- Retiring Men: Manhood, Labor, and Growing Old in America, 1900–1960 by Gregory Wood
A new generation of scholars is poised to revise and expand the historiography of age and aging. The impact of “new social history” on transforming traditional styles of defining and executing issues, interest in public history/policy studies partly as a way to increase job prospects outside of the academy, and the revitalization of cultural studies through infusions from anthropology and literature, not to mention Federal funding for blazing frontiers in gerontology, influenced some members of my cohort to begin to map out the meanings and experiences of growing older. A new cohort, those now completing their PhDs and finding positions as assistant professors, have been steeped on monographs and articles about race, gender, and class published since the 1990s—what Earl Lewis called historical research’s “iron triangle.” These emerging historians chart social categories and identities in novel directions by highlighting gender, class, and aging. Gregory Wood’s work is an indication of age-graded themes to come.
Retiring Men: Manhood, Labor, and Growing Old in America, 1900–1960 seeks to fill gaps in the aging literature. On the one hand, it describes continuities and changes in the fears, hopes and wishes of mainly professional, white-collar workers during the twentieth century, the period in which the Longevity Revolution transmogrified social relations and institutional arrangements in America’s urban-industrial culture. On the other hand, Wood wants to broaden the prevailing focus on how gender politics affect the young and the restless by bringing into the mix the restless old and aging. Retiring Men “broadens our understanding of the history of masculinities by focusing on aging men and their special relationship to work. Productive manhood, or men’s need to show their worthiness as men through labor, became a constant refrain in men’s pursuit of masculinity throughout their life spans during the twentieth century” (2).
Wood presents two lines of argument. First, notwithstanding the rising numbers of older people and increasing prevalence of retirement rules and customs, successive cohorts of elders between 1900 and 1960 reaffirmed the cen-trality of work in defining masculinity. Second, “productive manhood” in the U.S. inspired various pathways to successful aging (finding new jobs, volunteering, building a den and puttering around the house, or joining social clubs) associated with retirement. Twentieth-century developments in due course, be they ageism in the marketplace before the Depression, collecting Social Security [End Page 799] benefits, women finding greater opportunities for employment outside the home, and postwar affluence, argues Retiring Men, reinforced associations between gender and work not just among youth but also in later life. “The history of productive manhood and retirement in the twentieth century showed that ideals of masculinity were based on younger men, as aging men continued to pursue their notions of productivity over the entire span of adulthood, however revised—even as they hoped to challenge them,” Wood concludes. “As men aged, manhood would be made and remade” (227–28).
I learned a lot about age-based social networks from reading Retiring Men. I did not know, for instance, that Forty Plus Clubs were formed in the late 1930s to combat unemployment and hiring limits. “While Social Security opened up new possibilities for aging men to retain masculinity by earning an income in a time of life when they could no longer work, Forty Plus secured masculinity by pursuing various forms of labor in the context of joblessness” (116). Wood’s assertion would be truly compelling, in my opinion, had he distinguished more sharply between the concerns over manhood expressed by aging breadwinners and the economic anxieties of men at the end of their careers. And while he is surely correct that Social Security set the stage for a new era in work and retirement for white-collar workers, it is also true that the 1939 amendments to the 1935 Act (which do not get much play in Retiring Men) underscored FDR’s desire to...