What Boomer Women Can Learn About Aging From (Gasp) Older Women

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Members of this authority-averse generation should reconsider their stance on listening to their elders.

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"To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living," wrote the Swiss philosopher, poet, and critic Henri-Frédéric Amiel in 1874.

Nearly a century and a half later, the largest group of Americans by age—the baby boomers—is learning just how hard that great art of living can be. In a culture fixated on youth and mesmerized by plastic beauty, boomer women are having a particularly tough go at it as they enter their seventh decade of life. "Turning 40 is horrible. People that say it isn't are full of shit," Sofia Vergara, Modern Family's it-girl, recently said, reflecting our culture's attitude to aging.

What, then, of turning 70? Or even 65, as Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are poised to do en masse for the next two decades?

As a generation, the boomers famously rebelled against authority—"don't trust anyone over 30." One thing that they can do now that they are older, however, is learn from the generation that immediately preceded them. According to the CDC, the incidence of major depression in the population is lowest in those older adults. The boomers, by contrast, are the most depressed adult age group in this country.

Ellen Cole, a 71-year-old Harvard-trained psychologist and professor at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., is among the younger members of that older age group, the relatively small but remarkable "Silent generation." Cole is interested in how the lessons of her generation can apply to boomer women. "We pre-baby boomers might have wisdom to impart to those close on our heels who [have begun] to turn 65," she wrote in the Retiring But Not Shy (2012), a book about how feminists are adjusting to their post-career lives.

Born during the trying years between the Great Depression and World War II (1925-1942), the Silents are sandwiched in between the Greatest Generation, who fought in World War II, and the Baby Boomers, who grew up in a more nurturing environment.

In 1953, when the younger Silents, Cole's peers, were still kids, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was published. By the time they were 18—entering into college—it was 1960, the same year that the Pill was officially approved by the FDA. As they were leaving college, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique came out, which, more than anything else, officially launched second-wave feminism as a mass cultural movement. Friedan interviewed suburban housewives of her generation and found that many of them were dissatisfied with their lives as homemakers. Three years later, Friedan teamed up with some other feminists to form the National Organization for Women.

Cole was in grad school at Harvard when the book came out. "It turned my world upside down. Before that, my ex-husband wouldn't let me drive the car we got for a wedding present, and I never thought twice about it. After that there were conscious-raising groups galore," she tells me.

In those days, Cole's peers were in their 20s and determined to not make the same mistake as the women featured in Friedan's book. Entering the workforce en masse, and defining themselves, in large part, through their careers, they succeeded. Today, decades later, what Cole is interested in—and what the boomer women need insight on—is how her generation of gritty feminists would transition out of their jobs into happy old age.

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The 79 million boomers alive today make up over a quarter of the entire American population. Last year, the oldest members of the generation turned 65. For the next 18 years, 10,000 boomers will turn 65 each day, according to the Pew Research Center. Today, the average life expectancy for women in America is 81 years old. For men, it is 76 years old. According to Gallup, the expected retirement age in the United States is 67. So, as Boomers enter into the retirement that precedes the end of their lives, will they find meaning and satisfaction as they age? Will they thrive, flourish, take a slow ride off into the sunset?

This is an enormously important question not just because of the implications it has on the happiness of real people, but also for the consequences it will have on society, social services, and our culture as a whole. As Pew points out, "By force of numbers alone, they almost certainly will redefine old age in America, just as they've made their mark on teen culture, young adult life and middle age."

The baby boomers are becoming characterized by startlingly high rates of depression and pessimism. Boomers are more depressed and less satisfied with their lives than both those who are older and younger than them, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review in 2008.

Women, in particular, are suffering. In the American population generally, women tend to be more depressive than men, and this is true of the boomers as well. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1999 and 2004, rates of suicide increased by 20 percent for 45-to-54-year-olds, a far greater increase than that experienced in nearly every other age group. Among women who were 45-to-54-year-olds, the increase was a staggering 31 percent. Suicide aside, boomers have found another way to cope with their doldrums: according to the National Institute of Health, between 2002 and 2011, the number of illicit drugs users aged 50 to 59 tripled.

What is going on? This is a generation that is better educated, more successful, and has better access to health care than the generations that directly preceded it. This is the generation whose women benefitted from the gains of second wave feminism.

Experts on aging, depression, and happiness are at a loss for what is causing the boomers' funk. One explanation is stress. "Much of the research is pointing to daily stress as a precipitator of their depression," according to Donald A. Malone, Jr., the director of the Mood and Anxiety Clinic in the department of psychiatry and psychology at the Cleveland Clinic.

Yang Yang, a professor of sociology at UNC Chapel Hill and the author of the mentioned American Sociological Review study, explained it in terms of their enormously high and ultimately dashed expectations: "The generation as a group was so large, and their expectations were so great, that not everyone in the group could get what he or she wanted as they aged due to competition for opportunities. This could lead to disappointment that could undermine happiness," she said when her study was released in 2008.

These two phenomena have particularly impacted the women of that generation. According to George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist and expert on healthy aging, the boomer women, who tried to reign supreme both at work and at home, put an enormous amount of responsibility on themselves. Now that these women, who defined themselves in terms of their careers and children, are approaching retirement and empty nests, they will be forced to redefine their lives and identities. "The women before them," he explains in an interview, "already knew how to be unemployed. The boomer women will have to learn." They will have to find something to live for—a purpose.

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

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