Towards the end of the last millennium, at a time when today’s mighty oaks were saplings and I was navigating the first stage of adulthood amid a neon excess of cocktails and heartache, I read The Man who planted trees by Jean Giono. This short story - may the correct term is parable - had been originally published in 1954 and enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s. The tale starts in 1913, when the young narrator meets a 55-year-old shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, who has taken it on himself to plant acorns in the Provence countryside over the last three years.
Even if you haven’t read it, you can probably see where the story is going, and it does, most charmingly, accompanied by beautiful woodcuts. Two World Wars cannot destroy the consequence of one man’s simple act, regenerating a whole community and landscape.
Elzéard Bouffier and his story is the perfect example of generativity, a concept I’ve touched on here and here. Generativity - a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation - is the main focus of the 7th Stage of Life in the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. Interestingly, Erikson extended his stages from the Shakespearean “7 Ages of Man” in that he envisaged eight in total. Maybe this has something to do with increasing life expectancy - more of that later.
The 7th Stage of Life, or second stage of adulthood, typically occurs at what we’d call middle age - 40-64 approximately. Interestingly, once Erikson passed this age (he lived to 91) he reviewed his theory and admitted that generativity continues to play a major role beyond retirement age, too. Even more interestingly, his wife and collaborator Joan later added a 9th Stage of Life to the theory. She was 93 at the time.
Generativity, in its human/social meaning, has a lot of nuances as an idea. There’s a strong sense of altruism, but the “self” is not absent from the concept. It encompasses an inner desire for immortality in the form of leaving something of value as a legacy, making one’s life count for something. And there’s a strong component of responsibility to others, both now and in the future.
The language of generativity has been much used in sustainability communications. “For future generations” has become a cliche, usually accompanied by stock photos of carefree cute children running through sun-kissed meadows or fields of wheat. But maybe there’s an opportunity for companies and brands to use the generativity of their (ageing) co-workers to positive effect beyond tired sustainability tropes.
The idea of “purpose” has been criticised due to its association with short-term activism and “cause of the moment”. It should be less about “high(er) and mighty” and more about the long-term. Passing on values, skills and knowledge. Mentoring within the company. Keeping the culture alive. Creating something new taking into account both what the brand and company does well and new human needs arising from our changing world.
The opposite pole to generativity is stagnation - and that’s not healthy for brands or people.