There are certain times in our lives that society deems it appropriate for us to explore alternative careers and personal identities. Erik Erikson describes these periods as “psycho-social moratoria.” Most of us are given a moratorium during our late teens and early twenties. Young men, in particular, are given the opportunity to explore new realities through the military. Among young women, only those from the middle and upper classes have been granted a moratorium. They become college students. Women from less secure financial backgrounds have typically never experienced a moratorium. Traditionally, they usually move directly from their family of origin to marriage. These young working-class women immediately establish their own families and assume major homemaking responsibilities, as well as often working at least part time to help with the family’s precarious finances.
Many other people in our society are also denied a moratorium because they may have been assigned their identity early in life. Perhaps their father and grandfather were doctors, so this young man or woman will also be a doctor. Alternatively, the young person may have spent their entire life fighting for survival as the child of an unemployed or homeless parent. This person will never experience a moratorium but, instead, probably will spend most of his life as an unemployed adult living in one of America’s slums. The exploration of alternative identities has been foreclosed for both the predestined physician and the child of poverty.
There is often a dramatic intrusion of alternative identities later in life among middle class and upper middle-class mid-centurions whose identity was foreclosed early in life and among those who never experienced a moratorium during their adolescent years. These men and women often rebel as mature adults. Their inner voices assert themselves in strong and compelling ways. We see this played out in Jack Nicholson’s film portrayal of an identity-foreclosed man in Five Easy Pieces. Nicholson’s character rebels, having grown up in a musical family, without viable career options. He marries a woman without “culture” and takes a temporary job on an oil rig. Nicholson plays a man who faces a midlife crisis because he knows of no identity other than that of classical musician. His only option is to assume what Erikson calls the “negative identity.” The Nicholson character will randomly assume any identity as long as it is unrelated to serious music. He can be a day laborer, a logger, or even a piano player in a local dive. It only matters that he reacts against the identity assigned to him by his family and society.Download Article 1K Club