The Coming of Age

Simone de Beauvoir

Book cover

I ended up reading this book in two disjoint sessions (had to return to library in the middle–it’s over 500 pages long), so some of my memory of it is not as sharp as it otherwise might be.

This book has great promise, and although it’s good, the promise is ultimately not fulfilled. As I understand it, the book is something of a spiritual successor to Beauvoir’s earlier and much more famous work, “The Second Sex” (which I have not read). In TCA, she portrays how the elderly are defined in relation to non-elderly adults, the latter of which are taken to be the “normal” category, in much the same way as is done to women in relation to men (the topic of TSS). Basically, she argues that the treatment of the elderly in our society (and, to bypass any ambiguity about what “our” means in this context, in all societies) is very poor.

It’s a rich topic, and Beauvoir is clearly very, very intelligent. (She got the second highest score in France in her college entrance exam; the highest scorer was Sartre.) The book is extremely comprehensive and wide-ranging. She begins by covering what we know about the life of the elderly in pre-historical societies from the anthropological evidence, then assesses the available historical evidence. The second half of the book turns to modern society. Beauvoir discusses modern policies relating to the elderly and statistics about their well-being, then turns to qualitative evidence from interview studies of average elderly people. Finally, she talks about the experiences of aging of quite a few famous individuals, including Churchill, Gandhi, Victor Hugo, Michelangelo, and many others.

The book could have used a very strong editor, however. Perhaps it did not receive one because Beauvoir was already quite famous when she published it. But the piling up of encyclopedic detail on what is known about the lives of the elderly ultimately detracted from the strength of the book, in my view. Her conclusion, which is just about 5 pages long, is awesome. It’s a very strongly argued left-wing perspective, which basically says that the poor treatment of the elderly is not something that we can expect to address by piecemeal policy meliorism, because it stems from the overall treatment of people in a capitalist (or, to use Naomi Klein’s more apt term, extractivist) society as primarily valuable in their ability to contribute to economic production. It’s no wonder that old people have difficulties living happy and fulfilling lives, because for their entire prior lives, society has not encouraged them to develop their human capacities, but rather rewarded them (to the extent it has) for the things that are taken away from them as they age. She recognizes that no society has done a good job of caring for its elderly, but doesn’t take that as any excuse for not attempting to do better at it. But, the conclusion comes very abruptly after an interminably long discussion of the old age of Clemenceau. Throughout the course of the book, Beauvoir does very little to maintain the thread of an argument or connect the reader back to her main ideas. It’s sort of as though she got interested in the topic, did a bunch of research, and drew some conclusions, but then just dumped all of her research into a book and tacked on an extended abstract at the end. I wish she had done more to show her line of thinking, and been more selective with the evidence she laid out.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars