At 50, Karl Pillemer had a revelation about his career. After 25 years as gerontologist, he found himself focused almost entirely on problems like elder abuse and isolation: “the Book of Job for older people,” as he put it at the 2012 Age Boom seminar for journalists. This conformed to the general portrayal of olders as frail and debilitated, and was reinforced by researchers “because focusing on problems is how we get funding.” But not only had this stopped feeling fulfilling, it didn’t jibe with his actual experience, and so an outreach project was born.
This New Year’s Day two very different stories about the baby boomers’ uneasy relationship with aging caught my eye. One was a front-page piece of fluff from the NYTimes whose title says it all: “Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65.” Apparently the hallmark of this transition is “a pervading sense that life has been what might technically be called a ‘bummer.’” A remarkably self-absorbed way to describe the logical corollary of the “U-shaped happiness curve”: that mid-life is a time of reckoning that necessarily sets the stage for contentment in late life.
Realizing that this project isn’t about work solved a big ethical problem, of which I've been aware since the get-go: the inference that if you can't work or don't want to, you aren't a valuable member of society. That’s the last message I want to throw my weight behind, especially in our hyper-capitalist, work-ethic-driven society. Work turned out to be my safe entrée into distinctly unsafe territory – my “way in” to thinking about old age.
Angelo Mucci had served in the Army Air Corps and was enrolled in college when he met Rose. “I thought, 'You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to get a job and go to work and get married," he told me. "We had a great big Italian wedding. It was just outstanding. You weren’t there.”
Just coincidence that end-to-end stories in this week’s New Yorker magazine feature two men in full stride at 80? Street-fashion Photographer Bill Cunningham, who turns 80 this month, produces a wittily-themed, weekly feature for the New York Times and covers his beat on a bike. The other was architect Frank Gehry, whose field (unlike, say, mathematics) favors those over 50. “I have plenty of work,” he told critic Paul Goldberger at the star-studded eightieth birthday party he threw himself last week. “I don’t feel like eighty. I guess you never think you’re the age you are, and, as long as you don’t look in the mirror, you aren’t.”
Estelle Parsons has joined the cast of “August: Osage County”, playing Violet Weston in the Tony Award-winning Broadway drama. I’ve seen the play, and Parson’s character is the vile, vitriolic heart of it — onstage most of the time, smoking, prancing up and down stairs, and ranting venomously at her disappointing daughters. Her predecessor, 68-year-old Deanna Dunagan, stepped down because of exhaustion. Parsons turns 81 in November.
Several people whose opinions I respect have mentioned Marc Freedman and his organization, Civic Ventures, so I found myself listening to an interview with Freedman on AARP’s Prime Time Radio. Talking about his new book (Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life), Freedman declares the nature of what it means to grow older in America to be “under radical revision. For a long time the dream in this country was liberation from labor. Now it’s becoming a dream around the freedom to work.” [emphasis his]