Downton Abbey, Adult Development, and Generativity
Performance art is and always has been a uniquely powerful medium for presenting life's most compelling and complicated themes. What it requires of us, the audience, is the “willing suspension of disbelief,” to quote Colerdige.
Then, if director and cast perform well, we gain privileged access to the dramatic situation, as if we were living within it, feeling its effects viscerally, with one difference of course. We are not destined to remain in its grip.When the performance ends, we regain a safe distance from the drama. We are free then to reflect upon it and learn.
Great performance art is not only distinctive in its capacity to hold us under its spell; it also leaves us as something more at its end. By that standard, I and many others have high praise for the BBC series, Downton Abbey. If you have not seen it, I encourage you to do so.
I will not try to recap the story in all its twists and turns, or describe the characters in great detail. However, I will refer to this drama to discuss themes in adult development important to us all.
If you have not at least sampled the series, you may wish to take a pass on this article since I will assume some familiarity with the first two seasons. However, if you have not watched Downton Abbey but remain interested in the topic of adult development and generativity, you may still find benefit in our discussion of the intersection of world events, social change, and crises in adult development.
The Earl of Grantham
When we consider the life of Robert, the Earl of Grantham, before World War I, we see a person whose development has progressed to the stage of “generativity” (see Erikson's psychosocial stages of development below). Generativity is a normatively positive state of adaptive development that manifests most fully as we enter midlife.
Robert, like any virtuous middle-aged adult, achieved a generative orientation only after having navigated several earlier stages of psychosocial development. Like us, however, Robert’s gains are not secured once and for all. Self is shaped by social influences, first in our family of origin, and later by the world at large. This dynamic shaping effect is continuous throughout life.
As we will discuss, the impacts of intervening world events figure prominently in the life of Robert. In order to appreciate the impact of these external events, we must appreciate his social position. The social stratum into which he was born and within which he took his cues is unique. This is a context we enter without choice, which conditions all future choices.
He is a “noble,” which implies privileges and responsibilities very different from the rest of the population. Even so, virtually all those who interact with him recognize his concern for the well being of others and his intention to do the right thing. He is a man of integrity, and despite his lofty social position, seems quite self-possessed.
His aristocratic caste is really quite different than the so-called 1% in our contemporary American society. They have many privileges, but far fewer responsibilities, that is, social responsibilities.
His generative concern is expressed largely through his stewardship of Downton Abbey, his role in sustaining succession, and devotion to what he owes to "King and Country." We might be put off by the felt oppression of this social system on those in the lower strata, but all things considered, the Earl is a man of virtue. He has cultivated an ethic of care for those who depend upon him, above, below, within and beyond the family's estate.
His care is expressed personally in the affection, patience, and encouragement he offers his heir, Matthew. It is also manifest in his readiness to place the greater good of Downton above the financial interest of his immediate nuclear family. He subordinates himself to a higher purpose yet feels a sense of personal honor and significance in his role. He identifies with it.
True, his marriage was motivated by the need to sustain Downton Abbey with the dowry of a wealthy American, but his intentions were proper to his role and social duty. He treats others with respect within the socially prescribed boundaries of their role and station in life.
In sum, Robert seems to be a person of appropriate humility, well-grounded in his social role, a person who knows, as the American expression goes, "that he was born on third base."
So far, then, Robert has adaptively developed:
trust in the potential for relationships to be safe and helpful, leading to an attitude of hope;
autonomy as an individual, notably the capacity to say "no," leading to the formation of will;
initiative to form goals and organize actions to realize them, leading to assertion of purpose;
industry as a productive agent, using appropriate social/technical means, leading to competence;
identity as a clear, integrated sense of self and being true to who he is, leading to fidelity.
intimacy through forming deep, enduring, mutual bonds of devotion to others, leading to love; and
generativity expressed as concern/actions to empower/encourage the next generation, leading to the virtue of care.
Before the war, the Earl of Grantham is a well-adjusted, generative presence in his home, in his community, and in his nation. Absent the intervening disruptions of world events, he would likely have continued to function at a rather high generative level. But the war breaks out, and the attention of everyone turns to the drama of this life-changing event, which he is destined to observe from the sidelines.
World Events, Social Change, and Identity
"We've dreamed a dream, my dear, but now it is over. The world was in a dream before the war but now it's woken up and said goodbye to it. And so must we." – Robert, Lord Grantham
As the war proceeds, we observe Robert experiencing feelings of stagnation and despair. He loses his sense of purpose and vital engagement. His role and identity are thrown into question. This causes an inward turn.
Not only does he lose the basis for his generative orientation, even his capacity for intimacy with his wife is shaken. While he is feeling role confusion and a loss of purpose, she is experiencing role enrichment and gains in purpose. Her wartime role of managing Downton's support for recovering war casualties calls forth new expression of her generative energies.
In Robert's experience and reactions we witness the vulnerability to regression. It is proof that our gains can be undone by world events. We are reminded of just how much self identity and role are intertwined with the larger currents that impinge upon us and make adaptive demands for change.
There is a reason that generativity follows six prior psychosocial stages in Erikson's theory. One is less able to invest generously in others when one is preoccupied with retaining or recovering a sense of social-emotional significance (see table below). Conservative, self-protective forces prevail in these moments. Robert's identity is in crisis.
Characteristics of Generativity
Characteristics of Stagnation
· Attitude of care and inclusion
· Open to experience
· Tolerant of differences
· Creative-productive tendencies
· Broad scope of concern
· Other-focused (next generation)
· Conscious of being a guide
· Generous, readily imparts knowledge
· Encourage others to lead in own voice
· Emphasis on the interpersonal
· Attitude of exclusion (rejectivity)
· Closed to experience
· Intolerant of differences
· Conservative tendencies
· Narrow scope of concern
· Focused on personal needs
· Ungenerous, little selfless giving
· Enforce current practices
· Emphasis on the instrumental
His subjective awareness of this change is expressed in the quotation above. It is a rather spontaneous, reflective observation shared with his wife. The meaning of this insight has not yet registered fully for Robert. The war is over and both Robert and Lady Grantham are finding their way back to one another and initiating the task of redefining their lives.
Post-war Re-integration of Self
By saying that Robert is experiencing a crisis in identity, we need not imply that he must totally reconstitute his self. Indeed, much of his early, adaptive development in life serves him well as he copes with the challenge of redefining his role, responsibilities, and his sense of personal significance.
If we pause and reflect at this point, we can observe a few important themes that manifest in Robert's adjustment to change. First, although reserved, self-contained, and stoic by breeding, we do see moments when Robert expresses extreme confusion, fatigue, and despair over the disruptive effects of the war. He seeks to understand, not to deny the change.
We also see his resilience. His fundamental tendency to place trust in relationships and others is never really dashed. Hope flickers but is never extinguished. He knows that forces beyond his control are real and cannot be denied. They must be suffered, survived. His sense of autonomy flags, but he eventually reasserts his will in prosocial and adaptive ways.
Asserting initiative and demonstrating industry at times seemed futile to Robert. His sense ofpurpose was compromised in the chaos of events outside and within Downton. At moments he asserted old standards of judgment that collided with the new reality. This left him questioning his competence as an agent of action in the new world.
These aspects of self - self as potent agent of action - were perhaps the most central themes of frustration for Robert. He was left feeling irrelevant. This was painfully obvious when he was commissioned as an officer, never to play an active role in the war, but purely for symbolic purposes to "buck up" the morale of others by parading about in his uniform.
He had been the single source of direction and authority at Downton. Then in meeting the call of duty, his wife and daughters, as well as his heir, were playing the important roles. Their roles were shaped by an urgent purpose to which he had no direct connection through an active and important role.
Hence the identity crisis. His sense of being someone whose life has purpose and significance was assaulted. With social norms changing and his sense of significance eroded, what core of identity was he supposed to be true to? His sense of fidelity to a prominent role of stewardship is lost. Instead, he is being taken care of more than caring for others.
Ultimately, of course, Robert has recourse to his identity as steward, but not as steward of continuity as much as a steward of change. Moreover, in that role he is more influenced now by the judgment and perspective of others.
The role of women has changed. The boundaries that separate people by class and social role have by now been called into question. These changes impinge on the personal sphere of his life at Downton. Norms are in flux. He adjusts adaptively in time by adopting a conciliatory tone and role.
In the experience of Robert, we observe in concrete terms all that Erikson's stage-model of adult development addresses conceptually. There are advances in development. Robert has become a secure, well-adjusted, generative adult in midlife. However, we observe that his development truly is the result of psychological and social factors.
Intervening events, the highly dramatic impacts of WWI, and emergent social changes that are accelerated by wartime conditions converge. Robert's well-integrated social role and personal identity are no longer functional. This sudden change arouses his defenses and his regression is marked by distress, frustration, denial, and feelings of confusion.
Finally, this regression slows as he acknowledges the changes that are underway, that the world is changing. His coping resources grow as he lets go of what was, recognizes his needs for help, and explores a more adaptive way of playing his stewardship role. He is more alert to the autonomy needs of his wife and daughters, and to their interdependencies.
Regression stops and resilience grows because of his basic capacity to trust in others and his deeply rooted sense of personal efficacy (autonomy and initiative). These are resources he can activate, and they help him to adapt his capabilities (industry) to assert his stewardship role in the new social reality. This, in turn, restores clarity to his identity, fidelity to a cause.
He is then able to bring a renewed and, indeed, increased air of openness (intimacy) to relations with his wife, daughters, and others. Now with a more mature, historically updated narrative of his world and his role as steward, he begins to recover his generative capacities. He makes room for healthy social change. He is making the turn to a proactive, prosocial role.
Each of us also must face change in the world or that slice of the world that most directly affects our well-being. When we feel frustrations build over time, and when we feel the first aggressive-defensive reactions that energize our resistance to change, can we pause, suspend the fight, and ask ourselves what is happening? Why do I feel this way?
It is in that question that regression slows, sources of resilience rally, and we are able to begin the adaptive path back. Back to what? It is the path back to a fully integrated awareness of our current reality, the outside changes and challenges, and our inside reactions to them. And it is the truth we obtain from this reflective stance that frees us for further growth.
Please use the space below to share questions and comments. I will respond. You may also contact me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Bill Macaux, Ph.D. MBA
Principal & Consulting Psychologist