Summarizing Dr. Bill Thomas’s ambitious new book, Second Wind, is challenging even though it is not complicated to read. Thomas writes using accessible language, stories and anecdotes with almost every page conveying interesting, creative insights. The reviewing difficulty lies in the book’s breadth and depth. This treatise is an amalgamation of history, science, social commentary, environmentalism, medicine, generational sociology, economics, public policies, gerontology, politics, and demography.
Three Subcultures of Boomer Youth
The seedtime for Boomer aging began in the generation’s formative years. Early in the book, Thomas divides the 76-million-member generation into three subcultures that became manifest during a coming-of-age transition from adolescence to adulthood.
“Hippies” represented the smallest segment of the generation—less than 0.02 percent according to the author—but had the most impact on the counterculture celebrated during the 1960s and 1970s through art, literature, theater, music, and popular culture. This was an unexpected subculture oriented toward postponing full maturation typical of older generations, a discordant stage between childhood and adulthood.
“Activists” embraced the possibilities of invention and entrepreneurialism while “suspended between fervent idealism and a genuine grown-up taste for opportunity and success.” To personify this segment, one might think of Howard Schultz, the founder and reigning CEO of Starbucks, who realized colossal business success by popularizing gourmet coffee shops while holding onto idealistic values for productive social and economic changes.
“Squares” dominated a subculture that embraced conservative ideologies and free-market capitalism, in one sense a reaction to the Hippie cultural hegemony. To analyze this segment, Thomas examines the vast influence of author Stephen Covey and his mega-bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
In his critique, Thomas is hardly generous about Covey’s views:
“The Seven Habits is in fact that most frightening and dangerous species of writing, a hermetically sealed system of thought whose ultimate authority depends solely on the author’s personal beliefs, faith, and feelings, while at the same time posing as an impartial moral arbiter for society as a whole.”
Covey’s writing and disproportionate influence on cultural values served to “... redefine the sources of success away from the ideals of shared sacrifice and cooperation and toward a new and terribly impoverished concept of individual effectiveness.”
Thomas declares that the Squares triumphed over the other subcultures. Squares harshly criticized those who placed shared actions and community above individual initiative and the primacy of free-market capitalism, “a contemptuous dismissal of the moral and practical value of collective action in pursuit of a common good.”
Squares not only became an industrious segment of the generation, partially represented by those who started and built companies that today dominate the business landscape, they fostered a cultural narrative that was youth-focused and bound by adult values, the “cult of adulthood,” which “has been defining the contours of American life for nearly four decades. Its long tenure as the axis around which our culture turns has primed us with the belief that its tenets are both inevitable and infallible.”
Squares “set out to celebrate the virtues associated with being young adults. In this way, youth became the most important interpretive lens of the postwar generation.” And youth is the prevailing norm today as the children of Boomers—the Millennial Generation—ascend from adolescence into adulthood. The youth-supreme narrative that Boomers celebrated is also one source of their disenfranchisement and consternation today as they have aged well beyond youth.
Thus, contemporary society recognizes only two primary life stages: childhood—with a pass through adolescence—and adulthood. There is no place for another major stage beyond adulthood, a stage of elderhood, and this realization points at the mission of Thomas’s determined manuscript: to fully articulate the framework for a new and legitimatized life stage and to inspire significant numbers from the Boomer generation to embrace this unexamined way of living beyond adulthood, their second wind.
Three Subcultures of Boomer Aging
With respect to Boomer aging, Thomas describes three emerging subcultures that will result from generational aging. In some interesting ways, these new subcultures correlate with the three segments the author delineates as representative of the generation in youth.
“Denialists” look at aging as a scientific problem that can be solved. They constitute the core customers of the anti-aging industry. They hold on to their youthful values and self-images, refusing to recognize the inexorable impact of biological aging. “The Denialists are (and will continue to be) the most vociferous of these subcultures. Members of this subculture loudly and proudly reject the changes that come with aging and embrace an alternative narrative that posits a future where one can be forever young.” They also foment ageism.
“Realists” are more measured. Boomers in this subculture are “those who ... pride themselves on their willingness to admit that they are, in fact, changing. They see (and dislike) the changes that come with the passage of years and they are committed to actively resisting those changes.” They seek liberation from the pains, disabilities, and tribulations that come with aging, but they understand that “aging includes significant decline-related difficulties.” They are less inclined to be manipulated by unrealistic promises from unscrupulous anti-aging product companies, but they are willing to pursue alternative therapies that have proven to be effective, even in the short term.
“Enthusiasts” not only accept biological aging; they recognize that life beyond middle age requires a new set of values and behaviors that are distinct from the “cult of adulthood.” They realize that aging means letting go. To convey this emerging subculture, Thomas presents the words of actor and filmmaker Josiah Polhemus who tidily summarizes the Enthusiasts’ creed: “As I grow older, the outer world of appearance, prestige and perfection, all influences from outside sources, lessen; the inner world of imagination, gratitude and tolerance strengthen and keep me seeking wisdom and more breath.”
While Enthusiasts understand that aging includes difficulties due to decline, they propose to change the cultural narrative, to disassociate aging from decline. They hope to change debilitating connotations of aging, to confront ageism wherever it lurks, to advance cultural acceptance of those who are old, and to create new values for a time of life Thomas summarizes in his book’s title as Second Wind.
Dr. Thomas is realistic about how difficult it will be to change the dominating ideologies of Squares/Denialists, but he’s also hopeful that with adequate thought leadership and inspired activism, the generation that influenced so many important social changes in its youth will transform mainstream value consensus around the purpose and meaning of aging. Rather than fear or despise aging, society will once again learn to commemorate its oldest citizens, providing new pathways for relevant engagement and late-life contributions.
Thomas is certainly doing his part with Second Wind by providing an intellectual feast about the possibilities for life after adulthood. He ties the future to the past with his observation that “although ... the Enthusiasts do not look like, act like, or sound like Hippies, they do share the Hippies’ rejection of adulthood as the only meaningful framework for organizing one’s life and sense of self.”
Thomas further asserts that the long-term well-being of society depends on Enthusiasts bringing this new life-stage to the forefront. And, as the geriatrician warns, their failure to change the meaning of aging may foretell the Denialists triumph, delivering “us into a new era that was defined, nearly exclusively, by the fear of growing old.” Ageism and all its nasty side effects will dominate.
Never Trust Anyone Over 30?
While the author has undertaken an impressive exploration of the Boomer generation’s youth, middle years, and aging, he is not immune to shaping his thoughts around a questionable premise. “History is not a collection of details,” he insists. “It is an argument about what the details mean.”
Early in the book he emphatically concludes: “Yippie party founder Jerry Rubin insisted that people over thirty should not be trusted and millions agreed with him.”
The idea of not trusting anyone over thirty is a mythic generational caricature that has been encoded as if fact. In one of my books, I call this phenomenon “media mobilization of bias.”
The “Never trust anyone over thirty” taunt was uttered by Silent Generation member Jack Weinberg in 1965 during an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. Leader of the Free Speech Movement at The University of California, Berkeley, Weinberg uttered this sharp retort in reply to a reporter’s insistence that older adults were manipulating his organization. He thought of his comment as purely cynical, and this snap at a reporter did not become the summary mantra of a generation.
Frankly, most Boomers did not believe in the silliness of this idea. We knew thirty was inevitable—and, in many ways, desirable. As we matured, we had admired and trusted many people past thirty, including a president, John F. Kennedy; his brother, Bobby Kennedy; and a martyred activist, Martin Luther King. The aphorism became a popular media stereotype of Boomers to dramatize succinctly the generation’s countercultural defiance around more serious issues such as racism, sexism, governmental cover-ups, and environmental destruction.
Catcher in the Rye for This Stage
Notwithstanding this single imprecise recounting of a threadbare cliché, Dr. Bill Thomas deserves generous accolades for his thought-provoking and motivating book. As he acknowledges, “... it is actually fantastically difficult to go beyond and then actively question the foundational belief of one’s own culture.” Yet he has done this with clarity, passion, and profound insights, a book that Boomers can read today with as much alacrity as their youthful selves might once have read J. D. Salinger’s influential meditation on adolescent alienation, The Catcher in the Rye.