04/09/2007 11:18 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Reinvention Blues

It's too bad that "There are no second acts in American lives," is probably F. Scott Fitzgerald's most frequently quoted line. It's not his best. Of course, Fitzgerald was dead by the time he was 44, so you could say he didn't know much about the subject. In any case, he was wrong, as has been proven time and again by millions of Americans who've abruptly changed course in life and set forth in new and unlikely directions, sometimes with spectacular results:

Tom Clancy sold insurance before The Hunt for Red October freed him from his day job. Ethel Merman was a stenographer before she got rhythm, Harry S. Truman a haberdasher before he was a president. Like a Shakespeare play, Richard Nixon's life had five acts - rising star, has-been, president, pariah, eminence. From Grandma Moses to Colonel Sanders to John Tesh, dramatic life transformations are as American as ham and cheese on a bagel, and never more than now.

Usually, they are the result of necessity or desperation, sometimes both. Sometimes a higher duty calls, or someone dies, divorces, loses a job or a place to live - but not so much these days.

Second acts are back in a big way now because the baby boomers, my peoples, are getting ready for the stage of life that in earlier, less subtle times, was referred to as "Old Age."

We still have a ways to go, of course. The oldest boomers started turning sixty last year, and while sixty isn't really old old, "middle-aged" becomes a bit of a stretch. "Late-middle-aged" is more appropriate; I prefer "upper-middle aged" myself.

Anyway, sixty is not truly a defining age, not like thirty - which I didn't mind as much as twenty-eight for some reason, but the point was the same. Sixty certainly doesn't have the metaphorical heft of fifty - half a century - and we showed fifty where to get off, didn't we? After a decade of boomer fiftieth birthdays, they feel like Bar Mitzvahs. Thirteen, fifty, big diff - as the Carpenters sing, you've only just begun. At sixty, the over-riding feeling is relief that you're not sixty-five, a birthday that is truly fraught with issues. Still, sixty is a life passage of sorts and boomers are not inclined to let a life passage slide by unnoticed, undiscussed or uncelebrated. Go gently into that good night? I don't think so.

We're looking for ways to be sixty like nobody's ever been sixty before. Everything old is new again, including oldness itself. We're interested in second acts, third ages, late blooming, giving back, spending down, cutting loose, gathering in, simplifying, diversifying, and pretty much any word beginning with "re:" renewal, re-invention, rejuvenation, rededication, reevaluation, etc. The only "re" word not in favor at the moment is retirement, a word still too redolent of blue hair and velcro-closing shoes to win much favor, though mighty efforts are being made to redefine retirement, if you'll pardon the expression. Don't take it from me. Take it from Dennis Hopper, currently appearing all too often on your tv in loquacious stoner mode, talking up groovy retirement possibilities: "You could write a book about how you're gonna turn retirement upside down... because I just don't see you playing shuffleboard, know what I mean?"

At my age, I've grown used to the cultural touchstones of my youth urging me to buy something. (Also in heavy rotation at the moment is an ad featuring the Rolling Stones hoary b-side "I'm Free" - not to be confused with the Who tune of the same name - a song obscure enough to get my attention every time I hear it, although without noticing what the Stones are selling.) But I have my doubts about Dennis and the promise of a wilder, wackier, boomier kind of old age.

I suspect that the New Old Age will turn out much like Old Old Age, only it will take longer and cost more - just like every other phase of the boomer life cycle. We took our sweet time growing up, getting educated, sowing our wild oats and settling down. Modern medicine is more effective than it ever has been and improves all the time. Four our ages, we are in better health than any previous generation. Given the opportunity, who wouldn't dawdle at the end of the long, strange trip?

That dawdling period used to be called retirement, and without apology. For centuries, most people worked until they fell over. It was the way of the world. Not until 1935 did Social Security make it possible for large numbers of Americans - not just rich ones, but regular working people - to lay their burdens down and yet not starve. Retirement was an instant hit, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, reward for a lifetime of hard work, the goal of millions. Until now. Now retirement has a bad rep.

It's synonymous with premature burial, entombment in a world of geriatric talismans: pastel sportswear, early bird specials, bingo. Retirement is pool socials with cha-cha music, Metamucil at mealtime, clipping coupons: oldster prison, another drag from a time gone by. So at an age when our parents started thinking about doing less, boomers are talking about doing more. Buoyed by our relentless optimism and drive to succeed, we are moving ahead inexorably like kudzu or certain types of fungus.

Talk about moving the goal posts; they've been replanted upside down. Live right, husband your resources, achieve a level of financial security and then, instead of easing back, enjoying the fruits of your labors and generally watching the world go by, we get to keep at it or even start all over again doing something entirely new? How great is that?

Something tells me that this will not stand.

I wonder how much anti-retirement fervor is really a desire to keep working and how much is a desire to be different from our parents, especially in the leisure-wear department. How much is it the wishful thinking of our better angels? I keep reading and hearing that boomers don't want to stop working, but my research, which includes the frequent striking up of conversations with people who look around my age, suggests that an overwhelming majority of baby boomers - actually, every single one I have ever asked about this - would walk off their jobs immediately, on the spot, in the middle of whatever they were doing, if they could afford to. Some would run instead of walk. A few would dance a little jig. A surprising number would stop to spit in their bosses' respective eyes before vacating the premises.

But for most of us, there is no alternative to working to make ends meet, and that presents a problem for the second act scenario, because a proper second act is about much more than money. It must involve one or more of the following: craftsmanship, mentoring, environmental responsibility, nice scenery. Wine-making is an acceptable second act; so is sculpting or teaching, but only teaching in a really bad neighborhood. Being a plumber is not acceptable; most of the building trades aren't, with the possible exception of ornamental plaster-working. Book-keeping is not second-act material either. Don't expect kudos should you enroll in accounting school at 53 to fulfill your lifelong dream of becoming a C.P.A.

Which is not to say that you're not allowed to make money during your second act. You most certainly are, but only if you earn zillions or mere pennies, nothing in between. If the former, you let your friends know indirectly, nonchalantly, as if you had no idea. "When the stock split, then split again, I was mulching in the garden, didn't have my cell, had no idea..." If the latter, you act vaguely nettled when the subject comes up. "Of course it doesn't pay well. You don't do something like this because it pays well."

As the generation that mainstreamed social activism, boomers are also presumed eager to continue their efforts into their golden years. Numerous worthy non-profits are counting on a groundswell of more or less self-sufficient boomer retirees eager to give back. There's no data indicating that all these volunteers will show up, but plenty of data suggesting that few boomers will be able to afford such benevolence.

In short, I don't think boomers will be redefining retirement or old age or any of the life stages left to them, and that's a good thing. Who needs the pressure? Second acts aren't for everyone. Many boomers, like many of their predecessors on earth, spend much of their working lives absorbed by one kind of work and most of their personal lives around a small cast of characters. In professional terms, this single-minded focus used to be called expertise. In personal terms, it was called devotion. Not everyone wants a fresh start down the home stretch. Variety is not necessarily the spice of life. In fact, variety is a poor substitute for spice. Spice is the spice of life, and if you've found the right combination of sweet, sour, pungent, piquant and salty in your life, you don't mess around with it just for the sake of variety.

Face it: Some lives are long, episodic one-acts, long on character and short on plot - more like a phone book than a play, actually, and that's nothing to be ashamed of. Most plays start falling apart after the intermission.