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For men, aging's a Type-A war zone

Papas battle over which is nobler: to shave one's handicap or contribute to the bottom line.

October 30, 2005|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

THE golf course at the Riviera Country Club, preternaturally verdant and perfect, is close enough to the ocean to be cooled by a breeze most days. An invitation from a club member would normally be welcomed by a golfer who prides himself on his low handicap. However, if the invitee is a workingman in his mid-60s and the inviter is retired, even a beautiful, world-class course in Pacific Palisades might not be seductive enough.

"I know a guy who lives in Florida most of the year, but he still belongs to a club here," says a Los Angeles business owner past retirement age who works 45 to 50 hours a week. "He called me to play golf, and when I said yes, he practically jumped through the phone, he was so excited."

The senior play date seemed promising, but stay tuned. Afterward, the professional man complained: "I found myself not wanting to be with him, because there's nothing going on in his life. I see these guys at the country club I belong to who have retired early. They're unplugged. Purposeless. They might as well be out there in the pasture someplace, grazing."

The guys at the club are quick to offer their own critiques, of workaholics who can't let go, of anhedonics who, in their opinion, have no personal passions and no idea of what to do with leisure time.

In the last few years, while no one under 50 was paying much attention, America's elders have become a somewhat divided continent. On one side are contented Medicare beneficiaries whose retirement nirvana includes volunteer work, playing with grandchildren and low stress levels few working people get to enjoy. They face -- and return -- the scorn of peers who don't want to hear the "R" word, much less live it. The gulf is particularly evident in the economic strata in which men have the luxury of choosing whether to retire.

It's a battle that echoes the emotional intensity of the mommy wars, the clash between stay-at-home moms and working mothers that erupted at playgrounds and preschools nearly a decade ago, destroying friendships and launching heated debate.

The papa wars are primarily a male struggle because men tend to feel less connected to conventional definitions of masculinity when they're not tethered to the highly valued role of breadwinner. Throughout their lives, women see themselves as friends, sisters, daughters, mothers and workers and develop a more fluid sense of identity. Men are more brittle, less tolerant. For them, it isn't enough to make a choice to continue working or to retire. They also invest considerable energy in viewing the alternative with condescension.

"My wife and I spent some time with a bunch of rich people who were retired and living in Tuscany," says Len Williams, a 68-year-old former retailing executive who started a second career as a writer. "They had a lot of long, fancy dinner parties, drank lots of wine and talked about what they used to do when they were working. I'd get bored and frustrated, and I couldn't work the next day." Williams' first novel, "Justice Deferred," was published 2 1/2 years ago.

"If you retire at 60 and you're going to live till you're 85, that's a long time," says Williams, who lives in L.A. "You have the possibility of 25 fabulous years, or you can play bridge. What's the point? The people who play golf all the time end up complaining about the golf course. 'The greens aren't good.' It becomes like their office. I've seen people who have as much time as they want for leisure, and it doesn't work. They seem to be in a rote existence that wastes whatever spark they had."

Competition over which path through adulthood produces healthier children fueled the mommy wars. Did a woman whose job description was "my kids' mom" make a better mother than one who pursued a career? The papa wars are not being waged over anything as emotionally charged as the well-being of future generations. But that doesn't make the sides any chummier. Joel Robbins, a 59-year-old semiretired attorney who lives in Philadelphia, has noticed retired friends and those still working forming distinct clusters at social events. "That happens at barbecues and dinner parties," he says. "It's like the junior high dance, where the girls and the boys would be on different sides of the room."

The appeal of engagement

ISN'T it ironic, then, that the most conspicuous casualty of the papa wars -- the traditional notion of retirement -- could be claimed by either army? The fact is, no one touts sitting in a rocking chair anymore. "Engagement" is the buzzword on the lips of gerontologists and marketers eager to serve 78 million baby boomers in the coming years, 38 million of whom are approaching retirement now. Increased longevity has been accompanied by a cultural shift, a different way of looking at aging that supports the choices made by retirees and working seniors -- as long as they all keep very, very busy.

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