No one wants to fail. If you fail you’ve wasted time and energy. That’s why no one wants to do the wrong thing. We want to do the right thing. We want to spend our time and energy on doing things that matter. We want to make our lives count.
But if your middle age… this concern is particularly meaningful for you. Those who are middle age, 40-65, have figured out who they are in the world and how they fit into the world around them (for the most part). At middle age, they are now at a life stage (Erikson’s 7th) where their primary concern is using themselves to make a difference where they are. It is a conflict between creating/doing right and feeling stagnant or failing. Erikson calls this a struggle for generativity.
This is not simply a drive to generate and create anything, but a drive to generate, create and do something that is meaningful. It is a drive wherein one is seeking to make a lasting impact on the earth. Where one seeks to leave a legacy of some sort that benefits the generations that come after them. In this drive, the individual is always struggling against the sense of feeling stagnant. Stagnation is that feeling where one feels like the work they are doing and the life they are living serves no end.
No one wants to feel like they’re not doing anything in their life. We want to drive ourselves in order to feel like we have or are accomplishing something, to feel like we’re a productive member of society.
The middle-aged person is looking for a way to make their lives count. It is ultimately a search for success and in this search they will throw themselves at the work they think will get them there… lest they risk feeling stuck, as a cog in the wheel.
This could be as grandiose as doing something in political office (a la presidential run) or supporting philanthropic efforts (a la Carnegie or Gates). Or this could be as ordinary as being the best, most involved parent as possible.
Or we could talk about it in terms of the mid-life crisis, where a person who feels stuck and stagnant makes big changes, like a guy buying a sweet new convertible. Or, more humorously, Jon Favreau’s character in Friends seeking to become the Ultimate Fighting Champion.
The struggle to feel productive can also look like helicopter parenting or divorce.
Be it constructive or ruinous, middle-aged adults are about doing something productive. And whatever they are trying to do, they will defend it as “right” because that’s how they are making meaning in the world. Being productive is generally important no matter what age you are. But for middle-aged adults, production is how they justify their own sense of self in the world they live in.
Lurking beneath the surface will still be the 20-30 something issue of belonging and the adolescent question of “Who am I?”, but for the middle-aged adult those concerns will always be interpreted through the lens of “Am I doing right?”
If we were to have a mission to middle-aged adults… Well, let’s face it, the church is operated by middle-aged people (and mostly white, males at that), so the church has this doing/productivity thing covered. Visioning, mission statements, mission trips, church growth and church vitality, these are all productivity issues, these are all issues that middle-aged people will be primarily concerned about.
As opposed to other developmental issues, my concern for the middle-aged adults isn’t that we don’t focus enough on their needs, it’s that we focus on their needs too much and too thoughtlessly. Not only is the church operated by middle-aged adults, but so is the rest of our world.
The rest of the world has thoughts about what productivity and doing right looks like and those thoughts infect our entire lives. With that thought of productivity often comes competition and too often competition drives our parents, our education and our ministry.
Parents helicopter because of cultural ideas of success and productivity. We take away gym and recess at school because of cultural ideas of success and productivity. Pastors and denominations get concerned about numbers and amounts because of cultural ideas of success and productivity.
If we were to have a mission to middle-aged adults, it would be a competing vision of productivity. A vision that’s critical of culture’s idea of productivity and a vision that’s also critical of itself and how it is being influenced and informed by culture. A vision that’s informed by something more life giving.
A vision that helps them not get caught up in culture’s idea of life and success so they might better love – be it others, each other , their children or their aging, ailing parents.