Today let’s continue to ponder a topic on so many of our minds: growing older. If we’re lucky, we’re doing it. The question is how to think about it and do it well. By this I decidedly don’t mean how to self-help yourself through your older decades a la the wellness industry. It’s time to relinquish Goopified “wellness” and its pretentious, pseudo-scientific, narcissistic message. Instead let’s talk about getting on with, to quote Neil Peart, z”l, “the fascination, the real relation, the underlying theme…”
I’ve been reading voraciously on this topic and want to start the conversation with iconoclast Betty Friedan who led a vibrant “older” life after birthing the womens’ movement in 1963 with The Feminine Mystique. I recently finished her 1993 tome, The Fountain of Age, in which she identifies a parallel “mystique of age.” Just as women were once identified solely in the sexual/biological terms of wife and mother, she argues, so older people in our society are now seen through the lens of the “mystique of inevitable decline.” Overlooking the millions of older Americans who have embarked on significant new careers, become more fit and healthy than ever before, and after exiting the career and family rat race, forged the sort of deeper social and communal connections that give life its real meaning, our “youth culture” continues to make assumptions about the health, vitality, lucidity, and validity of the aging. They are rendered invisible. We shunt them off to depressing senior communities where they cannot share their wisdom intergenerationally. Or we keep them physically in our midst but almost as apparitions that aren’t fully seen or heard.
There are far too many fascinating topics in Friedan’s 671-page work to discuss in a single post, so today I’d like to just start with one, namely, the idea that “vital aging” requires an evolved synthesis of the male and female in one’s personality. Friedan uncovered this idea from hundreds of interviews she conducted with older men and women who seemed to be leading the most productive and fulfilling second lives.
First, the women. By most metrics, women age better than men. They live healthier and longer, show more resilience, and find greater happiness in their later years. Friedan attributes this primarily to their being more accustomed to shifting identities, given the many roles they play over the course of their lives. Too, there is the process of menopause which for many becomes a rebirth of the self—women grow “beyond obsession with youth” and become “comfortably, vitally who they are.” But there is something else. The happiest of older women are those who become more “bold, assertive, commanding, [and] adventurous” she found—in other words, who exhibit more classically masculine traits.
This is decidedly not the reactive posture of “exchanging the mask of passive, helpless, pseudo-femininity for defensive, machismo fake-masculinity,” but rather a coming into their own and an assumption of agency. Her examples include women who, following the emptying of their nest, went on to earn PhDs, run organizations, volunteer or even just finally have the time to forge deeper friendships. No matter what the pursuit, the important piece was their own deciding and acting, not having a particular role or obligation externally foisted on them.
The flipside of this is that Friedan noticed that the men who settled most comfortably into later age were those who turned inward and let go of youthful ambitions for wealth and power, focusing instead on their more “passive, nurturing, or contemplative”—or traditionally feminine—qualities. The men she interviewed tended to talk about the difficulty of transitioning from their decades-long monolithic careers and roles as providers into the unstructured abyss of retirement. Their old mental models did not work here. The ones who found satisfaction learned to seek experiences over goals and to forge deeper social connections, with both their partners and children, and with like-minded friends in pursuits ranging from book clubs to travel groups. Given our cultural norms, these men almost sound a little emasculated, but make no mistake, their choices reflect agency no less than the womens’.
Learning to get off the hamster wheel and live in the moment is not a form of passivity and bland acceptance of fate. It can be as demanding, or more, than striving for goals. Among other things, it involves difficult self-work: letting down your guard, admitting who you really are, what you really enjoy, and working to develop that all the while drowning out an endless stream of distractions.
Friedan makes a convincing case that what she calls “sex role crossovers” figure heavily into later-life contentedness. Yes, in our woke times we like to think of ourselves as more evolved in our understanding of sex roles than perhaps this analysis admits, but who cares about getting up on that high horse? There is truth and wisdom in Friedan’s thinking about vital aging as, at last, integrating our masculine and feminine dimensions, and it is well worth reflecting upon as we, too, start to need to make sense of where we are heading in our older years.