Book review: “Second Wind” by Dr. Bill Thomas


I mentioned thought-leader/geriatrician Bill Thomas’ book Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life in a post earlier this month about “Bedside Books.” I’m ready to share a more complete review.

Second Wind is fundamentally about recognizing, exploring, and imagining a developmental stage beyond adulthood. It is also a quintessential Baby Boomer book, as self-centered as everything else about my generation. (That Dr. Bill Thomas is roughly my age probably explains that.)

His basic premise is that the dynamics that gave rise to the Baby Boomers (back when the phrase referred to youth) have over the intervening 40 years  created a dangerous sea of misperceptions about old age. He calls for a cultural revolution mirroring that of the 1960s to reinvent elderhood as radically as we once challenged existing ideas of adulthood.

In the first section, titled “The First Crucible,” he describes that first revolution:

Young people of the era were ultimately led to choose among three basic developmental strategies for emerging out of childhood. They could (1) accept adulthood as it was lived by one’s parents, (2) embrace the power of adulthood as an instrument of social change, or (3) reject the adulthood on offer and explore new, nonadult ways of living beyond childhood.

He terms these three subcultures Squares, Activists and Hippies. He then goes on to explain that:

The chaos associated with the most intense First Crucible years generated a powerful counter-counterculture….The Squares’ furious rejection of the First Crucible’s social and cultural dislocations led them to push their counterreformation forward with relentless energy and dedication.

In the second section, titled “The Rise to Power,” Dr. Thomas takes down “The Cult of Adulthood” with astounding vigor. Steven Covey-style efficiency? Dangerous brainwashing to make us all productive cogs in their great machine. Greed? Our national religion, masked as Horatio Alger-style “rags to respectability” bootstrapping. Time is money, and it’s moving faster than ever, thanks to the sensation of drowning in an unending stream of news, opinions, facts, and statistics.

The cult of adulthood has defined the contours of American life for nearly four decades…. Adult understandings of success and “effectiveness,” the proper role of individualism, and the ennobling nature of wealth are no longer subject to debate or ridicule: they have become articles of faith.”

In the third section, “The Second Crucible,” he presents his analysis of the current moment:

The postwar generation’s increasingly strained relationship with adulthood will create entirely new cultural fault lines. During the Second Crucible, these fractures will give rise to unique subcultures with divergent answers to the increasingly urgent question, “What comes next?” Members of the postwar generation will deny the necessity of change and endeavor to remain fully and permanently adult, accept but work to minimize the impact of change for as long as possible, or embrace change and choose to explore life beyond adulthood.

Like the Squares, Activists, and Hippies, these three reactions “are poised to exert an outsize influence over our shared culture.” The rest of Thomas’ Second Wind is devoted to his  call to action–that we join his Enthusiasts  and fight for respect and appreciation for this developmental stage in which we privilege being over doing (take THAT, efficiency-worshipers!). It’s time to embrace and share the gifts of sages and crones–wisdom, insight, experience, common sense. “It’s time to challenge the dehumanizing power of ageism,” Thomas writes.

Reading Second Wind came for me a few months after finishing Powers of the Weak, a seminal feminist text published in 1980 by Elizabeth Janeway. 1+1 = 11 when you realize who the “weak” are in this next cultural revolution–the elders, rendered invisible and dehumanized by ageism!

So here’s MY call to action–it’s time to apply the tools of the counterculture activists–and specifically, the second wave feminists–to fight the powers that be. I am forming a consciousness-raising group about successful aging that will begin meeting on Madison’s east side on January 12. (More info here.) I’m open to forming an online group if you tell me you’re interested. (email me at

Let’s get this revolution underway, Baby Boomers! We’ve changed every institution we’ve touched since kindergarten–do you really want to stop now?

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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