Discussing generativity and aging, Vaillant (2002) states, “If the task of young adults is to create biological heirs, the task of old age is to create social heirs” (p. 114).
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Hence, the statement describes the tasks of adult life by Vaillant. When presenting his six adult life tasks, Vaillant placed the one about keeping the meaning after the generativity one and before the integrity one. Therefore, the first part of the statement, “the task of young adults is to create biological heirs”, applies to generativity, and the second one, “the task of old age is to create social heirs”, to keep the meaning (Vaillant, 2002, p. 114).
Nonetheless, in regards to the first part of the quote that refers to generativity, one can still pose questions. Generativity is seen as having an interest in the next generation; namely, giving birth, upbringing, educating, and taking care of your children. Therefore, that is what Vaillant meant by “biological heirs” (Vaillant, 2002, p. 114). On the other hand, “biological” here imposes some kind of constraints on upbringing and educating, as it seems to apply solely to giving birth and taking care.
Nowadays, “young” parents are not that young, being in their forties when having a child; that is mature and experienced adults who are capable of guiding the next generation, not only feeding it. Moreover, the term generative can apply not only to “gens” and “generation” but also to “generating”, meaning “creating”. In that case, mentoring and guiding the next generation does not apply only to creating “biological heirs” but also “social” ones (Vaillant, 2002).
However, the creation of “social heirs” is more likely to be applied to Vaillant’s next stage of adults’ task, “keepers of the meaning” (Vaillant, 2002).
Investigating problems of aging, researchers try to find an answer to the question about the meaning of life. Their studies are devoted to different aspects and forms of meaning: religion, spirituality, identity, relationship with other people, and life experience. The question, though, is the very idea of having meaningful life while aging.
In contrast, Vaillant changes the idea of looking for the meaning of life to keeping the meaning by having an interest in genealogy or history, for example. Therefore, the creation of “social heirs” in the quote mainly refers to mentoring and guiding the next generation by preserving and sharing the personal experience of elderly people, their history (Vaillant, 2002). It can be memoirs writing, publishing personal letters, or even writing and reviewing books in education or any other sphere of interest. That can be the meaning of life when aging, a very decent one.
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My Personal Experience
When reading studies about aged people looking for meaning in life or Vaillant’s tasks, I recalled my friend’s grandmother. She was not aware of “generativity” or “keeping the meaning” but received real joy when caring for others. At the age of 80, she managed to give attention not only to her own grandchildren but their friends (including me) as well. She was needlepointing small toys for us accompanying it with some stories from her past. These stories were full of decent but still interesting for children characters. Even back then I knew I want to age as graceful as she did. So, she combined both “generativity” and “keeping the meaning”, creating “social heirs” (Vaillant, 2002). Not long time ago, I found one of her toys, and I think it can give a start of my collection of memorable things to share with the next generation when aging.
Vaillant, G. (2002). Aging well: Surprising guideposts to a happier life from the landmark Harvard study of adult development. New York, NY: Little Brown and Company.