Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age

Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age

by Susan Jacoby


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In Never Say Die, Susan Jacoby delivers a brave, impassioned, and exceptionally important wake-up call to Americans who have long been deluded by the dangerous myth that a radically new old age awaits the huge baby boom generation.
Combining historical, social, and economic analysis with personal experiences of love and loss, Jacoby unmasks the fallacies promoted by twenty-first-century hucksters of longevity, and reveals the hazards of the magical thinking that prevents us from facing the genuine battles of growing old. Never Say Die speaks to Americans, whatever their age, who draw courage and hope from facing reality instead of embracing platitudes and delusions, and who want to grow old with dignity and purpose. It is a life-affirming and powerful message that has never been more relevant.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307456281
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/14/2012
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 641,752
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Susan Jacoby is the author of nine books, most recently The Age of American Unreason, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. She writes The Spirited Atheist blog for On Faith, a website sponsored by The Washington Post. She lives in New York City. For more information, visit

Read an Excerpt

Anyone who has not been buried in a vault for the past two decades is surely aware of the media blitz touting the “new old age” as a phenom­enon that enables people in their sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond to enjoy the kind of rich, full, healthy, adventurous, sexy, financially secure lives that their ancestors could never have imagined. Much of this propaganda is aimed at baby boomers now in their late forties, fifties, and early sixties, because marketers are betting that the boomer generation will spend almost anything on products that say “Hell no, we won’t go!” to a traditionally defined old age. I too have read (and occasionally written) optimistic screeds on the joys and advan­tages of the new old age, also known as “young old age,” also known as “successful aging.” But I now regard the relentlessly positive vision promulgated by cheerleaders for the extension of longevity as more of an exhortation, even an ultimatum, than an evidence-based portrait of old age as it is today and is likely to remain for the huge baby boom generation. As the oldest boomers turn sixty-five, it is past time for a more critical and skeptical look at old age as it really is in America today, especially for the “old old”—those in their ninth and tenth decades of life. When I told a forty-something colleague that I was writing a book about the myth of young old age, she asked how old I was (a question still considered impolite in most contexts). I told her I was sixty-three. “Surely you don’t think of that as old?” she asked in a horrifi ed tone. Actually, being an American who came of age in the “forever young” decade, I do not usually think of myself as old. But when I recall how quickly the last two decades, packed with love and work, have sped by, I know how close eighty, or ninety, really is—as distinct from whatever subjective notions I cherish about my own youthfulness. Old, in Amer­ica, always seems to be a decade or preferably two decades older than one’s own age. The difference between forty and sixty is that, at sixty, the imaginative leap to old old age is not only possible but inescapable.
The idea that there is a new kind of old age, experienced in a radi­cally different way from old age throughout history, is integral to the marketing of longevity. For who would want to live to be one hundred if, as individuals and as a society, we accepted or even suspected that the new old age, after a certain point, encompasses most of the vicissitudes of old-fashioned old age? There is a considerable amount of truth in the assertion that many old people today—if they are in sound fi nancial shape, if they are in reasonably good health, and if they possess func­tioning brains—can explore an array of possibilities that did not exist even a generation ago. “If ” is the most important word in the preced­ing sentence. The idea that we can control the future by aggressively focusing on and taking care of ourselves is an article of faith for baby boomers. Yet in many instances, successful aging—or the outward ap­pearance of successful aging—means only that a person has managed to put on a happy face for the rest of the world; present an image of vigor and physical well-being even when bones are aching; smile even though a heart may be breaking with loss; do everything possible to conceal memory lapses; demonstrate a consistent willingness to try anything new; and scoff (with just the right, light touch of humor) at those mis­guided contemporaries who refuse to “live in the present.”
Here’s what one cannot do and be considered a person who is aging successfully: complain about health problems to anyone younger; weep openly for a friend or lover who has been dead more than a month or two; admit to depression or loneliness; express nostalgia for the past (either personal or historical); or voice any fear of future dependency— whether because of poor physical health, poor finances, or the worst scourge of advanced old age, Alzheimer’s disease. American society also looks with suspicion on old people who demand to be left alone to deal with aging in their own way: one must look neither too needy for com­panionship nor too content with solitude to be considered a role model for healthy aging rather than a discontented geezer or crone. Successful aging awards are conferred only on those who have managed (often as much by biological good luck as effort) to avoid, or convince others that they have avoided, the arduous uphill fight that eventually consumes all who live too long to retain control over either the mundane or the important decisions of everyday life. It’s great to be old—as long as one does not manifest too many of the typical problems of advanced age. The reality evaded by propagandists for the new old age is that we all are capable of aging successfully—until we aren’t.
I hope that this book about the genuine battles of growing old will provide support for all who draw their strength and courage from real­ity, however daunting that reality may be, rather than from platitudes about “defying old age.” This commonly used phrase in the annals of the so-called new old age fills me with rage, because the proximity of old age to death is not only undefiable but undeniable. Anger, by the way, is another emotion considered inappropriate in the old; the dubi­ous notion of the “wisdom of old age” rests on the belief that elders can, and should, transcend the passions, vaulting ambition, and com­petitiveness of their younger adult lives and arrive at some sort of peace that passeth all understanding.
The capacity to negotiate between the past and the present, not tran­scendence of the emotions and desires that have made us who we are, is the proper definition of aging with dignity. The great Russian-born dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who once seemed to fl oat above stage and earth as the preeminent male classical ballet star of his generation, bravely called himself a “dancing fossil” on the Today show. Having just turned sixty, he described the role of the older dancer as that of “a me­diator between your memories and your [current] abilities as a human skeleton.” This unromantic description of successful aging is applicable not only to nature’s blessed exceptions, who figure so prominently in most prescriptions for age-defying behavior, but to anyone whose in­tense desire for meaningful experience remains undiminished by a real­istic recognition of time’s indelible, deepening imprint. The search for new, earthbound ways to express lifelong passions—not to transcend them in some mythical metamorphosis that seems more akin to a heav­enly ascension—demands the most arduous efforts from and offers the most rich rewards for every aging human skeleton. Anyone who has outlived his or her passions has lived too long. Wordsworth got it ex­actly right, at the tender age of thirty-seven, in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”: O joy! That in our embers / Is something that doth live, / That nature yet remembers / What was so fugitive! 

What People are Saying About This


"Jacoby sees a new ageism that doesn't just stigmatize old people for their years, but blames them for physical ills that no lifestyle adjustments or medicine can yet forestall...Among other perils, the `old old' have a roughly even chance of being counted among the mind-eaten ranks of Alzheimer's victims. We may not like to think that poverty, social isolation, crippling pain, dementia and loss of autonomy are likely to come calling the longer we live, but it's a fact."
- New York Times Book Review

"Jacoby's tough-minded refusal to buy the rosy image painted by advertisers and the 'anti-aging industry'-a greedy crowd that includes bogus health gurus, pill pushers and other medical hucksters-is empowering."
- Time Magazine

"Susan Jacoby, a sworn enemy of irrationality of every form, has some shockingly bad news: We will all die, and most of us will get old first-not 'older' but actually old. In this beautifully crafted book, she punctures the promises that aging will eventually be 'cured' either by a wonder drug or though positive thinking. The good news is that if we wake up from our delusions we may be better able to grow old with dignity."
- Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America

"Warning: This book is heretical. Susan Jacoby, one of our most perceptive public intellectuals, examines the current myth that it is possible to transcend the vicissitudes of old age by living right. In this fascinating look at the "new old age," she shows that it is pretty much like the old one-marked by declining health, loss of independence, and often dementia. It is no service to older Americans to demand that they conform, or pretend to conform, to current notions of a serene, wisdom-packed, if passionless, old age. We need to deal with it as it is, not as we would like it to be."
- Marcia Angell, M.D., Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School

"For those of us who are old, Susan Jacoby's candor about old age is bracing; for those not yet old, Never Say Die should provide an unsentimental education for the years to come."
- Philip Roth

From the Publisher

"Drawing on research, personal experience, and anecdotes, [Jacoby] offers an important reality check for Americans enamored of the images of healthy, active seniors featured in advertisements." —-Booklist Starred Review

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Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
kaitleigh More than 1 year ago
Susan Jacoby pulls no punches when she describes what old age has been like, is today and probably will be in the future in Never Say Die. I'm sure many readers will find her view pessimistic and depressing. I say, I think she's right on the money. We like our elderly to be spunky and un-complaining even in the face of disability and illness. What denial! I think she's got it just right. The old and impoverished and frail and needy are most likely elderly women who have outlived their husbands, their money and their usefulness; they become invisible. This book is a call to action to redefine how we as a society deal with our elders. I believe it should be required reading for all -- especially those in government who have the power to control access to health care and other support systems in our country for those least able to care for themselves. Not all stories have happy endings.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I hesitate to assign a number of stars to this book. The book is well written and well researched and I highly recommend it to those making public policy and academics. If, however, you are a baby boomer, smug and enjoying your life after a lifetime of hard work, STEP AWAY FROM THIS BOOK-DO NOT TOUCH IT. Ms. Jacoby recounts in excruciating detail what your future is likely to hold: incontinence, dementia, poverty, more incontinence, cronehood, adult diapers, failed plastic surgery etc. Worse than that, the author has no real formula for making the best of aging other than do not spend any money now while you can enjoy it as you will need it later to pay someone to change the aforementioned adult diapers (although she does mention in passing that suicide could work for the non-squimish). It seems that her take on aging consists of a cheap coffin 2. sit in it 3. wait. If nothing else this book convinces me that spending my money while I can enjoy it is the way to go as misery is inevitable.
mizroobie More than 1 year ago
The information in this book is invaluable. Susan Jacoby is an excellent writer and journalist. She writes with warmth and empathy, while never glossing over the hard truths. I am recommending this book to everyone I know.
craigkay on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent corrective to the media/advertising blitz encouraging people to think they are going to live forever, or worse, live until 100 and feel like 30 up to that time. Those of us who are 50+ know from our own experiences that the sheer unpredictability of aging mitigates against the idea that ingesting anti-oxidants or other potions will ensure a smooth ride. Those of us with aging parents further understand the profound limitations of reaching 80 and beyond, notwithstanding the very few outliers who beat the odds. Problem is that we all think we will beat the odds. Jacoby is a long overdue wakeup call on that sort of fallacious thinking.
SamSattler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Susan Jacoby would have more appropriately titled Never Say Die, her look at aging in America, if she had called it The Worst Years of Our Lives ¿ for that is what she predicts the ninth and tenth decades of life will be for those ¿fortunate¿ enough to live very far into them. (I do want to note that she clarifies the purpose of her book with its subtitle: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age.) She sees few exceptions (and she attributes most of those to class and money) to the rule: those who reach old old age invariably enter a world impacted more by Alzheimer¿s, poverty, family neglect, suicide and assisted suicide, and painful disease than by everything that came before. To Jacoby, this is a given, and there is no room for debate. She believes that those who are blind to this truth have been brainwashed by unscrupulous marketers having some dubious product to sell, some magic pill, cream, liquid, book, or surgery that promises to stop aging in its tracks. As millions of baby boomers reach or approach their 65th birthdays, it is more and more difficult to avoid these hucksters. They are everywhere. We are, after all, easy-sells; we want desperately to believe that the suffering associated with the aging process will be defeated just in time for us to enjoy life well into our nineties, if not beyond. As Jacoby points out, it is not that older people become obsessed by death. Rather, it is that death ¿becomes a more conscious presence¿ in their lives as the decades pass. Losing grandparents is somewhat expected and acceptable; losing parents, less so; and losing siblings, old high school friends, and office mates at a steady clip is what finally hits home ¿ we, too, are going to die soon. At sixty-five it is still easy for many of us to believe that the ¿best years of our lives¿ are still ahead of us but at eighty-five only ¿a fool or someone who has led an extraordinarily unhappy life can imagine the best years are still to come.¿ Never Say Die is a wake-up call, a warning that old age is best handled by preparing oneself for it long before it happens. Jacoby warns of the generational warfare that is likely to erupt when younger workers can no longer afford to finance the medical costs required to keep their elders alive. The difficult choices that have been avoided by politicians for decades will finally have to be made. Those who can afford to save enough to pay their own way in old age need to do just that. Those who cannot, face a much less clear future because it will be up to politicians to figure a way out of the impending mess.It is impossible, of course, to avoid politics in any discussion of health care and caring for a rapidly aging population in the future. Jacoby, however, takes the approach of blaming almost everything bad on conservatives and giving liberals credit for almost everything good. It is only in the book¿s last few pages that she effectively dares to criticize the liberal point-of-view at all. Jacoby¿s criticism of conservatism often can be justified ¿ but the tone of that criticism, as seen below, often lessens its credibility:¿Since we do not euthanize the old when they become too expensive (teabagger fantasies notwithstanding), society winds up paying in the end if government does not require young adults to contribute to the maintenance of a strong public safety net.¿ (Surely Jacoby understands the sexual connotation of the term ¿teabagger,¿ but she chooses to use it anyway.)¿While I considered John Paul Stevens the wisest member of the Supreme Court before his retirement at age ninety, I shudder to think about the possibility of Antonin Scalia serving on the Court until his late eighties.¿ (Agreeing with Jacoby¿s political point-of-view earns one a free pass that disagreeing with her politics does not earn.)¿Many of these people are former full-time retirees who were victimized by conservative-backed federal policies that enabled companies to break their pension and hea
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