Are Male Baby Boomers Doomed To Become Lonely Seniors?
Why are women more psychologically prepared for old age?
It’s not just the young in the Occupy Movement who fear for their futures. Many older people, who are marching with them, dread retirement, even if they hate their jobs. They fear social isolation, the loss of friends they enjoyed at work and the freedom of too much unstructured time. The good news is that women are already preparing for what is often called the "third chapter” of their lives. What’s sad is that men of the same age, for a variety of reasons, are largely unprepared and less likely to participate in activities that offer stimulation and friendship.
So what is the first generation of women, who spent much of their lives working outside the home, doing that somehow eludes men?
They are re-creating opportunities to explore their lives and finding ways to resurrect the world of women’s groups that gave them the confidence to reinvent their lives decades ago.
Consider women’s book groups, which are hardly new. Even in the late-19th century, women’s book groups gave “ladies” a way to discuss social and political issues of the day. Oprah Winfrey popularized the current book club movement and they are proliferating with astonishing speed. Cafes host them; book stores sponsor them, friends create them; and the novels and nonfiction they read often conclude with a section of questions designed for groups, accompanied by an interview with the author. As Victoria Skurnick, a literary agent and former editor of the Book of the Month Club says, “There are some books that soar in popularity because so many book groups fall in love with them. Books have always sold well or badly on the presence or absence of word of mouth, and book groups take that fact and multiply it by six or eight or ten.”
Most members are women and no one knows how many women meet monthly to discuss books. Whatever they read—religious texts, fiction or nonfiction—the groups provide an opportunity to discuss how the themes relate to their lives or what they think about the world around them. Lubricated with some wine and food, it is both a social and intellectual event that fosters friendships.
It’s not that older men don’t read; they just tend to do it in isolation. The same is true about the tendency to avoid signing up for classes meant for educated adults. On many campuses, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute -- or something like it -- offers serious courses on everything from the Art of Bali to the New Arab Revolts. But the majority of the people who enroll are women. (It is the few men, however, who ask most of the questions and offer their comments.)
Some of these retired women have even resurrected a new kind of women’s movement for women over 50. In the late '90s, Charlotte Frank and Christine Millen began conversations about their future with 10 friends in a New York City living room. Eventually, this group created a new national movement for women called the Transition Network (TNN).
Today, TNN has chapters in 12 cities in the U.S. and attracts professional women who like its edgy rejection of themselves as “little old ladies." They sponsor small peer groups that meet in members’ homes, echoing the consciousness raising groups of the late 1960s and '70s. These are members who take feminism for granted. They’ve worked most of their lives, “and now, in the wake of widowhood, a lost job, or retirement, are seeking to reinvent their lives.” TNN also offers specialty groups for women who want to travel, see and discuss theater and films, socialize over exotic lunches, or become caregivers for other women in need.”
In short, TNN is a national organization, “a relevant voice for women who continue to change the rules."
These are only a few examples of what women are doing as their children leave home and their working years end. Google “women in transition” and you’ll find endless resources and groups devoted to helping women meet others as they reinvent their lives. Entrepreneurs know this is a growth industry and workshops for women in transition are popping up all over the country.
So what are men doing? Some male (and female) intellectuals, scholars and writers joke that they don’t retire. And they’re partially right. But for men whose work was yoked to organizations, corporations, manufacturing, unions, and other institutions, the future often seems suddenly empty. Some play golf or cards or hunt with other guys; and there are groups of men who get together at a particular café, sometimes daily. Some take up cooking or gardening, and enjoy the domestic pleasures they never had time for before. But all too many sit home alone and experience too much social isolation. All too often, they depend on their wives to provide companionship.
Google “men in transition” and you discover that there are, in fact, a growing number of groups aimed at men. But most of the organizations appear to be therapeutic, with counselors or religious organizations helping men with unemployment, alcoholism, post-prison, post-military life, or post-corporate life. Men have not created anything like the Transition Network, which encourages self-exploration and a self-conscious exploration of ideas and feelings. Nor are they like to do so. TNN fits the experiences of many women. Men are not the ones who created such a movement 40 years ago. (And the “men’s movement” of that era was small.) Given their history and socialization, men of this generation would likely find it alien, if not odd, to engage in such personal and vulnerable discussions at an older age.
Instead, many suffer in silence. Their isolation is terribly sad, as well as an immense waste to society. Yet there are other ways men could counter the isolation of retirement. They have endless talents and could be tutoring young people in after-school programs in academic subjects and sports. I recently visited a high school where men were doing exactly that, tutoring kids in computer skills, math and science, and passing on their knowledge of how to build and sail boats, fix old cars, use tools, and write applications. Their faces glowed with excitement as they passed on their expertise.
As more of the Baby Boomer generation retires, a growing number of businesses will cater to these transitions, just as they have throughout every cycle of the lives of the Baby Boom generation. Women are already way ahead of the curve, creating and participating in a vast network of activities that makes retirement more inviting, engaging and exciting. True, many of these activities have a class dimension; they have been created by middle-class educated women, so some participation requires a solid retirement nest; but many do not.
Men need to have something that builds on their life experiences, and we all benefit if they do. Otherwise they will dread the looming horizon of the third chapter of their lives.
Ruth Rosen, Professor Emerita of History at U.C. Davis, was a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Right-Wing Movements at U.C. Berkeley and the author, most recently, of “The World Split Open:How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.