Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


School leaders
Photo By: Jim Prisching

School leaders draw inspiration from Dan McAdams’s talk on leadership. He studies how generative adults contribute to the next generation.

CEP Students

High school students participate in civic engagement experiences in Chicago through SESP’s Center for Talent Development.

Living a Civically Involved Life

Research of Dan McAdams examines what makes people become civically involved.

By Ed Finkel
Professor Dan McAdams

What makes individuals naturally inclined to become social change agents? The ongoing research of professor Dan McAdams, the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology at SESP, builds on the decades-old concept of “generativity”—an adult’s internal desire to contribute to the next generation, whether through parenting, work, or community and civic involvement.

“Generativity is about doing something important and good for the next generation—starting with raising kids and nurturing family life, but also expanding out to encompass things like civic engagement, political participation, involvement in religious institutions, volunteer work and other kinds of pro-social activities,” he says.

McAdams, who also serves as director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives, has focused most closely on the life narratives that highly generative adults build for and about themselves, usually by the time they hit midlife. These narratives provide inspiration and internal support for what they do.

Stories Support Civic Efforts

“It’s really hard to be a highly generative adult,” he says. “There are so many other things to do. You can stay home and watch TV. Nobody makes you go out and vote or work to improve your neighborhood. But if that’s the kind of life you set out for yourself, you need support. Some of that support is psychological support, and in particular, having a really good story for your life that supports and reinforces that generative activity … provides a great framework of meaning for why you do what you do.”

For example, McAdams worked with a team of Canadian researchers who were examining the life stories of environmental activists, who were often younger than the middle-aged people McAdams typically focuses on, but who expressed high levels of generativity.

“They often have this early experience where the protagonist of the story feels singled out for some special advantage,” he says. “Somebody cut them a break or they had some special talent: ‘I was blessed. I was lucky. I caught something positive early on in my life.’ ”

For the young environmentalists, those early chapters of their stories often have something to do with appreciation of the natural environment and its fragility. Other highly generative adults have a similar sense of their own fortune in the context of others’ suffering that compels them to act, McAdams says.

“I’m one of the people who experienced, early on, something good and positive,” he says, summarizing the mindset. “But I also knew early on that there are problems in the world, bad things happen, there’s suffering. For the environmentalists, it can be issues with climate change and so forth.”

Psychological Noblesse Oblige

Highly generative adults often start their stories by telling the listener that they feel destined to make a positive difference in the world. “It’s kind of a psychological noblesse oblige,” McAdams says. “It’s my duty because I’m fortunate and many others are not.” Such adults are very much involved in their communities and in large social networks. “It’s not surprising that they would see themselves as above the norm in some ways,” he says. “It is interesting in some ways how they set it up, early in life, looking back. They put it together as ‘I’m this gifted hero who journeys forth into a difficult world, and therefore I’ve got a responsibility; I’m on a special mission.’”

While such stories are inspiring in many ways, they sometimes carry undertones of narcissism, naïvete and self-seriousness, McAdams suggests. “These kinds of narratives are occasionally a little heavy,” he says, “but you take the bad with the good, and it’s mostly good. They’re especially effective stories in American life, where we love stories about big heroes who change things.”

McAdams’ research has found that Americans who see themselves as highly generative are particularly prone to telling self-stories with a theme of redemption. “The idea that bad leads to good, or suffering leads to being redeemed, is sometimes more important than the themes of early advantage and the suffering of others,” he says.

He adds, “In real life, redemption doesn’t always follow a negative event. Yet, sometimes these highly generative adults will jump through all kinds of rhetorical hoops to find a redemptive theme in their life stories … They’re sort of hell-bent, many of them, to find positive meanings in the midst of suffering.”

Generativity and Social Change

In considering how the concepts of generativity and life narratives apply to civic engagement and social change, McAdams notes that the words “social change” are “politically loaded,” suggesting to some people a liberal mindset. A self-described liberal, he is careful to delineate the fact that “highly generative adults come in conservative as well as liberal colors.”

When McAdams gives talks to groups skewed toward one end of the political spectrum—from more liberal-leaning academia to more conservative business organizations—he sometimes has to push back against prejudiced notions. He recalls one audience member at a chamber of commerce who asked, “Can a Democrat even be generative?” McAdams responded, “Whoa, liberals usually ask that about conservatives.”

Frequently, highly generative adults have strong political views of one persuasion or another. To conservatives, the idea of social change often has a “bring-back-the-good-days quality, a restoration,” McAdams says. “Like Reagan’s ‘Morning in America.’ There is this kind of conception of social change … of bringing back something that was lost, a golden age.”

Bringing back the past makes highly generative liber-als nervous because they’re more likely to focus on the downsides of history, according to McAdams. “They see a lot of bad things about the past,” he says. “For them, change is more along the lines of not bringing back something that was good but rather continuing to progress and make the future different and better than the past.”

The Draw of Civic Engagement

The bottom line, McAdams says, is that both sides of the political divide are equally capable of being generative and bringing about their particular flavor of social change—and conservatives and liberals agree on the overall value of civic engagement, even as they might have somewhat different emphases on how to become generative.

“‘Civic engagement’ is a term that appeals to both liberals and conservatives,” he says. “You can engage in all sorts of things, from the environmental movement to an evangelical church. Of course conservatives and liberals want people to vote, want people to be involved in civic organizations.”

“Conservatives are probably more about the military, churches, those kinds of things, where liberals are somewhat more skeptical of institutions that have strong authority behind them,” he adds. “But overall, highly generative adults are likely to believe in institutions and encourage others to be civically involved.”

Put another way, civically engaged adults believe it’s important to develop a new generation of young people to carry their goals forward.