Centre for Employment Studies Research

CESR Review: April 2008

Book reviews

(a) The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans live by. Dan P McAdams (2006), NY: OUP (390pp)

(b) Giving: How each of us can change the world. Bill Clinton (2007), NY: Knopf (240pp)

‘When I left the White House, I didn’t know exactly what I would do, but I wanted to help save lives, solve important problems, and give more young people the chance to live their dreams.’ In these words from the introduction to his book on Giving, Bill Clinton gives classic expression to Erik Erikson’s notion of ‘generativity’, middle aged people’s desire to contribute to the well-being of future generations.

As a construct, generativity has so far received scant attention from British investigators, although its practical manifestations in mentoring and other ‘organisational citizenship behaviours’ have been examined often enough. Generativity seems poised, however, to become a central theme in research concerning ageing work forces throughout the world, its prominence due in large part to a 20-year programme of research by Dan McAdams, which has won generativity a place in the mainstream of academic psychology. In The Redemptive Self, McAdams introduces this research to a wider audience, combining it with his well-known approach to narrative psychology in an analysis of the part generativity plays in American adults’ self-defining life histories. Highly generative adults, it seems, tell stories which emphasise early advantage (eg exceptional gifts or favourable circumstances), empathy for others’ suffering, and development of a coherent belief system which fuel the different forms of social contribution, creative and nurturant, which constitute a person’s legacy to the future. For such individuals, few experiences are so negative that they cannot be transformed into a story of transcendence.

McAdams discusses ways in which generative individuals’ optimistic ‘redemption narratives’ both tap and infuse American culture. Early chapters explore cultural scripts which draw on the defining stories of American history, characteristically American expressions of religious belief, philosophies of self-help and ‘positive’ psychology, and Americans’ sense of being a chosen people. The tone darkens as he contrasts these often naïve and superficial accounts with slave narratives, racism endemic in American society, and the personal stories of those whose lives turn out badly. He discusses what he believes to be characteristically American resistance to exploring hidden recesses of the self, arguing that some of the appeal of the redemption narrative may lie in the reassuring self-deception and happy endings it allows. In short, at the same time as commending generativity, he shows the ambivalence, murky depths, and lack of self-awareness which often lurk beneath its surface.

Giving is Bill Clinton’s exhortation to active citizenship. Its 200-odd pages tell hundreds of stories of individuals (including the very poorest) who have tried to make the world a better place. Clinton has separate chapters on different forms and contexts of giving (money, time, things, skills, reconciliation, self-perpetuating gifts, and so on). In the last part of his book, he touches briefly, and simply, on the institutional and economic context of citizenship, including corporate giving and the role of government. Very little of his analysis, however, addresses structural inequalities between rich and poor, or systemic indifference or resistance in the USA or elsewhere to the causes he advocates (such as combating poverty and climate change). Whilst he acclaims the givers, he appears to see no point in naming or shaming the takers.

This is an activist’s not an academic’s book. There is much here to challenge individual conscience and corporate policy. Disappointingly, there is barely a glimmer of the political analysis for which Clinton is famous. Rather, the book’s tone is personal (Clinton has met most of the army of givers whose story he tells) and inspirational; it is only very rarely self-critical – as when he acknowledges having turned a blind eye to genocide in Rwanda. It is steeped in the personal empathy for which he is also famed. Although Clinton does not mention the word, his book, like McAdams’, is about generativity. However, whilst Clinton may be anything but naïve concerning the darker corners of the heart and the morally ambiguous and self-serving nature of much American self-narration, he does not probe beneath the surface of his subject. He seems to have decided that this is not the place to question motivations for giving, or the social structures which make many people dependent on others’ gifts. Giving, he argues, makes you happy – whether your gift takes the form of political and social activism, volunteering for a local cause, or contributing to charity. Readers who are troubled by this apparently simplistic message may find it interesting that, according to McAdams’ and others’ generativity research, he may often be right.

Mike Clark, CESR

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