It was the Baby Boomer women that fuelled the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Their focus may have shifted, but they’re still revolutionaries. Kay S. Hymowitz writes an excellent piece in the City Journal of the Manhattan Institute (read the very long piece here). Some selected quotes:
Boomers—especially feminist-influenced women of a certain class who are now publishing their philosophy of life after 50—will not be growing old. … They’re busy, busy, busy! They go to the gym! They work in animal shelters! They travel! They get divorced! And yes (Yes! Yes!), they have orgasms!
Not so long ago, enlightened women of the boomer generation were known for worrying about equal rights, equal pay, Roe v. Wade, Title IX, and the location of the Masters Golf Tournament. Today, not so much. As they shuffle off into their golden years, many appear to be turning inward. As the title of a catalog that arrived in my mailbox recently put it, they want “Time for Me”—time that appears to involve a lot of anti-aging formulas, herbal supplements, figure-shaping undergarments, and vibrators. Don’t get me wrong. Boomer fems continue to be enemies of the patriarchy. They still want men to do the laundry. Their tone remains defiant. But their personal is no longer very political; even their political isn’t very political. Nobody’s putting it this way, but it seems that liberation politics have become irrelevant to what is now their most pressing concern, which—depending on your emphasis—is: how to bring meaning to their dwindling years, or how to avoid being mistaken for their grandmothers.
It probably should have been clear that Second Wave feminism would be changing direction a while ago. In 1992, Gloria Steinem, who just happened to be staring at 60 at the time, published Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. With its talk of the inner child and “authentic selves,” the book was a noticeable break from Steinem’s usual menu of feminist topics. A year later, Betty Friedan gave us The Fountain of Age, in which she proposed that we consider the years past 50 not as a time to play golf and show off pictures of the grandchildren but as “an additional stage of development,” a time of further emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth.
Second Adulthood does not—repeat not—suggest a decline. It does not bring inevitable loss, nor does it suggest that we should turn to the consolations of philosophy, religion, or arthritis medication—because Second Adulthood is nothing like your grandmother’s 50 or 60 or 70.
“If our 20s were about our physical peak and our 30s and 40s about work and productivity, after that it is about being and becoming you,” Alexandra Mezey, a Second Adulthood life coach, promises on her website.
Somehow, though, the word “retirement” seems inadequate to the task of describing what happens to Second Adulteers when they cash their last paycheck. The Greatest Generation retired; they took up hobbies, joined book clubs, and went to lecture series near their Fort Lauderdale condos. Maybe they volunteered to read to poor kids at nearby schools. But Desperate Grandmas don’t retire. They “pursue the passionate life,” in Sheehy’s words. They “follow their dreams.”
In fact, sex is at the center of the passionate life of the Desperate Grandma. When they were young, boomers famously discovered female sexual pleasure. Now they are discovering that the fun never ends. Along with Sex and the Seasoned Woman, we are seeing a slew of books about sex and the 60-something, including Still Doing It, Better Than I Ever Expected, Jane Juska’s A Round-Heeled Woman, and Erica Jong’s latest orgasm dispatch, Seducing the Demon—all of them filled with examples of how today’s hip grandmothers are spending their leisure time.
Of course, part of what is driving all this early geriatric ink-spilling are the altered demographic realities of Americans living longer and staying healthier. There are 37 million women in their forties, fifties, and sixties living in America today, many of them single, and many of them financially independent. With more affluence, better health care, and advanced medical technology—Viagra, hip and knee replacements, Viagra, hormone therapy, face lifts, silicone, tummy tucks, hair color, Viagra—it’s now a cinch to fool Mother Nature. Not so long ago, Yankelovich, Inc. surveyed baby boomers, asking them when they believe old age begins. The most common answer was 85—three years after the average American can expect to be dead and buried. In a world where a 60-year-old woman can give birth and the biological narrative—you’re born, you reproduce, you get old, and you die—has gone haywire, inevitably some people will imagine that old age is history.
And that’s not an altogether bad thing. There is something supremely American about these aging boomer women. Freedom, possibility, frontier, change—you see these words over and over again in Second Adulthood tracts. Second Adulthood reflects a zest for experience, for the new, for the personal gumption that is rooted in our national character and that has been the source of many of our blessings. It would also be curmudgeonly not to admire the energy and young-as-you-feel verve that Sheehy and her ilk want to bring to growing old. Who can entirely resist such determined optimism in the face of the harshest of realities? Yes, women might lose their memories, but they “gain insight.” Yes, their stomachs fold into accordion pleats and their upper arms sag like forgotten balloons, but they know better than any Jennifer Aniston wannabe how to please a man.
Narcissism is the last thing a society needs from its graying population. Their job is in part to counter youthful egotism, especially in an individualistic society like ours. No one should understand better than those getting on in years our dependency on one another. And no one should have a stronger intuition of our own fundamental inconsequentiality. We “fill a slot for a time and then move out; that’s the decent thing to do: make room,” John Updike’s Harry Angstrom muses in Rabbit at Rest.
Desperate Grandmas may not need to move out yet. But it would be decent—quaint word!—if they would make some room.