Indigenous Cultural Generativity: Teaching Future Generations to Improve Our Quality of Life
Indigenous cultural generativity is defined as any act of an older adult where they pass on traditional values, subsistence practices, language, beliefs, customs, and any other activity that preserves and passes on the culture of the family and community. The passage of this knowledge is to improve the quality of life for the family and community and ensure a healthy future for the next seven generations (Lewis and Allen 2017). To better understand this term, here is the definition of generativity. Being generative means contributing to the maintenance and enhancement of the contexts in which the individual participates (families, communities, companies, etc.), reinforcing social institutions, enriching social networks, and ensuring continuity across generations (Villar 2011). The concern is establishing and guiding the next generation and also involves the expansion of care beyond oneself toward others (Erikson 1950). There are several types of generativity, and this one focuses on communal generativity (Kotre 1984), and a new form of generativity focused on sharing your legacy to improve the health and well-being of a population, which is the primary focus and purpose of Alaska Native older adults engaging in Indigenous cultural generativity.
The concept of generativity is important in most Alaska Native and Indigenous cultures. Indigenous older adults refer to this as caring for the future, or seventh, generation and engaging in generative behaviors and acts to preserve the history and culture of the community to ensure the youth can be healthy, which is in direct contrast to how mainstream Americans view life and their reasoning for being generative. Crain (1992) explains that in the United States, our Western values emphasize independent achievement to the extent that people become involved in themselves and their successes and neglect the responsibility of caring for others. It is important to note that generativity is a personal resource given to others and is not used to eliminate the older adults’ own stress and life events (Keyes and Ryff 1998) but instead is used to improve the quality of society. The concept of generativity also contributes to the older adults’ quality of life and how they rate their health and well-being.
Most Indigenous older adults agree that to serve the community is a gift, an honor, and one of their responsibilities as an Indigenous person. To transmit their knowledge and skills to the youth, there is a need to focus on building community through intergenerational learning to ensure healthy development of the community and its members. With the advent of technology and its increasing presence in communities, there are sociocultural changes occurring. McAdams et al. (1998) asserted that “generative mismatch” (p. 610) occurs when social changes in modern societies are so fast that the older generations’ experiences and abilities to offer guidance fail to match the demands of the youth for new knowledge. The gap of knowledge between older adults and the youth today is growing at an unprecedented pace with the advent of technology, including television, the Internet, cell phones, and video games. The information and knowledge youth are seeking are not always the knowledge older adults possess, which results in reduced intergenerational contact. Studies demonstrate that when older adults do not feel engaged or respected for their knowledge by the youth, they will stop sharing and this can have a negative impact on their mental well-being and quality of life.
Key Research Findings
Although already identified as a topic associated with successful aging (e.g., Erikson and Erikson 1997; Fisher 1995), generativity has not received much attention in the mental health or Indigenous literatures. Very little research, if any, has been conducted with Indigenous populations and their understanding of generativity and its role in well-being and mental health. A key element of a psychosocial development theory by Erik Erikson (1997) is the concept of generativity, which is defined as the urge to contribute to the well-being of other people, particularly the younger generations. Kotre (1984) defines generativity as the desire to invest one’s substance in forms of life and work that will outlive the self. This concept can be applied to most Indigenous older adults with their desire to be involved with their family and community, teach and engage in cultural practices, and pass on their knowledge to ensure the younger people have the tools, stories, and wisdom to become healthy Indigenous peoples. Baltes and Baltes (1990) discussed generativity and wisdom as important elements of a standardized definition of an ideal state of growing older. Achieving generativity, along with good health, should be considered a strong indicator of successful aging (Schoklitsch and Baumann 2012) and mental well-being. Vaillant (2004) stated, “the mastery of generativity should be strongly correlated with successful adaptation to old age, for to keep it, you have to give it away” (p. 220), which is same sentiment of Indigenous older adults and their desire to pass on what they know to the younger generations. Through this sharing, Indigenous older adults grow stronger and healthier, and the stories they share grow; from sharing about overcoming adversity and what that has taught them in life to also being able to share stories of how life has changed after reconnecting with culture and becoming who they were meant to be.
Indigenous older adults tend to be considered “Keepers of the meaning,” which is a term coined by psychoanalyst George Vaillant (1977) to define a person who is located between the seventh and eighth stages of Erikson’s stages of development (between generativity and ego-integrity). These individuals are concerned with preserving a culture’s traditions in order to preserve their way of living and being for the future generations and teach them how to live a life according to their cultural values. In a study by Manheimer (1995), his subjects demonstrated a capacity to transform an experience of failure or personal agony into a morally instructive account that functions to redeem the past and throw light on the present and future. What makes the narratives of his subjects redemptive is the way a source of pain, anger, vulnerability, trauma, or humiliation becomes a vehicle leading to pleasure, satisfaction, strength, solace, and pride, what Kotre (1984) himself calls the “transformation of defect” (p. 263). Through a lifetime of experiences, reflection, and teachings, Indigenous older adults are able to transform their past misfortunes, hardships, and personal challenges because they could place their personal experiences in a broader context, which enable them to find common words for their struggles and provided a community with whom they could share their experiences (i.e., family members, community members). Not only were they willing to share these experiences, but they grounded them in the cultural values and customs of their family and community and used them as vehicles to teach lessons and appropriate behaviors through storytelling.
While cultural generativity is a term discussed in the generativity literature, Indigenous cultural generativity builds upon this term and embeds it within the cultural values and practices that form the identity and sense of purpose for Alaska Native older adults. What makes this new term, Indigenous cultural generativity, unique is that the act of passing down cultural values, life stories, and traditional practices provided these Indigenous older adults an opportunity to reflect on their experiences and share lessons learned, which has a positive impact on their mental health and well-being. These acts also enable older adults to share stories that preserve their history, language, and cultural practices and values. A second unique aspect of this work is that Indigenous older adults share all of this with others, not as a way to preserve their own legacy but to ensure the health and well-being of their families and communities; they wish to leave the world better than they found it and ensure their families and communities have the tools, stories, and values to live a healthy and productive life through engagement in activities that are meaningful and enable them to be proud, despite previous challenges or adversity. Older adults share their stories of adversity, not as a way to bring up the past and feel shame but to take the experience as a lesson to learn from to ensure we avoid similar situations in the future and continue to do the best we can with what we have.
As for quality of life of all ages, specifically mental health and overcoming challenges, these older adults reflect back on adversity they experienced, when they were at their lowest, or when they lost connection to others; they did not to talk about how bad life was but shared the importance of healing yourself, and when you feel the time is right, you share your story and use your story to help others heal. Older adults remind us that our past experiences and behaviors do not define us, nor should we continue to relive those memories as a punishment or feel ashamed but to reflect on those moments as lessons and find their meaning that put them on a new path of healing and improved quality of life. Everything happens in life for a reason, and we need to reflect on those experiences to learn the lesson, apply it to our lives, and, when the timing is right, share our own journey on how we became who we were meant to be.
Examples of Application
The most commonly discussed activity where older adults feel generative is working with the youth, such as volunteering in schools or leading activities with the youth in their community. Several schools in Alaska Native communities provide an Elder lunch where they eat with the school kids as well as spend time participating in classroom activities, including storytelling and teaching cultural activities (sewing, beading, preparing and storing traditional foods, teaching Native languages). Most Indigenous older adults agree that to serve the community is a gift and one of their responsibilities as an Indigenous person, but there continue to be challenges. To transmit knowledge and skills to the youth, there is a need to focus on building the community through intergenerational learning.
Specific ways Indigenous cultural generativity can be applied in your family and community include classroom volunteering, cultural demonstrations, teaching language, grandparents spending time with grandchildren, teaching their children how to prepare traditional recipes, sharing their knowledge and experiences or raising children, and sharing stories of their family and community. When developing activities that encourage elder and youth involvement (i.e., generative activities), asking older adults directly what they want to share enables them to participate in activities that enable them to share their knowledge and experiences, which contribute to their sense of purpose, identity, and well-being.
Future Directions for Research
Current studies on generativity are becoming more common in the literature, which may be a result of the growing older adult population, but the generative mismatch and growing differences between generations lead to challenges. One of the challenges facing older adults across the globe, but particularly Indigenous older adults, is the receptivity of these stories and lessons shared by the older adults to the younger generations. Youth today are raised in a technological society, and many younger children have never lived without a cellphone, computer, or television in their home. Indigenous older adults grew up in a very different world, some without electricity, growing up in sod houses, and living completely off the resources from the land. Their stories of childhood are not the same as children today, so we are beginning to see a gap between older adults and the youth and common topics of interest. What older adults wish to share and pass down does not align with interests of our Indigenous youth, and we need to continue working collaboratively with Indigenous older adults and communities to address the generative mismatch and technological gaps. Without common interests where older adults feel heard and appreciated, they will disengage and discontinue their sharing, resulting in poorer mental health outcomes and disengagement, which can also lead to poor health.
Further research is needed to explore the benefits of older adults sharing their stories and which types of activities (generative behaviors or acts) bring more benefit to the older adults (mental and physical health outcomes). Research also needs to explore the development of peer-based mentoring across same age cohorts to help other older adults rediscover their cultural motivations and begin their journey of becoming who they were meant to be. The primary focus of generativity is on the transmission of knowledge and skills to younger people, and further research needs to explore whether older adults experience same benefits for generative behaviors and acts when knowledge is shared across the same age cohorts.
Older people find opportunities for generative actions across a number of different domains and that this enhances self-perceptions of value and feelings of well-being. However, causality and direction cannot be inferred; it may be that enhanced well-being in older adults encourages and facilitates the performance of generative actions, or the other way around. Those who feel more generative may take better care of themselves to maintain their ability to contribute, engage in more social and productive activity, and experience greater affective well-being, all of which may be paths to better physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
Many Indigenous peoples experience early life adversity, which impacts their lives to some degree. As they age, these early experiences may result in maladaptive behaviors, including substance misuse, abuse, or self-harm, all of which prevent them from fulfilling role expectations or achieving Eldership. Reconnecting to an Indigenous identity, sharing that journey, and seeing their experiences help others overcome challenges and find meaning in life enable older adults to engage in Indigenous cultural generative acts and behaviors, resulting in them attaining Eldership. This knowledge can guide development of culture-specific mental health treatment approaches across the life course and, more broadly, prevention strategies for all ages. This intergenerational healing can result in pride and improved mental health for Alaska Native and all people.
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