“Anything that’s in your character at twenty-one,” says a businessman in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night (1934), “is usually there to stay.” By the age of 30, most people’s “character has set like plaster, and will never soften again,” wrote the psychologist William James in 1890. The exact timing varies, but it’s an old idea: there arrives a moment in life when we become essentially fixed, psychically unmalleable.
The psychologist Erik Homburger Erikson, a Jew born in Germany, would develop a more expansive view of things. In 1927, when he was 25 years old, a spell as a wandering art tutor landed him in Vienna – home and hotbed of psychoanalysis. Erikson made the acquaintance of the Freuds, and the discovery of the talking cure “opened a life’s work” for him. Soon after Erikson completed his training, the darkening shadow of Nazism began to worry Vienna’s psychoanalytic community, which was overwhelmingly Jewish. In 1933, with mobs burning Freud’s books, Erikson and his wife fled for the US. They would remain there for the rest of their lives.
Through his 30s and 40s, Erikson moved between the coasts, combining a private psychoanalysis practice with work in universities and medical schools. He entered the cultural mainstream with his first book, Childhood and Society (1950), which introduced his framework proposing that human development doesn’t grind to a halt after one or two or three decades, but continues through “eight stages of man.” Each of these eight stages, Erikson theorized, is defined by a pair of opposing emotional forces. Properly resolving the tension between these forces bestows one with an important virtue.