There is what I consider an unofficial canon of popular aging literature. Writers and researchers who come to mind immediately include Robert. N. Butler, M.D. (who coined the term “ageism”), Betty Friedan, Erdman Palmore, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Helen M. Luke, Becca Levy, Simone de Beauvoir, William H. Thomas, M.D. and blogger David Wolfe.
Over the past 20 years and more, they have a produced a thoughtful, intelligent body of work that together well represents the subtitle of this blog – what it’s really like to get old. Their books don’t stay neatly on my shelves for long. I regularly use them as reference for this blog, re-read portions of them to refresh my memory and for the inspiration of their wisdom.
After decades of mostly ignoring elders the media, with the aging of the baby boomers, has jumped on a new growing-old bandwagon. Newspapers now assign a reporter to the “age beat”. New magazines and websites aimed at elders pop up every day. And book publishers are creating a new genre to appeal to increasing numbers of people older than 50.
This is all to the good and, in time, may produce some works to add to the unofficial canon. The recently published Going Gray by Anne Kreamer is not one of them.
I had high hopes for this book, particularly with its subtitle, “What I learned about beauty, sex, work, motherhood, authenticity and everything else that really matters”. Unfortunately, the answer is “not much” or, at least, not much that she passes on to the reader.
What I mostly learned from Ms. Kreamer, the thread that runs through every chapter, is that she has no friends who are not famous, wealthy or powerful. On nearly every page, she drops bold-faced names of screen writers, executives, actors and actresses. She appears never to have an ordinary working stiff friend and I suspect that if she had talked to a few of those instead of her glamorous friends, this would have been a more enlightening book.
And it is hard to take any of her research seriously when early on she mistakenly writes that the U.S. average life expectancy is “over 80.” It is 84 and 81 for women and men respectively IF they reach age 65. Overall, it is mid-seventies, an important distinction.
One chapter is devoted to Ms. Kreamer’s hands-on research to see if she can get picked up in a Manhattan bar with gray hair. She immediately undercuts the experiment by telling the two men she meets, within the first two minutes, that she’s writing a book about gray hair. So much for finding out what they really think.
After slogging through a chapter on the plight of aging actresses in Hollywood, it was a relief to read the only interesting chapter in the book - on employment and gray hair. Kreamer’s interview with executive recruiter, Ann Carlsen, is enlightening:
“Carlsen also confirmed that among her roughly one hundred employer clients, for whom she conducts more than one hundred fifty searches a year, there is not a single woman with gray hair…
Of course, Carlsen is speaking mostly of people at the VP and CXO level of corporate America, but it was disheartening to hear from her too that at age 49, Ms. Kreamer
“’…should be a consultant.’ In other words, according to Carlsen, I’m over.
“I asked her if she saw any basic differences in the kinds of candidates that different industries look for. ‘Across the board, more companies are targeting younger demos, so they are focusing on wanting to hire people whom they believe will think like the animal. This is happening in all disciplines at the VP level and above’ [said Ms. Carlsen].
“She said that ‘corporate fit’ is more important in hiring than actual skills. Clients won’t tell her straight out, of course, that one of her potential hires didn’t get a particular job because he or she was too old. ‘Instead, they’ll say that the person ‘wasn’t a good fit for the culture,’ or that the ‘person is overqualified.’”
Ms. Kreamer then disappointed again by buying into the lie that overqualified can mean just what it says. What company in its right mind would not hire someone with the skills and experience to do the job. Overqualified always means too old.
Ms. Kreamer has an uncanny ability to belie every useful thing she writes. After resisting the urge to throw this book across the room for 200 pages, I found a nugget of truth:
“My whole experience hasn’t been about letting my hair grow in its natural gray. It’s been about growing up and – pardon the touchy-feely cliché – continuing to evolve as a person.”
Even if she has not, throughout the entire book, been capable of establishing such a theme for readers, at least she has arrived at her own positive conclusion. Then she undercuts herself again:
“I have every intention of avoiding the frail, frightened, old-lady stereotype – to remain as fit and curious as possible.”
In asking myself why I so dislike this book – it’s not harmful, after all – I realized it contains not a whit of thoughtfulness about aging. With the subtitle (overstated, I know now, by magnitudes) I had expected the experience of going gray to be a metaphor for getting old in a culture that demands we remain youthful unto death. I wanted the insight into traversing a barrier between midlife and old age the subtitle promised.
Instead, I got a 2500-word magazine story padded out into a 50,000-word book. A waste of my time. You’ll get a much more enriching read from Ellen Lee’s guest blog, The (Not So) Graying of America, published here in August.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Travelinoma richly evokes childhood summer evenings at her grandparents' home in Almost Heaven.]