The Life In Your Years: Making Meaning in Every Decade

Katherine and her cousin Mary Carol

I’m just about to get on a plane after a week in Houston, Texas for my cousin’s 80th birthday. It’s the place where I was born, so I’m thinking a lot about my life to date. I’ve lived six decades so far, and I am moving deeper into my seventh. I hope I have many more, but nothing is certain.

Each decade of life brings a developmental task we need to complete in order to move forward in our lives in strength. If any of these tasks are not achieved, we move forward in life socially, psychologically or emotionally crippled, with parts of ourselves broken and fragmented. Some of these tasks have to do with productivity and our work in the outside world; others are internal and very personal. But they are all universal human needs. 

I have always been intrigued with work of psychologist Erik Erickson and his psychosocial stages of human development. Erikson proposed that a life is built in stages from birth through death, and the successful attainment of each stage determines the stability of the next and the life as a whole. My mother, Juanita T. Hart M.D., was a child psychiatrist here in Houston; she pictured these stages as pyramids in her 1980 book on child development, Brick by Brick.

Erik Erikson's developmental stages

In my own life experience, and validated by my own psychology training, here’s what I’ve observed about them...

Decade 1. Birth to 10. When you look at Erikson’s stages, you can see that half of the eight stages occur in the first 10 years of life. If we do not build trust, autonomy, initiative and industry in these early years, we end up developing mistrust, shame and doubt, guilt and inferiority instead. In short, we need to feel our world is safe, we can rely on ourselves, we are inherently good and we can do good in our world. These feelings develop when the world around us can be relied on and when we find a place for ourselves in it. For example, I grew up with two cousins, the children of my father’s brother. At ages 18 months and six years old, when their parents both died of cancer they were thrust into an orphanage. Ten years later, about the time I was born, they came to live with us. I love them both as my siblings, but it is clear that their early life experiences left gaps in their development that have handicapped them both in painfully unique ways. 

Decade 2. From 10 to 20, as we develop social relationships outside our families, we begin to form our own identity and gain confidence in ourselves in the world. This is how we learn who we are and where we’re going in life, to be true to ourselves, to form and own a unique way of seeing the world. If we don’t develop this sense of self – either through too little guidance or too much control – we get confused and can spend a lifetime looking outside ourselves for someone else to tell us who we are and what we think and feel. For example, people who get stuck at this stage are vulnerable to religious and political dogma; this was my own experience … not realizing until later in life that my thoughts and feelings were not my own but given to me by people who loved me. Without this clear sense of who we are and what we really want, it’s very difficult to build a life with direction or gain momentum in it.

Decades 3 and 4. As young adults from 20 to 40, our developmental task is intimacy. If we learn to take our social relationships deeper, we are able to make ourselves vulnerable through healthy risks to learn that we are loved and wanted for who we are. As we leave home and take our stand as adults in the world, we may form communities of people around us that support is through the rest of our lives. If we do not fulfil this task, we end up isolated and lonely. For example, there is a whole generation of young people today entering adulthood without adequate foundations to navigate this period successfully. And without this we cannot move on to that which gives our lives meaning and purpose in the next stage.  Ideally this is when we discover what calls us in life, what we love and hate, what matters most to us, so we can gather a tribe of like-minded people to accompany us as we move ahead.

Decades 5 and 6. From 40 to our mid-60s, our task is what Erikson calls Generativity. Some of us have chosen to have and raise children, others have focused on careers, and most are managing the special challenges of both. For all, we must find the balance between what we do for others and what we do for ourselves. In the early years of this period, we prove to ourselves that we have something of value to contribute to the world; in the later years, that we have made that contribution successfully. For example, I can remember a day in my early 40s when I realized I was living the consequences of my choices and that I couldn’t change those choices. Now that I’m over 60, I feel the rhythm of my life changing; not that I’m losing power exactly, but rather I’m downshifting, slowing the revolutions per minute of my engine, but increasing the power at the same time. I am consolidating my energy and focusing it toward what matters most to me. Life is not poorer but richer, like a beef bourguignon simmering slowly in the oven all day long.

Decades 7, 8 and beyond. From age 65 onward, we begin a process of reviewing and redeeming our lives. Our focus turns toward our legacy – something that will outlast us when we’re gone –an impact that is greater than us. I’m not quite there yet; but I have many friends in this age group, and their view looks toward the meaning and purpose of life, the legacy they leave, the sense of satisfaction they have from a life well lived or, if not, one they have redeemed by a change in action. They are the wisdom keepers, the guides, the ones who have experienced what we have not and have learned how to continue to live despite some of the greatest atrocities the world is ever seen. In indigenous cultures a community’s elders have traditionally been honored, treasured, and cared for. We need them. We need to become them. And everything that we do in every decade of life will determine whether we get there and how good a job we do when we are there.

You are here. What's to do?

So today, as we enter the final quarter of this decade, I invite you to think about what decade of life you’re in, what task lies before you, and how you’re doing with that task. What comes next for you is not as much about the circumstances around you, it’s about what you create with them. 

What do you need now in order to build a stable future… for yourself and our one and only world?

Over the past few years, I’ve developed and tested products, courses, programs and offers in pursuit of the magic formula that would empower you to do just this. This year, I found the formula. And it worked. So, I’ve put the best of them together in a 12-month online program in designed to lead you powerfully into 2020 and the new decade it brings in. It starts on Sunday (6 October 2019). CLEAR VISION FOCUSED ACTION 2020.

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