Different (Philosophical) Strokes For Different (Life-Staged) Folks

In my fascination with communicating across generational lines, I keep coming back to Kierkegaard’s idea that life’s got three primary stages: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. 

We can use these for guiding which types of stories will work AND which types of stories will fall on deaf ears. 

One housekeeping note first – Kierkegaard sort of ignores childhood, but these phases pick up with Aesthetic (coming of age), continue through Ethical (traditional midlife), and what he calls Religious (but we can translate to more than “god stuff,” and it occurs traditionally in later life). 

Importantly, not all people who hit the numeric age of these phases actually enter the psychological phases he’s describing. So what follows assumes a person’s development hasn’t entirely been arrested. And it’s still useful.

Thanks to some help from Encyclopedia Britannica, here are my notes and how I’m thinking of using it:

Aesthetic/coming-of-age: When your identity is tied up in what others think of you. It could be your parents. It could be your peers. It could be that miserable prick of a boss at your first “real” job whose nose is always runny, and despite you being his best employee he’s hung up on you being 2-minutes late. 

Ideas that work for aesthetics/coming-of-age kids: anything focused on perceived identity, especially in the eyes of whoever matters to them. Ideas that flop: non-performative or non-socially validated perspectives. 

Ethical/middle-age: When your identity is defined by accepting you both care and and are in  control of your behaviors and thoughts. It could be because you’ve gotten married. It could be because of your kids. It could be because you’ve accepted kids aren’t for you, nor is marriage, but you want to help runaway teens not get stuck in life. 

Ideas that work for ethical/middle-aged adults: When you’re focused on the good of the group you feel responsibility for. Ideas that flop: anything mercenary, miserly, or distracting from time they can spend with those they care about for no productive reason. 

Religious/sage-age: When the good of the group transcends what you can and can’t control, and you’re at peace with all of it. Kind of like a sage-like surrender. But it’s not entirely passive either – just less directly involved than putting your thumb on scales all the time like when you’re middle-aged. It’s more Yoda and less Obi-Wan. Be extra aware of some people trapped in a coming-of-age mentality who are using social proof (via religiosity or political ideology) while posing as old Yoda’s. It’s just a pose – they’re out there, watch out. 

Ideas that work for religious/sage-aged adults: big picture good in the world ideas. Actionable connection making, to topics or motivated middle-aged people who can and will help. Ideas that flop: anything too small or too much of a detail to not make a meaningful impact. 

If you’re a philosophy person and are already composing a detailed message to better explain the nuance of Kierkegaard to me – I’m waiting for you to talk me through this. Thanks in advance.

If you’re not, think about how you can use this. It pairs well with this “myth of stakeholders” idea too.

Identity evolves across life stages. I think these traditional “what we figure out at different phases of life” ideas are more consistent than I see people talking about. I don’t think I can teach stoicism to middle schoolers, but I bet middle-agers will buy another Ryan Holiday book if he wants to write one. Likewise, most sage-age folks aren’t exactly rushing to TikTok, but there’s no end in sight for that platform when we think about aesthetically-minded teens of middle-aged parents. 

If we tailor our message with these thoughts in mind, better conversations can and will happen.

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