Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife

Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife – Review

W. Andrew Achenbaum

By Margaret Morganroth Gullette (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1997. xii plus 276pp. $29.95).

“THE NAVY NEEDS YOU,” implored a Navy recruiting poster during World War I. “DON’T READ AMERICAN HISTORY, MAKE IT!” This cultural icon came to mind while I was reading Declining to Decline. According to the author, [the book] “has inevitably concentrated on the discursive conveyors of the master narrative. . . . These discourses make us ‘experience’ aging as if decline were, at one and the same time, a given, a merely personal process (an effect that ignores the falsely universalizing features of the narrative and its constructions of difference and sameness) and a universal wholly biological process (an effect that erases culture altogether: group differences, competing discourses, my right to name its individual dimensions).” (pp. 211-12) Just as the Navy poster sought to capitalize on words to influence behavior without fully appreciating how much the existing socio-political order has been shattered, so too Margaret Morganroth Gullette tries to put recent developments in the history of aging into a cultural context that she acknowledges is itself in flux. Declining to Decline is a barometer of change that makes history, rather than a definitive reading of what has transpired.

Gullette’s rests her cultural analysis on the proposition that the images and experiences of growing older are being transformed. “Despite the longevity revolution that began a century ago, we are being aged by culture younger all the time,” she states. “What is historically noteworthy is that aging-as-inward-anxiety has become a quintessentially midlife problem” (p. 4) The master narrative of “decline,” in Gullette’s opinion, colors people’s view of their future selves, long before chronicity or debility diminish capacities in middle age. Middle-ageism obstructs job opportunities. Women too quickly accept the self-fulfilling negative discourse about menopause that circulates in the media and conversations. Past fifty, the male ego slumps.

“This moment in the Nineties will eventually seem an early phase of combat” in efforts to assault age biases, Gullette observes. (p. 19) But this culturally constructed form of discrimination is not yet taken as seriously as racism, sexism, or classism. The author worries that campaigning against ageism – declining to decline – may sound unduly utopian. “But as damage and resistance stories proliferate – drawing on the density of fiction and detachment of cultural analysis – deconstructing age could quickly attain for all of us the earnestness that makes moral urgency.” (p. 242)

Declining to Decline is a valuable addition to series of age studies edited by Anne Marbury Wyatt-Brown for the University Press of Virginia. Gullette has a good ear for anecdotes and a good eye for cultural imagery. I accept her premise that ideas about old age are shaped by notions formed earlier in life, which come to fore in middle age. Still, Declining to Decline might have made better use of historical analyses at hand. Carole Haber and Brian Gratton, for instance, have shown that ageism took hold in American material culture and the U.S. labor force long before this century. Organizations such as the National Council on Aging have struggled for decades to extirpate stereotypes of age. Historical continuities, notably the pervasiveness of the “master discourse,” may prove more resistant to rethinking than Gullette believes. If so, combatting ageism may take more than baby boomers joining the fray.

W. Andrew Achenbaum

University of Michigan

COPYRIGHT 1999 Carnegie Mellon University Press

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group