Stage five is adolescence, beginning with puberty and ending around 18 or 20
years old. The task during adolescence is to achieve ego identity and avoid role confusion. It was adolescence that interested
Erikson first and most, and the patterns he saw here were the bases for his thinking about all the other stages.
Ego identity means knowing who you are and how you fit in to the rest of society.
It requires that you take all you've learned about life and yourself and mold it into a unified self-image, one that your
community finds meaningful.
There are a number of things that make things easier: First, we should have
a mainstream adult culture that is worthy of the adolescent's respect, one with good adult role models and open lines of communication.
Further, society should provide clear rites of passage, certain accomplishments
and rituals that help to distinguish the adult from the child. In primitive and traditional societies, an adolescent boy may
be asked to leave the village for a period of time to live on his own, hunt some symbolic animal, or seek an inspirational
vision. Boys and girls may be required to go through certain tests of endurance, symbolic ceremonies, or educational events.
In one way or another, the distinction between the powerless, but irresponsible, time of childhood and the powerful and responsbile
time of adulthood, is made clear.
Without these things, we are likely to see role confusion, meaning an uncertainty
about one's place in society and the world. When an adolescent is confronted by role confusion, Erikson say he or she is suffering
from an identity crisis. In fact, a common question adolescents in our society ask is a straight-forward question of identity:
"Who am I?"
One of Erikson's suggestions for adolescence in our society is the psychosocial
moratorium. He suggests you take a little "time out." If you have money, go to Europe. If you don't, bum around the U.S. Quit
school and get a job. Quit your job and go to school. Take a break, smell the roses, get to know yourself. We tend to want
to get to "success" as fast as possible, and yet few of us have ever taken the time to figure out what success means to us.
A little like the young Oglala Lakota, perhaps we need to dream a little.
There is such a thing as too much "ego identity," where a person is so involved
in a particular role in a particular society or subculture that there is no room left for tolerance. Erikson calls this maladaptive
tendency fanaticism. A fanatic believes that his way is the only way. Adolescents are, of course, known for their idealism,
and for their tendency to see things in black-and-white. These people will gather others around them and promote their beliefs
and life-styles without regard to others' rights to disagree.
The lack of identity is perhaps more difficult still, and Erikson refers to
the malignant tendency here as repudiation. They repudiate their membership in the world of adults and, even more, they repudiate
their need for an identity. Some adolescents allow themselves to "fuse" with a group, especially the kind of group that is
particularly eager to provide the details of your identity: religious cults, militaristic organizations, groups founded on
hatred, groups that have divorced themselves from the painful demands of mainstream society. They may become involved in destructive
activities, drugs, or alcohol, or you may withdraw into their own psychotic fantasies. After all, being "bad" or being "nobody"
is better than not knowing who you are!
If you successfully negotiate this stage, you will have the virtue Erikson
called fidelity. Fidelity means loyalty, the ability to live by societies standards despite their imperfections and incompleteness
and inconsistencies. We are not talking about blind loyalty, and we are not talking about accepting the imperfections. After
all, if you love your community, you will want to see it become the best it can be. But fidelity means that you have found
a place in that community, a place that will allow you to contribute.