…before marriage she was expected to be chaste and during [marriage] she was supposed to be submissive; once widowed she had more freedom. A widow even had a degree of financial autonomy that set her apart from daughters and wives, who in law were chattels belonging to their fathers and husbands. Widows, by contrast, could carry on their husband’s business. The legal fiction was that they were just minding the shop until they remarried, but the reality was that they often controlled their own affairs fo trhe rest of their lives… The widow, then was the joker in the pack, the wild card who was not obliged to play by the sexual and social rules. [In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, this character] is a free agent. She acts instead of being acted on; she delights in setting a plot. She has the same kind of boldness as Iago and the Edmund of King Lear has.
I wondered whether the widow has a contemporary equivalent. Which group, if any group, has this structural freedom? Who plays the wild card? (And this is a pressing question for anthropological purposes because it looks as if a lot of cultural change is driven by specific groups, and these groups are often defined by age. )
The precedents are well known. Each successive generations puts its mark on contemporary culture. Boomers helped usher in a counter-culture. Gen X helped install an alternative culture.
Strauss and Howe, the students of Gen Y, insist that "millennials" are quiescent. The impulses "counter" and "alternative" do not beat within their breasts. And it looks as if they may be right. No one from Gen Y appears to have risen to protest the Strauss and Howe designation. (On the other hand, we mighttreat civicmindedness, to use the old-fashioned term, as their generational difference.)
But the questions stands. Are there no "widows" now? Is there a group of people who by their structural location and/or generational identity who is prepared to play the wild card, the free agent? (Yes, I could be that we just have to wait for Generation Z. I leave this question to the likes of Jane Buckingham or Anastasia Goodstein.) But if you forced me to bet, I would say the group most likely to assume this role will be boomers in retirement. I believe some contingent of boomers will refuse all the stereotypes associated with age, and keep on going to defy the social stereotypes of every kind. In the process, they will be a new motor, much resented, for cultural change.
Bate, Jonathan. 2008. Dampit and Moll. Times Literary Supplement. April 25, 2008, pp. 3, 5, 6.