked at a veterans’ 

rehabilitation center at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco.  Many of 

the soldiers he and his colleagues saw seemed not to fit the traditional 

“shell shock” or “malingerer” cases of World War I.  Rather, it seemed to 

Erikson that many of these men had lost the sense of who and what they 

were.  They were having trouble reconciling their activities, attitudes and 

feelings as soldiers with the activities, attitudes and feelings they had 

known before the war.  Accordingly, while these men may well have had 

difficulties with repressed or conflicted drives, their main problem 

seemed to be, as Erikson come to speak of it at the time, “identity 


It was almost a decade before Erikson set forth the implications of 

his clinical observations in Childhood & Society.  In that book, the 

summation and integration of 15 years of research, he made three major 

contributions to the study of the human ego.  He posited (1) that, side by 

side with the stages of psychosexual development described by Freud 

(the oral, anal, phallic, genital, Oedipal and pubertal), were psychosocial 

stages of ego development, in which the individual had to establish new 

basic orientations to himself and his social world; (2) that personality 

development continued throughout the whole life cycle; and (3) that each 

stage had a positive as well as a negative component. 

Much about these contributions—and about Erikson’s way of 

thinking—can be understood by looking at his scheme of life stages.  

Erikson identifies eight stages in the human life cycle, in each of which a 

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new dimension of “social interaction” becomes possible—that is, a new 

dimension in a person’s interaction with himself, and with his social 


Trust vs Mistrust 



 first stage corresponds to the oral stage in classical 

psychoanalytic theory and usually extends through the first year of life.  

In Erikson’s view, the new dimension of social interaction that emerges 

during this period involves basic trust at the one extreme, and mistrust at 

the other.  The degree to which a child comes to trust the world, other 

people and himself depends to a considerable extent upon the quality of 

the care that he receives.  The infant whose needs are met when they 

arise, whose discomforts are quickly removed, who is cuddled, fondled, 

played with and talked to, develops a sense of the world as a safe place 

to be and of people as helpful and dependable.  When, however, the 

care is inconsistent, inadequate and rejecting, it fosters a basic mistrust, 

an attitude of fear and suspicion on the part of the infant toward the world 

in general and people in particular that will carry through to later stages 

of development. 

It should be said at this point that the problem of basic trust-versus-

mistrust (as is true for all the later dimensions) is not resolved once and 

for all during the first year of life; it arises again at each successive stage 

of development.  There is both hope and danger in this.  The child who 

enters school with a sense of mistrust may come to trust a particular 

teacher who has taken the trouble to make herself trustworthy; with this 

second chance, he overcomes his early mistrust.  On the other hand, the 

child who comes through infancy with a vital sense of trust can still have 

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his sense of mistrust activated at a later stage if, say, his parents are 

divorced and separated under acrimonious circumstances. 

This point was brought home to me in a very direct way by a 4-

year-old patient I saw in a court clinic.  He was being seen at the court 

clinic because his adoptive parents, who had had him for six month, now 

wanted to give him back to the agency.  They claimed that he was cold 

and unloving, took things and could not be trusted.  He was indeed a 

cold and apathetic boy, but with good reason.  About a year after his 

illegitimate birth, he was taken away from his mother, who had a drinking 

problem, and was shunted back and forth among several foster homes.  

Initially he had tried to relate to the persons in the foster homes, but the 

relationships never had a chance to develop because he was moved at 

just the wrong times.  In the end he gave up trying to reach out to others, 

because the inevitable separation hurt too much. 

Like the burned child who dreads the flame, this emotionally 

burned child shunned the pain of emotional involvement.  He had trusted 

his mother, but now he trusted no one.  Only years of devoted care and 

patience could now undo the damage that had been done to this child’s 

sense of trust. 

Autonomy vs Doubt 



 Two spans the second and third years of life, the period 

which Freudian theory calls the anal stage.  Erikson sees here the 

emergence of autonomy.  This autonomy dimension builds upon the 

child’s new motor and mental abilities.  At this stage the child can not 

only walk but also climb, open and close, drop, push and pull, hold and 

let go.  The child takes pride in these new accomplishments and wants to 

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do everything himself, whether it be pulling the wrapper off a piece of 

candy, selecting the vitamin out of the bottle or flushing the toilet.  If 

parents recognize the young child’s need to do what he is capable of 

doing at his own pace and in his own time, then he develops a sense 

that he is able to control his muscles, his impulses, himself and, not 

insignificantly, his environment—the sense of autonomy. 

When, however, his caretakers are impatient and do for him what 

he is capable of doing himself, they reinforce a sense of shame and 

doubt.  To be sure, every parent had rushed a child at times and children 

are hardy enough to endure such lapses.  It is only when caretaking is 

consistently overprotective and criticism of “accidents” (whether these be 

wetting, soiling, spilling or breaking things) is harsh and unthinking that 

the child develops an excessive sense of shame with respect to other 

people and an excessive sense of doubt about his own abilities to control 

his world and himself. 

If the child leaves this stage with less autonomy than shame or 

doubt, he will be handicapped in his attempts to achieve autonomy in 

adolescence and adulthood.  Contrariwise, the child who moves through 

this stage with his sense of autonomy buoyantly outbalancing his 

feelings of shame and doubt is well prepared to be autonomous at later 

phases in the life cycle.  Again, however, the balance of autonomy to 

shame and doubt set up during this period can be changed in either 

positive or negative directions by later events. 

It might be well to note, in addition, that too much autonomy can be 

as harmful as too little.  I have in mind a patient of seven who had a 

heart condition.  He had learned very quickly how terrified his parents 

were of any signs in him of cardiac difficulty.  With the psychological 

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acuity given to children, he soon ruled the household.  The family could 

not go shopping, or for a drive, or on a holiday if he did not approve.  On 

those rare occasions when the parents had had enough and defied him, 

he would get angry and his purple hue and gagging would frighten them 

into submissions. 

Actually, this boy was frightened of this power (as all children 

would be) and was really eager to give it up.  When the parents and the 

boy came to realize this, and to recognize that a little shame and doubt 

were a healthy counterpoise to an inflated sense of autonomy, the three 

of them could once again assume their normal roles. 

Initiative vs Guilt 



 this stage (the genital stage of classical psychoanalysis) the 

child, age four to five, is pretty much master of his body and can ride a 

tricycle, run, cut and hit.  He can thus initiate motor activities of various 

sorts on his own and no longer merely responds to or imitates the 

actions of other children.  The same holds true for his language and 

fantasy activities.  Accordingly, Erikson argues that the social dimension 

that appears at this stage has initiative at one of its poles and guilt at the 


Whether the child will leave this stage with his sense of initiative far 

outbalancing his sense of guilt depends to a considerable extent upon 

how parents respond to his self-initiated activities.  Children who are 

given much freedom and opportunity to initiate motor play such as 

running, bike riding, sliding, skating, tussling and wrestling have their 

sense of initiative reinforced.  Initiative reinforced.  Initiative is also 

reinforced when parents answer their children’s questions (intellectual 

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initiative) and do not deride or inhibit fantasy or play activity.  On the 

other hand, if the child is made to feel that his motor activity is bad, that 

his questions are a nuisance and that his play is silly and stupid, then he 

may develop a sense of guild over self-initiated activities in general that 

will persist through later life stages. 

Industry vs Inferiority 



 Four is the age period from six to eleven, the elementary 

school years (described by classical psychoanalysis as the latency 

phase).  It is a time during which the child’s love for the parent of the 

opposite sex and rivalry with the same sexed parent (elements in the so-

called family romance) are quiescent.  It is also a period during which the 

child becomes capable of deductive reasoning, and of playing and 

learning by rules.  It is not until this period, for example, that children can 

really play marbles, checkers and other “take turn” games that require 

obedience to rules.  Erikson argues that the psychosocial dimension that 

emerges during this period has a sense of industry at one extreme and a 

sense of inferiority at the other. 

The term industry nicely captures a dominant theme of this period 

during which the concern with how things are made, how they work and 

what they do predominates.  It is the Robinson Crusoe age in the sense 

that the enthusiasm and minute detail with which Crusoe describes his 

activities appeals to the child’s own budding sense of industry.  When 

children are encouraged in their efforts to make, do or build practical 

things (whether it be to construct creepy crawlers, three houses or 

airplane models—or to cook, bake or sew), are allowed to finish their 

products, and are praised and regarded for the results, then the sense of 

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industry is enhanced.  But parents who see their children’s efforts at 

making and doing as “mischief,” and as simply “making a mess,” help to 

encourage in children a sense of inferiority. 

During these elementary-school years, however, the child’s world 

includes more than the home.  Now social institutions other than the 

family come to play a central role in the development crisis of the 

individual.  (Here Erikson introduced still another advance in 

psychoanalytic theory, which heretofore concerned itself only with the 

effects of the parents’ behavior upon the child’s development.) 

A child’s school experiences affect his industry-inferiority balance.  

The child, for example, with an IQ of 80 to 90 has a particularly traumatic 

school experience, even when his sense of industry is rewarded and 

encouraged at home.  He is “too bright” to be in special classes, but “too 

slow” to compete with children of average ability.  Consequently he 

experiences constant failures in his academic efforts that reinforces a 

sense of inferiority. 

On the other hand, the child who had his sense of industry 

derogated at home can have it revitalized at school through the offices of 

a sensitive and committed teacher.  Whether the child develops a sense 

of industry or inferiority, therefore, no longer depends solely on the 

caretaking efforts of the parents but on the actions and offices of other 

adults as well. 

Identity vs Role Confusion 



 the child moves into adolescence (Stage Five—roughly the 

ages twelve to eighteen), he encounters, according to traditional 

psychoanalytic theory, a reawakening of the family-romance problem of 

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early childhood.  His means of resolving the problem is to seek and find 

a romantic partner of his own generation.  While Erikson does not deny 

this aspect of adolescence, he points out that there are other problems 

as well.  The adolescent matures mentally as well as physiologically and, 

in addition to the new feelings, sensations and desires he experiences as 

a result of changes in his body, he develops a multitude of new ways of 

looking at and thinking about the world.  Among other things, those in 

adolescence can now think about other people’s thinking and wonder 

about what other people think of them.  They can also conceive of ideal 

families, religions and societies which they than compare with the 

imperfect families, religions and societies of their own experience.  

Finally, adolescents become capable of constructing theories and 

philosophies designed to bring all the varied and conflicting aspects of 

society into a working, harmonious and peaceful whole.  The adolescent, 

in a word, is an impatient idealist who believes that it is as easy to realize 

an ideal as it is to imagine it. 

Erikson believes that the new interpersonal dimension which 

emerges during this period has to do with a sense of ego identity at the 

positive end and a sense of role confusion at the negative end.  That is 

to say, given the adolescent’s newfound integrative abilities, his task is to 

bring together all of the things he has learned about himself as a son, 

student, athlete, friend, Scout, newspaper boy and so on, and integrate 

these different images of himself into a whole that makes sense and that 

shows continuity with the past while preparing for the future.  To the 

extent that the young person succeeds in this endeavor, he arrives at a 

sense of psychosocial identity, a sense of who he is, where he had been 

and where he is going. 

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In contract to the earlier stages, where parents play a more or less 

direct role in the determination of the result of the developmental crises, 

the influence of parents during this stage is much more indirect.  If the 

young person reaches adolescence with, thanks to his parents, a vital 

sense of trust, autonomy, initiative and industry, then his chances of 

arriving at a meaningful sense of ego identity are much enhanced.  The 

reverse, of course, holds true for the young person who enters 

adolescence with considerable mistrust, shame, doubt, guilt and 

inferiority.  Preparation for a successful adolescence, and the attainment 

of an integrated psychosocial identity must, therefore, begin in the 




 and above what the individual brings with him from his 

childhood, the attainment of a sense of personal identity depends upon 

the social milieu in which he or she grows up.  For example, in a society 

where women are to some extent second-class citizens, it may be harder 

for females to arrive at a sense of psychosocial identity.  Likewise at 

times, such as the present, when rapid social and technological change 

breaks down many traditional values, it may be more difficult for young 

people to find continuity between what they learned and experienced as 

children and what they learn and experience as adolescents.  At such 

times young people often seek causes that give their lives meaning and 

direction.  The activism of the current generation of young people may 

well stem, in part at least, from this search. 

When the young person cannot attain a sense of personal identity, 

either because of an unfortunate childhood or difficult social 

circumstances, he shows a certain amount of role confusion—a sense of 

not knowing what he is, where he belongs or whom he belongs to.  Such 

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confusion is a frequent symptom in delinquent young people.  

Promiscuous adolescent girls, for example, often seem to have a 

fragmented sense of ego identity.  Some young people seek a “negative 

identity,” an identity opposite to the one prescribed for them by their 

family and friends.  Having an identity as a “delinquent,” or as a “hippie,” 

or even as an “acid head,” may sometimes be preferable to having no 

identity at all. 

In some cases young people do not seek a negative identity so 

much as they have it thrust upon them.  I remember another court case 

in which the defendant was an attractive 16-year-old girl who had been 

found “tricking it” in a trailer located just outside the grounds of an Air 

Force base.  From about the age of twelve, her mother had encouraged 

her to dress seductively and to go out with boys.  When she returned 

from dates, her sexually frustrated mother demanded a kiss-by-kiss, 

caress-by-caress description of the evening’s activities.  After the mother 

had vicariously satisfied her sexual needs, she proceeded to call her 

daughter a “whore” and a “dirty tramp.”  As the girl told me, “Hell, I have 

the name, so I might as well play the role.” 

Failure to establish a clear sense of personal identity at 

adolescence does not guarantee perpetual failure.  And the person who 

attains a working sense of ego identity in adolescence will or necessity 

encounter challenges and threats to that identity as he moves through 

life.  Erikson, perhaps more than any other personality theorist, has 

emphasized that life is constant change and that confronting problems at 

one stage in life is not a guarantee against the reappearance of these 

problems at later stages, or against the finding of new solutions to them. 

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Intimacy vs Isolation 



 Six in the life cycle is young adulthood; roughly the period of 

courtship and early family life that extends from late adolescence till early 

middle age.  For this stage, and the stages described hereafter, classical 

psychoanalysis has nothing new or major to say.  For Erikson, however, 

the previous attainment of a sense of personal identity and the 

engagement in productive work that marks this period gives rise to a new 

interpersonal dimension of intimacy at the one extreme and isolation at 

the other. 

When Erikson speaks of intimacy he means much more than love-

making alone; he means the ability to share with and care about another 

person without fear of losing oneself in the process.  In the case of 

intimacy, as in the case of identity, success or failure no longer depends 

directly upon the parents but only indirectly as they have contributed to 

the individual’s success or failure at the earlier stages.  Here, too, as in 

the case of identity, social conditions may help or hinder the 

establishment of a sense of intimacy.  Likewise, intimacy need not 

involve sexuality; it includes the relationship between friends.  Soldiers 

who have served together under the most dangerous circumstances 

often develop a sense of commitment to one another that exemplifies 

intimacy in its broadest sense.  If a sense of intimacy is not established 

with friends or a marriage, the result, in Erikson’s view, is a sense of 

isolation—of being alone without anyone to share with or care for. 

Generativity vs Self-absorption 



 stage—middle age—brings with it what Erikson speaks of as 

either generativity or self-absorption, and stagnation.  What Erikson 

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means by generativity is that the person begins to be concerned with 

others beyond his immediate family, with future generations and the 

nature of the society and world in which those generations will live.  

Generativity does not reside only in parents; it can be found in any 

individual who actively concerns himself with the welfare of young people 

and with making the world a better place for them to live and to work. 

Those who fail to establish a sense of generativity fall into a state 

of self-absorption in which their personal needs and comforts are of 

predominant concern.  A fictional case of self-absorption is Dickens’ 

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.  In his one-sided concern with money and 

in his disregard for the interests and welfare of his young employee, Bob 

Cratchit, Scrooge exemplified the self-absorbed, embittered (the two 

often go together) old man.  Dickens also illustrated, however, what 

Erikson prints out: namely, that unhappy solutions to life’s crises are not 

irreversible.  Scrooge, at the end of the tale, manifested both a sense of 

generativity and of intimacy which he had not experienced before. 

Integrity vs Despair 



 Eight in the Eriksonian scheme corresponds roughly to the 

period when the individual’s major efforts are nearing completion and 

when there is time for reflection—and for the enjoyment of grandchildren, 

if any.  The psychosocial dimension that comes into prominence now 

had integrity on one hand and despair on the other. 

The sense of integrity arises from the individual’s ability to look 

back on his life with satisfaction.  At the other extreme is the individual 

who looks back upon his life as a series of missed opportunities and 

missed directions; now in the twilight years he realizes that it is too late 

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to start again.  For such a person the inevitable result is a sense of 

despair at what might have been. 



, then, are the major stages in the life cycle as described by 

Erikson.  There presentation, for one thing, frees the clinician to treat 

adult emotional problems as failures (in part at least) to solve genuinely 

adult personality crises and not, as heretofore, as mere residuals of 

infantile frustrations and conflicts.  This view of personality growth, 

moreover, takes some of the onus off parents and takes account of the 

role which society and the person himself play in the formation of an 

individual personality.  Finally, Erikson has offered hope for us all by 

demonstrating that each phase of growth has its strengths as well as its 

weaknesses and that failures at one stage of development can be 

rectified by successes at later stages. 

The reason that these ideas, which sound so agreeable to 

“common sense,” are in fact so revolutionary has a lot to do with the 

state of psychoanalysis in America.  As formulated by Freud, 

psychoanalysis encompasses a theory of personality development, a 

method of studying the human mind and, finally, procedures for treating 

troubled and unhappy people.  Freud viewed this system as a scientific 

one, open to revision as new facts and observations accumulated. 

The system was, however, so vehemently attacked that Freud’s 

followers were constantly in the position of having to defend Freud’s 

views.  Perhaps because of this situation, Freud’s system became, in the 

hands of some of his followers and defenders, a dogma upon which all 

theoretical innovation, clinical observation and therapeutic practice had 

to be grounded.  That this attitude persists is evidenced in the recent 

remark by a psychoanalyst that he believed psychotic patients could not 

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be treated by psychoanalysis because “Freud said so.”  Such attitudes, 

in which Freud’s authority rather than observation and data is the basis 

of deciding what is true and what is false, has contributed to the 

disrepute in which psychoanalysis is widely held today. 

Erik Erikson has broken out of this scholasticism and has had the 

courage to say that Freud’s discoveries and practices were the start and 

not the end of the study and treatment of the human personality.  In 

addition to advocating the modifications of psychoanalytic theory outlined 

above, Erikson has also suggested modifications in therapeutic practice, 

particularly in the treatment of young patients.  “Young people in severe 

trouble are not fit for the couch,” he writes.  “They want to face you, and 

they want you to face them, not as a facsimile of a parent, or wearing the 

mask of a professional helper, but as a kind of overall individual a young 

person can live with or despair of.” 

Erikson has had the boldness to remark on some of the negative 

effects that distorted notions of psychoanalysis have had on society at 

large.  Psychoanalysis, he says, had contributed to a widespread 

fatalism—”even as we were trying to devise, with scientific determinism, 

a therapy for the few, we were led to promote an ethical disease among 

the many.” 



 Erikson’s innovations in psychoanalytic theory are best 

exemplified in his psycho-historical writings, in which he combines 

psychoanalytic insight with a true historical imagination.  After the 

publication of Childhood & Society, Erikson undertook the application of 

his scheme of the human life cycle to the study of historical persons.  He 

wrote a series of brilliant essays on men as varied as Maxim Gorky, 

George Bernard Shaw and Freud himself.  These studies were not 

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narrow case histories but rather reflected Erikson’s remarkable grasp of 

Europe’s social and political history, as well as of its literature.  (His 

mastery of American folklore, history and literature is equally 


While Erikson’s major biographical studies were yet to come, these 

early essays already revealed his unique psycho-history method.  For 

one thing, Erikson always chose men whose lives fascinated him in one 

way or another, perhaps because of some conscious or unconscious 

affinity with them.  Erikson thus had a sense of community with his 

subjects which he adroitly used (he call it disciplined subjectivity) to take 

his subject’s point of view and to experience the world as that person 


Secondly, Erikson chose to elaborate a particular crisis or episode 

in the individual’s life which seemed to crystallize a life-theme that united 

the activities of his past and gave direction to his activities for the future.  

Then, much as an artist might, Erikson proceeded to fill in the 

background of the episode and add social and historical perspective.  In 

a very real sense Erikson’s biographical sketches are like paintings 

which direct the viewer’s gaze from a focal point of attention to 

background and back again, so that one’s appreciation of the focal area 

is enriched by having pursued the picture in its entirety. 



 method was given its first major test in Erikson’s study of 

Young Man Luther.  Originally, Erikson planned only a brief study of 

Luther, but “Luther proved too bulky a man to be merely a chapter in a 

book.”  Erikson’s involvement with Luther dated from his youth, when, as 

a wandering artist, he happened to hear the Lord’s Prayer in Luther’s 

German.  “Never knowingly having heard it, I had the experience, as 

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seldom before ore after, of a wholeness captured in a few simple words, 

of poetry fusing the esthetic and the moral; those who have suddenly 

‘heard’ the Gettysburg Address will know what I mean.” 

Erikson’s interest in Luther may have had other roots as well.  In 

some ways, Luther’s unhappiness with the papal intermediaries of 

Christianity resembled on a grand scale Erikson’s own dissatisfaction 

with the intermediaries of Freud’s system.  In both cases some of the 

intermediaries had so distorted the original teachings that what was 

being preached in the name of the master came close to being the 

opposite of what he had himself proclaimed.  While it is not possible to 

describe Erikson’s treatment of Luther here, one can get some feeling for 

Erikson’s brand of historical analysis from his sketch of Luther: 

Luther was a very troubled and a very gifted young man who 

had to create his own cause on which to focus his fidelity in 

the Roman Catholic world as it was then . . .  He first became 

a monk and tried to solve his scruples by being an 

exceptionally good monk.  But even his superiors thought 

that he tried much too hard.  He felt himself to be such a 

sinner that he began to lose faith in the charity of God and his 

superiors told him, “Look, God doesn’t hate you, you hate 

God or else you would trust Him to accept your prayers.”  But 

I would like to make it clear that someone like Luther 

becomes a historical person only because he also has an 

acute understanding of historical actuality and knows show to 

“speak to the condition” of his times.  Only then do inner 

struggles became representative of those of a large number 

of vigorous and sincere young people—and begin to interest 

some troublemakers and hangers-on. 

After Erikson’s study of Young Man Luther (1958), her turned his 

attention to “middle-aged” Gandhi.  As did Luther, Gandhi evoked for 

Erikson childhood memories.  Gandhi led his first nonviolent protest in 

India in 1918 on behalf of some mill workers, and Erikson, then a young 

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man of 16, had read glowing accounts of the event.  Almost a half a 

century later Erikson was invited to Ahmedabad, an industrial city in 

western India, to give a seminar on the human life cycle.  Erikson 

discovered that Ahmedabad was the city in which Gandhi had led the 

demonstration about which Erikson had read as a youth.  Indeed, 

Erikson’s host was none other than Ambalal Sarabahai, the benevolent 

industrialist who had been Gandhi’s host—as well as antagonist—in the 

1918 wage dispute.  Throughout his stay in Ahmedabad, Erikson 

continued to encounter people and places that were related to Gandhi’s 

initial experiments with nonviolent techniques. 

The more Erikson learned about the event at Ahmedabad, the 

more intrigued he became with its pivotal importance in Gandhi’s career.  

It seemed to be the historical moment upon which all the earlier events of 

Gandhi’s life converged and from which diverged all of his later 

endeavors.  So captured was Erikson by the event at Ahmedabad, that 

he returned the following year to research a book on Gandhi in which the 

event would serve as a fulcrum. 



 least part of Erikson’s interest in Gandhi may have stemmed 

from certain parallels in their lives.  The 1918 event marked Gandhi’s 

emergence as a national political leader.  He was 48 at the time, and had 

become involved reluctantly, not so much out of a need for power or 

fame as out of a genuine conviction that something had to be done about 

the disintegration of Indian culture.  Coincidentally, Erikson’s book, 

Childhood & Society, appeared in 1950 when Erikson was 48, and it is 

that book which brought him national prominence in the mental health 

field.  Like Gandhi, too, Erikson reluctantly did what he felt he had to do 

(namely, publish his observations and conclusions) for the benefit of his 

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ailing profession and for the patients treated by its practitioners.  So 

while Erikson’s affinity with Luther seemed to derive from comparable 

professional identity crises, his affinity for Gandhi appears to derive from 

a parallel crisis of generativity.  A passage from Gandhi’s Truth (from a 

chapter wherein Erikson addresses himself directly to his subject) helps 

to convey Erikson’s feelings for his subject. 

So far, I have followed you through the loneliness of your 

childhood and through the experiments and the scruples of 

your youth.  I have affirmed my belief in your ceaseless 

endeavor to perfect yourself as a man who came to feel that 

he was the only one available to reverse India’s fate.  You 

experimented with what to you were debilitating temptations 

and you did gain vigor and agility from your victories over 

yourself.  Your identity could be no less than that of universal 

man, although you had to become an Indian—and one close 

to the masses—first. 

The following passage speaks to Erikson’s belief in the general 

significance of Gandhi’s efforts: 

We have seen in Gandhi’s development the strong attraction 

of one of those more inclusive identities:  that of an 

enlightened citizen of the British Empire.  In proving himself 

willing neither to abandon vital ties to his native tradition nor 

to sacrifice lightly a Western education which eventually 

contributed to his ability to help defeat British hegemony—in 

all of these seeming contradictions Gandhi showed himself 

on intimate terms with the actualities of his era.  For in all 

parts of the world, the struggle now is for the anticipatory 

development of more inclusive identities . . .  I submit then, 

that Gandhi, in his immense intuition for historical actuality 

and his capacity to assume leadership in “truth in action,” 

may have created a ritualization through which men, 

equipped with both realism and strength, can face each other 

with mutual confidence. 

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 is now more and more teaching of Erikson’s concepts in 

psychiatry, psychology, education and social work in America and in 

other parts of the world.  His description of the stages of the life cycle are 

summarized in major textbooks in all of these fields and clinicians are 

increasingly looking at their cases in Eriksonian terms. 

Research investigators have, however, found Erikson’s 

formulations somewhat difficult to test.  This is not surprising, inasmuch 

as Erikson’s conceptions, like Freud’s, take into account the infinite 

complexity of the human personality.  Current research methodologies 

are, by and large, still not able to deal with these complexities at their 

own level, and distortions are inevitable when such concepts as “identity” 

come to be defined in terms of responses to a questionnaire. 

Likewise, although Erikson’s life-stages have an intuitive 

“rightness” about them, not everyone agrees with his formulations.  

Douvan and Adelson in their book, The Adolescent Experience, argue 

that while his identity theory may hold true for boys, it doesn’t for girls.  

This argument is based on findings which suggest that girls postpone 

identity consolidation until after marriage (and intimacy) have been 

established.  Such postponement occurs, says Douvan and Adelson, 

because a woman’s identity is partially defined by the identity of the man 

whom she marries.  This view does not really contradict Erikson’s, since 

he recognizes that later events, such as marriage, can help to resolve 

both current and past developmental crises.  For the woman, but not for 

the man, the problems of identity and intimacy may be solved 


Objections to Erikson’s formulations have come from other 

directions as well.  Robert W. White, Erikson’s good friend and colleague 

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at Harvard, has a long standing (and warm-hearted) debate with Erikson 

over his life-stages.  White believes that his own theory of “competence 

motivation,” a theory which has received wide recognition, can account 

for the phenomena of ego development much more economically than 

can Erikson’s stages.  Erikson has, however, little interest in debating the 

validity of the stages he has described.  As an artist he recognizes that 

there are many different ways to view one and the same phenomenon 

and that a perspective that is congenial to one person will be repugnant 

to another.  He offers his stage-wise description of the life cycle for those 

who find such perspectives congenial and not as a world view that 

everyone should adopt. 

It is this lack of dogmatism and sensitivity to the diversity and 

complexity of the human personality which help to account for the 

growing recognition of Erikson’s contribution within as well as without the 

helping professions.  Indeed, his psycho-historical investigations have 

originated a whole new field of study which has caught the interest of 

historians and political scientists alike.  (It has also intrigued his wife, 

Joan, who has published pieces on Eleanor Roosevelt and who has a 

book on Saint Francis in press.)  A recent issue of Dædalus, the journal 

for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, was entirely devoted to 

psycho-historical and psycho-political investigations of creative leaders 

by authors from diverse disciplines who have been stimulated by 

Erikson’s work. 

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Freud’s “Ages of Man” 

Erik Erikson’s definition of the 

“eight ages of man” is a work of 

synthesis and insight by a 

psychoanalytically trained and 

worldly mind.  Sigmund Freud’s 

description of human phases 

stems from his epic psychological 

discoveries and centers almost 

exclusively on the early years of 

life.  A brief summary of the 

phases posited by Freud: 

Oral stage—roughly the first 

year of life, the period during 

which the mouth region provides 

the greatest sensual satisfaction.  

Some derivative behavior traits 

which may be seen at this time are 

incorporativeness (first six months 

of life) and aggressiveness 

(second six months of life). 

Anal stage—roughly the 

second and third years of life.  

During this period the site of 

greatest sensual pleasure shifts to 

the anal and urethral areas.  

Derivative behavioral traits are 

retentiveness and expulsiveness

Phallic stage—roughly the 

third and fourth years of life.  The 

site of greatest sensual pleasure 

during this stage is the genital 

region.  Behavior traits derived 

from this period include 

intrusiveness (male) and 

receptiveness (female). 

Oedipal stage—roughly the 

fourth and fifth years of life.  At this 

stage the young person takes the 

parent of the opposite sex as the 

object or provider of sensual 

satisfaction and regards the same-

sexed parent as a rival.  (The 

“family romance.”)  Behavior traits 

originating in this period are 

seductiveness and 


Latency stage—roughly the 

years from age six to eleven.  The 

child resolves the Oedipus conflict 

by identifying with the parent of 

the same sex and by so doing 

satisfies sensual needs 

vicariously.  Behavior traits 

developed during this period 

include conscience (or the 

internalization of parental moral 

and ethical demands). 

Puberty stage—roughly 

eleven to fourteen.  During this 

period there is an integration and 

subordination of oral, anal and 

phallic sensuality to an overriding 

and unitary genital sexuality.  The 

genital sexuality of puberty has 

another young person of the 

opposite sex as its object, and 

discharge (at least for boys) as its 

aim.  Derivative behavior traits 

(associated with the control and 

regulation of genital sexuality) are 

intellectualization and estheticism


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Source:  Elkind, D. (1970, April 5).  The New York Times Magazine.  

Reprinted by permission from The New York Times Company.  David 

Elkind is professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of 

Rochester.  He is the author of Children & Adolescents published in 1970. 


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