The Greater Gender of the Greatest Generation?

Another great blog post today from The New Old Age in The New York Times, exploring isolation and the aging older woman. The article notes: “Most elderly women today never worked outside the home, while most of their daughters did or still do . . . An elderly woman may have successfully navigated life as a mother, wife and guardian of home and hearth. But liberation from those daily responsibilities later in life can be disorienting,” said Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Dr. Tannen goes on to observe that “Men who spent their lives in the workplace are familiar with new social situations and are less likely to feel unease, she said. A woman whose life has had a narrow, if intense, focus is likely to have more trouble branching out.”

Truthfully, I am more captivated by the comments section than the article itself. Several readers point out that today’s older woman likely did, in fact, work outside the home. The article’s author alludes to a generation that is long gone, they say. Not so fast, I say.

I believe both Dr. Tannen and the comments people are correct. How, you ask? It simply depends on the particular phase of life to which you refer. Mid-twentieth century moms have at least nine lives. My Mom, for example, is robust and engaged at 80 years old. She raised five children as an at-home mother for two decades, but she also worked full-time during the following two decades. Our mom was a classic 1950s mom: she didn’t drive a car, but she made our Easter bonnets in a hat-making class with girlfriends; she wore perfectly-ironed pedal-pushers and a sleeveless blouse on a sticky summer day, and she cooked a full dinner every night without fail.  She washed our bed sheets every week, and she would call her friend to “gab” on the telephone, though her friend only lived six houses down. A “girls night out” was giving each other Toni perms in the basement. No wine-tastings or Pilates sessions here.  Hat-making – really?

Like everyone else, Mom changed with the times too. By the 1970s, the crushing financial burden of college tuition for five kids coaxed her into the working world she had left as a 21 year-old, pregnant young wife. Other at-home moms in our working class Chicago neighborhood began doing the same. Mom held a number of various local jobs, as she juggled her own work hours with my dad’s schedule – all so we weren’t too traumatized by having “a mom who worked.” One insightful commenter notes, “Yes, of course, the women of our mother’s/grandmother’s generation DID work but they usually just had jobs of the pink-collar variety, not real careers they loved.” How true. The 1970s “liberated” them to take on a second, full-time job!

Even after working a full day in an elementary school office, Mom still made dinner every night, but – fortunately – fast food had been invented by then too. Thanks, Ray Kroc!

I would tell Dr. Tannen that a woman who returns to work after a twenty-year absence is empowered . . . and truly inspiring. How strong she must have been to leave the sweet comfort of her maple-cabinet kitchen (where she was CEO, COO, and CFO all rolled into one!) to resume a real world existence of punching a clock, signing a timesheet, bringing a lunch, and sneaking a quick personal call to the kids after school. No, it wasn’t easy. And no, Dr. Tannen, these women did not have the “trouble branching out” you think they did. In fact, they had to re-invent themselves (quite literally!), while their husbands (“who spent their lives in the workplace”) did not.

While I generally agree with the article’s conclusions about older adult women and isolation, men would not be terribly different – if they lived long enough as a cohort group to allow observation in this way. The raw truth is that aging is isolating, for the most part. The article proceeds to offer solid advice for families seeking to fend off the looming alone-ness of their aging loved ones. The author ignores the fact that self-reliance is second-nature to most women – older and otherwise. Actually, older men are less likely to have “branched out” to form male friendships to sustain them in later life, but that’s the subject of another NYT article and another blog post . . .

Attributing the loneliness of 80-ish women to the cultural nuances of the 1950s clearly undervalues the commanding women of our Greatest Generation. These gals are a fierce group, indeed. They moved from being homemakers to heads of households in short order. These dynamic women also raised big families to adulthood and then went out and started entirely new lives in the workforce – with no blueprint and no role models. These moms of Baby Boomers are genuine pioneers, and they continue to chart new territory for all of us – in the critical areas of longevity and aging well. Their endurance is undeniable.

Wait – these same women also raised teenagers in the 1960s! Case closed.

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