Stephanie Newman Ph.D.

Apologies To Freud

What Sociology Tells Us About Don and Megan Draper's May/December Romance

Spouses' relative ages often predict marital success

Posted May 08, 2012

When Megan Draper decides to follow her heart and become an actress, her husband Don—the polished ad man, who is never at a loss for words or far from a drink—comments to business partner Roger Sterling: “I was raised in the 30s.  My dream was indoor plumbing” (Episode 508 “Lady Lazarus”).   But, Don is not really laughing.  He is troubled by the reality of Megan’s needs.  She isn’t satisfied being a wife and stepmother—even one with an interesting career.  She wants the spotlight.  

Don and Megan will have very different career trajectories. But that’s beside the point.  It’s their relative attitudes towards work and happiness that constitute a potential point of divergence for the Drapers.

One prominent Sociologist, Glen Elder Jr., interviewed the real life Don Drapers. He compared the effects of deprivation and hardship on the children of the Great Depression, and contrasted findings about them with those relating to their children. The younger generation, college students during the late 50s and early 60s, born to less impoverished circumstances and used to a more reasonable standard of living, including access to higher education, were likely to choose work that suited them.  In other words, they relied on certain “intrinsic” factors of the job, such as its opportunity for personal satisfaction, when making career decisions.  And this is what Megan does when she decides to follow her dream.

Don, a child of the Great Depression and a farmer’s son, relies on “extrinsic” factors afforded by the work—what matters most is ability to earn a living.  The real "Dons" chose advertising because it conferred financial security and prestige; personal satisfaction was not on anyone's radar. And so, when Megan tells her husband she is leaving the agency, he struggles to make sense of her need to follow her dreams.  But true understanding eludes him.  At the moment he jokes about indoor plumbing we see the fundamental difference between the Drapers:  They are from different generations, and have different expectations about career and personal satisfaction—just like that sociologist Glen Elder said they would.

Megan is a member of the Me Generation--she is all about finding herself.  Don wishes he were free, but as the product of a different era, he has a core sense of responsibility--to his children, to his firm, and even to his first wife, Betty.  Don supports Anna Draper, the widow of the man whose identity he stole, and he continues to take care of Betty financially after their separation.  He lets her and the children live in their home for as long as they desire. Don might mess up, but he owns it and tries to do the right thing in the long run.  He has tried to run away from responsibility in the past, but he has come back. He is not psychologically free to do as he wishes.

Megan does not appear to be bound by the same sense of duty as her husband.  She wants what she wants, and she goes out and gets it.  Ironically, it is Don’s support that gives her the freedom to leave the agency and pursue acting. This strikes fear in her husband’s heart, as suspects the path he makes possible might just take his wife away--for good.  Now that Megan has chosen to follow her dream, the question becomes: what will happen to Don?

Stephanie Newman, PhD, is the author of Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the hit TV show, which can be purchased from Barnes & NobleIndie Bound, and Amazon.

Elder, Glen, Jr. Children of the Great Depression, 1974. New York: Westfield Press.

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