A gerontologist reclaims the humanity of elite American men in their 'Fourth Age'

Mining the minds of elite American men in their 80s and 90s for answers to life’s big questions isn’t really the done thing these days. This is a time when global culture, rightly so, is calling male privilege into question.

But as he coped with challenging physical reminders of his ageing self in his late 60s – hips replaced, back surgeries – gerontologist Thomas R. Cole wanted to know more about the road ahead. He sought answers from a dozen men of immense privilege, exemplars of the 1930s through 1950s American model of masculinity and achievement.

His hand-picked group – many now gone – included Denton Cooley, the first surgeon to implant an artificial heart into a human, George Vaillant, the former research director of the famed Harvard Study of Adult Development; Paul Volcker, the former head of the Federal Reserve; philosopher Dan Callahan, co-founder of The Hastings Center, the world’s first bioethics research institute; Hugh Downs, veteran TV broadcaster and creator of The Today Show; and Ram Dass, his generation’s foremost American teacher of Eastern spirituality.

We talk about their guidance, which features in Old Man Country, Cole’s book of rare intimacy and insights into what it’s like to live so long having prospered due to privilege as well as effort. What happens to high-profile men when they step out of the limelight into “the province of retirement — a barren place often marked by an absence of wealth, prestige and personal meaning.”

Old Man Country is Cole’s “autobiographical field report” too – a poignant account of his own search for what eluded his father, who ended his life when Cole was just four.

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