Home / General / Book Review: Gregory Wood, Retiring Men: Manhood, Labor, and Growing Old In America, 1900-1960

Book Review: Gregory Wood, Retiring Men: Manhood, Labor, and Growing Old In America, 1900-1960

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Gregory Wood’s Retiring Men examines the intersection between masculinity, work, and retirement in the first six decades of the twentieth century. He argues that the crisis over retirement in a changing economy shaped connections between manhood and work during these years, an issue of real importance in the unstable economy of the New Gilded Age.

At the core of Wood’s book is the desperation of older workers in the American workplace of the early twentieth century. Work has long been at the center of identity for American men. Men have long held the single-income household dear, however fleeting in reality. Even more dear is the ability to support oneself and not have to rely on family or charity. But as industrialization became more intensive and mechanized in the early twentieth century, with faster machines and larger factories requiring hordes of young, strong workers, older men found themselves out of work. That included men as young as 40. And there was simply nowhere for many of them to go. Wood’s book is filled with the words of desperate men, despairing over their economic plight. With work considered the proper state for men, the lack of work meant the lack of manhood. The many letters and statements Wood quotes from the aging and unemployed are heartbreaking. Railroad conductor MS Thornton was finished at 47. He told a reporter, “Premature white hair told heavily against me. At 35 I was gray and at 40 I suppose I looked like a man of fifty.” His boss fired him and gave his job to a younger man. Some men dyed their mustaches and hair, but in this period, the quality of dyes were so bad that they could damage the skin or poison you. In 1902, the Los Angeles Times published a letter on a hair dye ingredient. It included “sugar of lead,” “tincture of cantharides,” “lac sulphur,” ammonia, and other fun things.

What did older workers, men and women, want? The ability to live on their own. To not have to burden their children. To maintain their dignity. The 1920s saw the rise of welfare capitalism that to some extent attempted to deal with these problems, but quickly the emphasis moved to the states. As we typically should expect from state-level welfare programs, they were inconsistent, poorly funded, and varied greatly between states. The problems of older workers would require federal attention. Poorhouses did find work for older people but were demeaning and often forced men to do traditional women’s labor like sewing, which further undermined their sense of manhood.

With the rise of successful working class politics in response to the Great Depression, the requirements of older workers became central to both the labor movement and government policy. On the latter, the most important manifestation of older workers’ needs was the Social Security Act of 1935. Yet it’s important to remember in the modern Affordable Care Act-era how disappointing the Social Security Act was for many older workers. No one received a dime until 1940 (and this was after FDR changed it from the original 1942). For older workers already struggling to find work, it did nothing. The time it took to build a Social Security account worth having meant a lot of work for older workers who couldn’t find it. The age 65 cutoff also excluded a lot of workers who were too sick or feeble to work until that age. The SSA was a huge compromise with established interests and fell well short of the hopes many workers placed in the Townsend plan, but was still popular in the short-term and hugely successful in the long-term.

Second, the importance of seniority to the new CIO unions came out of the old age workers’ woes. Usually, we think of seniority clauses in union contracts, to the extent we think of them at all, as either the fairest way of dealing with layoffs since it takes away employers’ prerogative about who gets laid off, or, negatively, as protecting older and less productive workers. But for CIO workers, seniority meant dignity. It meant still having a job at age 50 regardless of what new machinery or predilection for young male bodies bosses had. It meant life.

By the 1950s, the rise of pensions and retirement culture changed the national conversation on manhood and retirement. The lack of work still challenged workers’ manhood, but the response moved more toward organized activities like golf and jokes (and not only jokes but real issues) about gender roles in the retired household. Older men didn’t necessarily appreciate forced retirement ages, the watches they received at awkward retirement parties, being forced into women’s space in the home, and the lack of structure in their post-retirement lives, but growing consumerism found some outlet for this.

While this is a good book overall, there are a couple of weaknesses worth noting. First, despite the powerful stories Wood tells about the crisis of aging in the early twentieth century, the stark shift to middle-class work and the office after World War II papers over the tenuous nature of this type of employment for a lot of people who had suffered greatly earlier in the century. Given that so many of the retirees he talks about in this era had long histories in the working-class culture of the pre-war period, building those connections and talking more about the tenuous nature of retirement in the post-war period for many workers would have been helpful. Some of this critique is mitigated by the fact that Wood consciously centered his study in how retirement and masculinity was portrayed in the dominant culture and certainly in the postwar period that did shift to the middle class.

Second, I really wish this study hadn’t ended in 1960. Wood provides a brief conclusion, but there is a real story bringing this through the 20th and early 21st centuries with the end of the guaranteed comfortable retirement a pension was supposed to bring. Instead, in the aftermath of the post-1973 economic stagnation and decline of both the working and middle classes, the end of industrial work through outsourcing and automation, and the power of the corporate conservative movement repealing the economic gains of the twentieth century, the idea of the respectable retirement has increasingly disappeared in American culture. While I am somewhat less concerned than Wood about the impact of this on masculinity per se, how this unease and poverty reshapes American culture is a powerful question that deserves more study.

Overall however, Retiring Men is a valuable addition to our understanding of agism and work in American history, an important subject that should help us focus on these issues in the present.

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