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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  • Jhoosier

    This reminds me of my first year teaching English in Japan. The youth cult is so much stronger here (and legal protections less) that there were ads for English teachers that specifically stated “under 30”. Part of it was that Westerners look so much older to Asian eyes (when I arrived at 24 with a goatee, most students pegged me at 35-40), and part of it was for the sex appeal (men and women dream of being in a tiny enclosed space with an attractive member of the opposite sex — the younger the better).

    Granted, the work was not as physically demanding, but all workers deserve some dignity. There were occasional attempts to unionize, but not often. We eventually got a union, but with the nature of the job, not many people wanted to join.

  • In the airline business seniority is the only realistic way to handle promotions.

    There have been attempts over the years to upgrade based on “merit”. This ends up with the person who consistently flies broken aircraft or pushes the weather being the one who upgrades. Safety inevitably suffers.

    As much as I complain about the seniority based system it’s the only way to do it.

    (Looks over at the Captain)

    “Hurry up and die you old bastard and get out of my seat!”

  • Premature white hair told heavily against me.

    Sounds a lot like the tech sector.

    http://time.com/35524/ageism-in-silicon-valley-is-causing-an-uptick-in-plastic-surgeries/

    • Brett

      That’s rather unfortunate when you consider that most entrepreneurs aren’t twenty-something nerds – they’re men and women whose average age is 39, with many of them in their forties and fifties than in their twenties and thirties.

    • DonN

      I’m almost 60 and have worked in top tech companies most of that time. I’ve rotated between managing groups to being an individual contributor many times. I’m currently an IC at the VP level. I have seen all sorts of sexism at play but never this age based thing. For all the talk about Zuckerburger that isn’t the normal attitude. I think that article is like one of he nytimes style articles, best taken for entertainment.
      DN

      • Seriously? How many 50-plus-year-old programmers do you know?

        I’m not talking people at the VP level, I’m talking programmers and DBAs.

        I worked in IT for 10 years and in my experience it was a young person’s game.

        • DonN

          I have always had older programmers working around me. What do you think happens to them – Soylent Green? Right now, I report to somebody my age who is the tech lead for a new virtualization product we hope to ship next year. The Product Manager is in his late 40’s. In my last job at one of the largest fabless semi companies, half the guys (it is largely guys, sadly) on the architecture team I worked on were between mid-40’s to mid-60’s. DBAs especially trend older in most enterprises. Many of the folks that developed the fleet software at google are around my age. Barroso has papers dating back to 1989 so he can’t be a lot younger than myself. Hölzle got his MS 26 years ago so he is certainly younger but not young. And I’ve nevermet anybody who did plastic surgery to look younger for their job.

          I’ve worked in this industry for more than 30 years. It is harder to move between jobs at my level than at an intermediate level. Yet, I still manage to be able to move around. It is a young persons game only in the sense it is growing and the people entering usually do so from University.
          DN

          • Soylant Green? No, just not hireable after a certain point.

            I think you might want to check the unemployment statistics for people in their 50s.

            It’s not just the IT sector, mind you, but it always seemed worse there.

            When I was at Compuware most of our developers were mid 20s to late 30s.

  • gertrudesays

    Delete–apologies for duplicate (and my poor editing skilz)

  • gertrudesays

    Maybe he covers this in the book, but as the lovely Wonkette pointed out a couple of years ago, SSA excluded non-whites and women. And as time went on, retirement ages were adjusted upward, to the detriment of (especially) non-whites.

  • Murc

    Yet it’s important to remember in the modern Affordable Care Act-era how disappointing the Social Security Act was for many older workers.

    Is it wrong that I continue to go back and forth on this?

    In my more hopeful moments I think “Yes. Of course. The two previous expansions of the welfare state were half-assed, but they were quickly patched, upgraded, fixed, and generally expanded. So that should happen here, right?”

    But then I think “Those patches, upgrades, and fixes all occurred in a political context that had already begun to fray before I was born. The last major ‘upgrade’ to Medicare included a privatization boondoggle, and the last major change to Social Security involved Greenspan and Reagan screwing over the poor. We now live in an era where even minor fixes and changes to something like the ACA or, indeed, any other program are probably going to require massive supermajorities. Absent an unforeseeable major sea change in American politics, we might simply be fucked.”

    Keeps me up at night.

    • Brett

      Hard to say, I guess. It probably seemed rather unlikely that we’d ever see anything like Social Security in the Gilded Age, too. My guess is that any reforms that might emerge out of the current situation – resurgence of unions, jobs program, basic income – will seem pretty unlikely until the period immediately before they happen.

      That said, I wonder if the welfare capitalism of the Postwar Period was just a temporary patch over the need for broader governmental action to help smooth out and stabilize life in a volatile, competitive market economy. For a couple of decades, the big companies constrained by big unions did that role, but not as much anymore.

  • Origami Isopod

    Men have long held the single-income household dear, however fleeting in reality. … 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.

    Two more reasons to break down the traditional notion of “manhood.” It oppresses men who don’t conform to it, as well as women and children. But it doesn’t do most men who conform to it any favors, either.

    jokes (and not only jokes but real issues) about gender roles in the retired household.

    I do not think it coincidental that the 1950s saw the rise of “men’s” magazines like Playboy, which positioned attractive young women as yet another consumer good men could aspire to “own.”

  • mch

    Thank you, Erik, for calling attention to this book.

    My first response — I am a woman! — is to say yes, yes. Concern for my men. And I am old enough for these to include dead fathers and uncles (grandfathers, of course), not to mention living husband(s! a history there) and son.

    Then, as a woman (mother of daughter, too), I wonder. Why are we again worrying about male sensibilities? Is that our female role in life? More specifically, since when is it not labor to gestate and give birth (obvious), to worry over every night’s dinner and the endless laundry, and so forth?

    When will the word LABOR be properly associated with “women’s work,” too?

    Just saying, in loving memory of my own father (and so many men) who recognized this, all along. At least vaguely as a general issue (if intensely for their daughters and wives). But make it general, as general as general always is, and so easily, for men. (Adam, then Eve.)

    • When will the word LABOR be properly associated with “women’s work,” too?

      This.

      From what I’ve seen, “masculinity studies” tends to place a strong emphasis on the idea that work == masculinity and masculinity == work, and to treat it as proven fact. (What happened to the body-centered masculinity studies of the 1990s, though?)

      The emphasis on retirement is interesting, too, and also comes up in women’s studies with the questioning of what women do after their children are grown, if the only mark of female identity is child-rearing.

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