The Backwards Society: An Eriksonian Thesis

by Jake Sorrow
File under: Fake Culture20 Aug 2014 22:36 EDT

Erik Erikson is a provocative and influential figure in 20th century psychology. His theory of psychosocial development divides life into a series of discrete periods marked by specific challenges.  These challenges naturally persist across a lifetime, but they are most acute and relevant in the period with which they are associated: 

The most famous of these stages would be the challenge of formulating a self-identity in adolescence, which, if not met, would lead to what Erickson termed an "identity crisis", today a condition often used in common parlance. 

While we have not studied Erikson extensively enough to fully endorse this theoretical framework, it is clear that this is a worthwhile attempt at a rational classification of life stages. His work belongs to that of an earlier generation of thinkers in the humanities whose work still had relevance and purchase in the real world, while today psychological theory has been discarded in favor of an almost unquestioned acceptance of chemical imbalances as the source of psychological issues and psychoactive drugs as their solution. By any estimation of his work, Erikson is clearly an old-fashioned humanist who believes in the inherent struggle of life as opposed to the popular commercial theory of permanent 'happiness' and who sees the these challenges as moral and personal as opposed to merely behavior or chemical. 

Today, our society accepts neither his theories nor his methods, and so we have created something amounting to the anti-Eriksonian society. Unable to order or discipline desires into an integrated life course, lacking in cultural and communal support for the upholding of life benchmarks and expectations, and given to both unrestrained mawkish sentimentality and blind credence in future scientific utopias, modern American life is governed by little more than momentary materialistic desires, petty grievances, and hopes of fleeting fame.

Let's compare Erikson's expectations to common cultural bromides to see the issue still more clearly. 

Preschool: "Color Inside The Lines"

This is the crucial period when children are supposed to begin undertaking and completing self-originated projects outside of the direct instruction of adults, developing and affirming that natural creativity which resides within every human being to some extent. This is the brief naive moment where the child is old enough to be capable of initiative without knowing the pain of defeat or rejection, one requiring guidance and affirmation upon failure. 

In the United States today, this is rather the period of the most aggressive mass media imprinting, designed to kill the child's native artistry or channel it into pseudo-participation in the corporate media program. The imagination is not denied entirely, merely overwhelmed by the structures and figures imposed on it by a society that sees nothing wrong with the notion of advertising to children.  The preschools support this structure by their curriculum of pseudo-exploration, which involve the child submitting their imagination to pre-set adult structures. In sum, this the time when we are taught to "color inside the lines". 

School Age: "Stay Out Of Trouble"

Erikson views this stage as one in which the child is confronted with the issue of their own basic efficacy, their ability to act competently in the world. This is the period in which the explorer should become the worker, able to cope with setbacks and continue on a course of sustained purposeful effort. 

The contemporary focus of this period much more punitive and scornful of such diligent dedication. Rather than building in the child a natural logical connection between diligent work and success, a fundamental connection rooted in the very nature of human effort, the focus instead lies entirely on social rewards and punishments. Beginning in this period, in which the relationship of the child to work is first built, it continues into and culminates in the absurd blind race for college acceptance undertaken by students viciously competing for grade markings without having ever explored their true interests or worked towards an independent goal. 

While one can look at this kind of ambition positively, it is not based on any real rewards or self-actualization, because the students don't know what their good marks will even get them later in life. Rather, it's the question of social fear and disappointment that governs their lives when they should be learning to work in spite of  personal and social disappointments in the face of failure. Work is not valued in and of itself; it is the activity undertaken to please some hypothetical future boss in some 'real world', i.e. credential culture

Where this is the phase Erikson prescribes as that in which children should learn the true value of work, it is actually the one in which they come to see it as a pointless game in which they can only be motivated by threats or bribes

Just try and stay out of trouble and maybe you'll get lucky enough to find a fake job someday. 

Adolescence: "Enjoy It While It Lasts"

Erikson's theory recognizes that adolescents are people in a very uncertain position in life, old enough to begin forming an adult identity but without the experience to act confidently from that adult identity. These are people in need of diverse guidance from older, more experienced adults of both similar and dissimilar interests and backgrounds so as to resolve the inevitable questions of personal identity this period poses. 

In our society, precisely the opposite happens. The teen is looked to as a source of inspiration for adults, the full and complete ideal for those who never successfully navigated their own crisis and question of identity. Across social classes and domains, from the inner-city basketball prodigy to the legendary suburbanite with a perfect score on the SAT, everybody looks to youth without a firm sense of identity as the people who supply meaning and identity to a culture centered around them. This is not the fault of over-indulged, vain youth, who often really wish for more adult guidance, but rather the adults still caught in adolescent identity crisis themselves. 

Every adolescence is going to involve an identity crisis of some kind, and a society that worships adolescence is a society in identity crisis. We value the looks of pop stars and the raw physical prowess of athletes, but these are really the low-level contributions of teenagers long on youthful vitality and short on substance, though perhaps even seeking it desperately. And a quick perusal of our business and political practices would further suggest that we have the same capacity for forethought as teenagers, and are perfectly fine stumbling from momentary error and corruption until some inevitable strongman will have to set us straight in a moment of true crisis. 

In a backwards society, it really can never get any better than this. Enjoy it while it lasts. 

Young Adulthood: "Just Settle"

With the college industry blurring the line between young adulthood and adolescence to where maybe we can be considered full adults around the age of 40, it is difficult to speak about a typical young adult in 2014. Your average Millennial can equally be married with a corporate job granted them by parental/University cartel connections, an arrested development case completing a Masters degree, or living homeless in CO after the great Pot Rush of 2014. In all cases, it should be clear that work, marriage, school, and recreational drug use are more distractions than devotions or occupations. After those short glory years of college, one is more lost than ever, entirely disoriented by a fake education that tells you you are more qualified than ever when you know that you inhabit a moral and intellectual black hole you will be paying back for the rest of your life.

This is the time of settling and maintaining comfortable illusions, of hasty marriages, freshly printed business cards, and the simultaneous desire to found a family while still aware of one's own state of incomplete adult formation.  

Tragically, Erikson believes that this is the time when we are finally mature enough to form true, lasting relationships with the opposite sex as well as lasting platonic attachments which will endure throughout adult life. Instead we find ourselves in the cubicle or on online dating sites, facing a world without an identity, full of strangers, in which we are strange to even ourselves.

It's tough to be alone. What are you holding out for? The world is as cheap as a text message. Just settle.

Middle Adulthood: "Counting The Days..."

Erikson believed that this is when we flourish as productive human beings and create whatever will amount to our legacy. This is the question of generation vs. stagnation at the peak of our powers. 

At this point, it is only a few very exceptional people in our society who are concerned with the question of such self-actualization. The prime of existence from the standpoint of experience and capacity is actually a kind of blank area before retirement consumed by obligations and growing cultural estrangement and disengagement. When we could be at our most expansive, the world grows smaller and smaller. Rather than being the initiators of activity in society, the middle-aged are the prisoners of routine and necessity, not growing or stagnating, but stuck at a terminus non plus ultra

This applies not only to middle management, but also to the CEOs and typical success stories in this stage of life. We have conceived of our society as one not of creators, but managers, so that even the most powerful person is little more than a functionary reacting to financial necessity and popular trends. The broad embrace of Fake Tech coming out of a more youthful Silicon Valley are good examples of this phenomenon: no amount of savvy and experience allows the mature adult to resist the products of a culture they cannot lead. 

Maturity: "... Until Retirement"

Ah yes, retirement. That perfectly logical motivator, a state of non-work and relaxation that lies after one would have had the youth and vitality to make something meaningful out of this free time. As The Villages makes clear, this is the unquestioned amibition of most white-collar Americans — reaching the state of a debauched, sedate old man who holds on to the most sentimental fantasies of community from within the insulation of a gated community.

Considering that retirement is regarded as a good thing whether at age 40 or at age 70, it has nothing to do with the physical realities of a need for rest in old age. It is the expression of a culture that does not truly value any work as worth doing, and wants to escape it as soon as possible in favor of a state of permanent recreation. Such a state itself is a contradiction in terms, as recreation is by definition a repose from some meaningful work.

Ironically, in implicit acknowledgement of this fact, most retirees end up working in retirement, never fulfilling the imagined existence free of responsibility they have been dreaming of for so long. Often, they end up working simpler and more concrete jobs than their former corporate gigs as a way to stay active, only now realizing the value of work they never appreciated in early youth. 

Erikson suggests that old age should be a time for mature reflection on the meaning of earlier actions, culminating in either a sense of pride and integrity or a sense of deep despair. We can only make obvious and uncharitable guesses as to the inner life of Baby Boomers in this backwards society; these measured and considered reflections of their collective achievements as a generation will not be readily forthcoming, if even possible for teenagers with pensions. 

No society that has deviated so far from the natural course of the life-cycle can survive in such a state for long. This inversion of the generations springs directly from the Boomers and the culture of the late 1960s; the restoration of it will occur both by the reassertion of a human nature too long repressed as well as the hopeful maturation of a generation who grew up without adults in a very real sense, coming into the stark, if painful, realization of the lack of accountibility in their own development as they begin to assume adult responsibilty. 

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