Pursuing the satisfaction of our natural human needs is what motivates us. However, much effort is involved in doing so. It is a lifelong process, and we meet many challenges on the way. If we can overcome those challenges, then this contributes to a general sense of happiness and wellbeing. Happiness is a relatively short-lived emotion that we experience from time to time. However, wellbeing is a state of mind which persists for so long as we are satisfied. On the other hand, if we encounter insurmountable obstacles, then we can experience frustration, a low sense of wellbeing, ill health or even death.
Maslow’s theory maintains that needs lower in the hierarchy must be largely satisfied before we can move on to higher needs. However, as explained in an earlier article, there is little evidence that we do actually prioritise our needs in this way. There is not a simple correlation between age and the hierarchy of needs. Rather, several other factors can cause significant differences between generations and age-groups. They can also cause significant differences between individuals from the same generation and age-group. Examples of these factors include:
- Biological Factors. For example, our individual capabilities and the physiological and health risks that we face in childhood, as a parent, or in old age.
- Social Role. At different stages in our lives, society provides us with different forms of support and demands different forms of contribution. Some are common to all societies. For example, in childhood our existence needs are provided for by our parents. However, support and demands also vary according to the nature of our society, our gender, and our socio-economic status. Social support and demands are significant factors in deciding how we prioritise our needs at different stages in our lives.
- Cultural Change. The culture of a society can alter rapidly from generation to generation, and the prevailing culture in our formative years will affect our priorities in later life. Thus, different generations can be typified by different priorities, irrespective of age. Today, cultural change is far more rapid than it has been in the past and is, therefore, having a much greater influence.
- Significant Events. World Wars, epidemics, and economic depressions, when they occur, can reshape the priorities of all generations. However, if they occur during our formative years, they can have a particularly long-lasting effect on our priorities. This can cause different generations to be typified by different priorities.
- Time to Learn. It can take considerable time and effort to learn how to satisfy a need, sustain that satisfaction and deal with the difficulties associated with doing so. The natural world and human society are both extraordinarily complex. Understanding them and learning successful behaviour requires much effort, therefore, and whilst making that effort we age.
Thus, whilst there is a general trend in the way that different age-groups prioritise their needs, there is also considerable variability as different generations come to occupy an age-group. There is also considerable variability between individuals within an age-group.
Some examples from Western society may serve to demonstrate how the above factors interact to cause a general trend in the priorities of different age groups. Whilst this trend may be true of humanity in general it is not necessarily so for the individual.
- When we are born, we aspire to satisfy our existence needs, i.e., food, warmth, shelter, etc. Satisfiers are, of course, provided by our parents and we must merely cry or smile when a need arises. Our social skills are innate, and we have yet to develop the cognitive skills to pursue higher needs.
- In our teens and early twenties, security in the provision of our basic needs continues to be provided by our parents, and so, our aspirations focus on social relatedness. Historically, we would seek a partner and reproduce in our teens and early twenties, so biological factors may also have a part to play.
- Later, as we raise children, our existence needs must be secured for us to do so successfully. An example is the desire to own a home of our own because, in most cases, our need for shelter will previously have been satisfied in a less secure way by living with our parents or by renting.
- It has been suggested that our large brains evolved to enable successful social interaction. However, these brains also bestow on us the ability to safeguard the satisfaction of our existence and relatedness needs. This is where our aspirations are next likely to be focused, therefore. However, the way in which we satisfy this need is also affected by our cultural upbringing. In some cases, it may be by accumulating wealth and property. In other cases, it may be by building strong social connectedness and support networks.
- Our large brains also give us a need for meaning in our lives, curiosity, creativity, and an ability to master complex skills. It is to these that we turn when other needs are largely satisfied. Due to the time involved in learning how to satisfy all our needs, these tend to come to the fore as we become older. It is notable, however, that some creative people will forego the satisfaction of lesser needs.
- A culture can assign different roles to different genders. Furthermore, hormones are known to affect the state of mind of both sexes. It is conceivable, therefore, that there are gender differences in the way that we prioritise and satisfy our needs. Unfortunately, little objective research has been done on this subject.
- Finally, evidence from surveys shows that the need for safety or freedom from existential threat is a more significant aspiration amongst older people.
In very general terms then, but with much variance, the Western trend in priorities can be summarized as: the satisfaction of existential needs as a small child; relatedness needs in our teens and early twenties; safety and procreation needs in later adulthood; and security, safety and growth needs thereafter.