Jung's Third Task of Aging: Defining Life Realistically
We hear quite a lot from the marketing community about how “cohort effects” play a major role in shaping people’s worldviews. It is said that people who experientially share the same experiences during their formative years take on behavioral characteristics in common that distinguishe them from people in other age cohorts.
Many marketing and consumer research professionals say the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s endowed boomers with behavioral characteristics that form a kind of collective personality still largely define them as individuals.
The cohort effect idea is not new. Before they started dying off in numbers, people who experienced the Great Depression in their formative years were widely characterized as tight-fisted with money and sporting stoic resistance to self-indulgence.
The idea that the Great Depression inspired mass frugality has been overplayed. In many cases, people were not so much tight-fisted as empty fisted. I was born at the bottom of the depression. I grew up in a large extended family (21 blood aunts and uncles plus spouses and cousins). Some of my relatives were tight-fisted. Others were destructively self-indulgent.
There are enough kernels of truth in the doctrine of cohort effect to make it appear more valid than it is. As a result, it suffers from mindless overuse.
Yes, the sexual revolution, recreation drugs, civil rights disorders and Vietnam War protests influenced boomers’ behavior in their formative years. But as the years have passed, boomers have undergone changes in their behavior. They have generally become less self-absorbed, less impetuous and more practical than they were during the Age of Aquarius.
Here is the problem I have with relying heavily on cohort effect fathom aging boomers: it obscures behavioral influences that stem from personality development processes over a person’s lifetime.
Developmental psychologist Dan McAdams sees us passing through four seasons of life, each of which is approximately 20 years in duration, and each of which has a primary developmental objective, main life focus and a “mythic theme” – the narrative tone of one’s unfolding life. Regardless of external events during a cohort’s formative years, primary developmental objectives, main life focus, and narrative themes predispose the general nature of cohort members’ worldviews, needs and behavior.
The primary developmental of Spring is to arrive in adulthood prepared for success. Its main life focus is play and its mythic theme is fantasy. Play and fantasy assist learning by freeing the mind to soar in the realms of creativity.
Summer’s primary developmental objective is social and vocational advancement. The main life focus is work and the mythic theme is romantic and heroic: “Nothing can stop me. I will achieve great success in all that I put my mind to.”
Come Fall and we are faced with fulfilling the objective of developing spiritually – not necessarily in any religious sense, but in the sense of discovering and pursuing the deeper meanings of our life. The main life focus is the search for meaning, and the mythic theme is reality. It is the theme that the folks behind the Dove personal products brand is playing to in marketing to aging boomers with extraordinary success.
In Winter, the primary developmental objective is to develop a sense of oneness with all and reconcile the sweet and the bitter in life. The main life focus is reconciliation – finding harmony and peace with ourselves, others and life in general. Winter’s mythic theme is irony, reflecting a persistent anticipation that the unexpected is always around the corner – though not necessarily in a negative sense. In fact, the unexpected often delights the older person as much as it does a child. Irony is particularly therapeutic in how it helps us cope with what we can’t change. And, it often provides us with a certain comedic twist to ease the burdens of old age.
The primary developmental objective, main life focus and mythic theme of the season we are passing through largely frames the needs we have. These needs do more to shape our worldview and behavior than the socially shared experiences of our youth. But this is nearly totally ignored in marketing.
Aging boomers should be marketed to in terms of where they are in life now, not where they were “back then,” Yet, marketing often reflects the fantasy theme of Spring or the romantic, heroic theme mode of summer, sometimes in hollow reverie as recent Ameriprise ads did.
Relatively little marketing to boomers reflects the mythic theme of Fall which concerns Jung’s third task of aging – defining life realistically. Even less reflects the narrative theme of Winter.
Next: Part 2 of Defining Life Realistically