The final chapter of Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing opens with “The real question is—how are we to live our lives?” And that seems to be the primary theme of the book.
In six chapters that, at times, perhaps focus a little more on the perils rather than the pleasures of ageing, author Lynne Segal draws from poets, philosophers, feminists, novelists, and social scientists to create almost a literary history of ageing. And with this history comes questions; in fact, Segal opens with another one: “How old am I?” and then proceeds to show how Simone de Beauvior, Sigmund Freud, and Diana Anthill, among others, have addressed this question. Add in a few of Segal’s own thoughts and the format for the book is established.
Segal’s research is impressive, but even more impressive is the scope of the book, from finances to sex to loneliness. Many of the chapter titles are unsettling because of their somewhat violent undertones: “Generational Warfare”, “The Perils of Desire”, “Flags of Resistance”.
And there are some disturbing moments, such as when Segal notes that it was primarily older women living alone who were targeted in witch hunts and that even in the 21st century there are many critics, such as journalist Brendan O’Neill, of the elderly: “Baby boomers like to trumpet their generation’s achievements. But their fondness for conspicuous consumption and foreign travel has led to many a modern-day ill, from rising debt to environmental woes”. Another example, Tory MP David Willetts’ publication entitled The Pinch: How the Baby-Boomers Took Their Children’s Future—and Why They Should Give it Back, and Segal notes that since the latest financial crisis, more and more people have turned the elderly into “scapegoats”.
The book’s point is not to depress or scare, however, and while some of the information may not be all sunshine and flowers, it does live up to the praise. Elaine Showalter closes her introduction, stating “It’s about time for a book like Out of Time, compassionate, seasoned, honest, and wise, which asks questions about age but aims to enlighten, rather than frighten us.” Showalter might have added hopeful to that list.
Early on, Segal—referencing the fight against things such as a lack of good roles for older actresses—states “It is a battle I want to join. Old age is no longer the condition that dare not speak its name, but we have a long way to go before we can joke that it is the identity that refuses to be silent.”
Even with the research and the number of literary elites she references and quotes, Segal’s voice is still the one that stands out. For all her profound insights, Segal is essentially the woman next door when she relates, “‘You haven’t changed at all’ are words I love to hear when meeting people I haven’t seen in a while. Guiltily, I cherish the thought that I don’t look my age, and like to believe friends and acquaintances when they flatter.”
She possesses a bluntness that is simply admirable: “Orgasms are good for you, and good to have often.” Nor does she blindly accept all the sources she includes: “The buoyancy of these spokeswomen insisting upon the joys of old age, especially in their celebration of the rebirth of self-sufficiency, seems to me to promote the illusion that we can age agelessly.”
In fact, one small criticism of the book is that Segal’s voice does not come through often enough.
While much of Out of Time does focus on women, Segal often compares ageing men and women. She notes that, while double standards certainly exist concerning men, women, and ageing, historically women deal with some aspects of ageing, such as retirement, better than their male counterparts. She further notes that older men have a higher rate of suicide than do their female counterparts. Segal does not just discuss men and ageing, however; she also includes men’s voices in the book and examines the writings of Phillip Roth, John Updike, and Julian Barnes among others.
Out of Time is a thoughtful, reflective book. It encourages people to keep dreaming, keep fighting, and perhaps most of all keep living. Don’t let the cover put you off (having a woman’s face peering out of an “O” probably wasn’t a good idea). This book is a wonderfully honest look into a subject everyone should be thinking about.