Color photo of Erik Erikson as a middle-aged manErik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development model represents probably the most well-known and highly regarded map of the human life cycle in contemporary western culture.  This theory was first articulated in 1950 in chapter seven (“The Eight Ages of Man”) of his book Childhood and Society, and further developed in later books and articles. Erikson adapted Freud’s theory of psychosexual development (oral, anal, phallic, genital) to a wider social-cultural sphere, and extended it beyond adolescence into early, middle, and late adulthood.

He referred to his theory as epigenetic, meaning that it traced the development of the human organism from an undifferentiated state of psychosocial organization through successive levels of differentiation from early childhood to adult maturity.  He also characterized each of the eight stages in terms of a conflict, struggle, or crisis occuring between two opposing psychosocial orientations (e.g. intimacy versus isolation), which in turn gave rise to specific psychosocial outcomes.  The eight stages are as follows:

  1. INFANCY: Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust – the infant struggles with dependency on its mother for love, nurturing, and (oral) sustenance, in the course of which he may develop an underlying sense of hope concerning his place in the cosmos, or failing this, may withdraw from the world of relationships altogether.
  2. EARLY CHILDHOOD: Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt – the young child experiences a conflict related to other people (e.g. parents) controlling its bodily functions (anal, urethral), and may come out of this crisis with a developed sense of will or autonomy (the ability to take charge of one’s own life), or alternatively, because of deep shame (a sense of being exposed), develop a defensive structure of compulsiveness that tries to control self and others in a manipulative or obsessive way.
  3. PLAY AGE:  Initiative vs. Guilt – the child is now a part of the family matrix and struggles with oedipal desires (locomotion aggression toward the same sex parent, genital attraction toward the opposite sex parent), which may be channeled into a positive drive to take initiative in the social world, or alternatively, may turn in on itself and develop into a sense of pathological guilt related to sexual and aggressive feelings.
  4. SCHOOL AGE:  Industry vs. Inferiority – here the psychosocial world expands to include the neighborhood and the school environment, where the child’s efforts to sublimate the drives of the previous stage through work and enterprise (e.g. hobbies, schoolwork, projects, chores etc.), may result in the construction of a personality that feels a sense of competency and ability, or alternatively, may develop into a pervasive aura of inferiority in relationship to the efforts and achievements of others.
  5. ADOLESCENCE: Identity vs. Identity Confusion – with the advent of puberty, the psychosocial scene focuses upon the teenager’s peer group and other groups that model a range of possible identities, which the teen will try on (through intense one-to-one relationships and/or membership in cliques), and through which he will ultimately develop a coherent sense of identity, or alternatively, experience a diffused, undefined, or fragmented sense of self that may result in delinquency, psychosis, or more commonly, the inability to settle upon a occupational identity as he moves into adulthood.
  6. YOUNG ADULTHOOD:  Intimacy vs. Isolation – now that the individual has hopefully developed a stable identity, she moves into the adult world seeking a partner with whom to share work, sex, friendship, and intimate feelings, failing which, she sinks into exclusivity, elitism, isolation, or other forms of non-intimate social relations.
  7. ADULTHOOD: Generativity vs. Stagnation – once the adult has found a partner to share intimacy with, he now is faced with the challenge of raising a family, making positive contributions to the workplace and the community, and engaging in other forms of generativity and care, failing which, he will become rigid, inert, and rejecting on the job, in the family, and/or as a citizen, or fall into other forms of stagnation.
  8. OLD AGE:  Integrity vs. Despair – as an adult reaches the end of her life, she looks back at what she has or hasn’t accomplished, and feels a deep sense of fulfillment or at least an acceptance of the life she has lived (out of which will come wisdom), or alternatively, she descends into anguish or despair at having not lived a full and vital existence.

In Erikson’s last book on the subject, The Life Cycle Completed, his wife, Joan M. Erikson, added a “ninth stage” that applied to people who had become very old (as they had).  In the book, she wrote:  “Old age in one’s eighties and nineties brings with it new demands, reevaluations, and daily difficulties” (The Life Cycle Completed, p. 105).  According to Joan Erikson, in the ninth stage, the despair of stage eight is magnified by the experience of one’s deteriorating body and mind, which results in a lowering of self-esteem and confidence. “To face down despair with faith and appropriate humility,” she wrote, “is perhaps the wisest course” (The Life Cycle Completed, p. 106).

It should be emphasized that Erikson saw each polarity in his theory (e.g. integrity vs. despair), not as a “one side must win” battle, but rather as a necessary tension inherent in that stage of human development, through which struggle an individual would become a more integrated and whole human being.  As Joan Erikson noted: “It is important to remember that conflict and tension are sources of growth, strength, and commitment”  (The Life Cycle Completed, p. 106).

For more information about the stages of life in different cultures and traditions, see my book: The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life

This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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