It comes to all of us in the end: that crushing moment when you suddenly feel Old.
The trigger might be a milestone birthday, an illness or an injury, a romantic snub or a missed promotion at work. For me it was discovering that – at the age of 48 – I was the oldest player at a hockey tournament.
Even though I was playing well, the questions crowded in: Do I look out of place here? Are people laughing at me? Am I the hockey equivalent of the fiftysomething guy with the twentysomething girlfriend? Maybe I should take up a more age-appropriate pastime. Bingo, perhaps?
My wobble was hardly surprising. After all, in a world in thrall to youth, being older can mean being written off everywhere from the bedroom to the boardroom. These days, the word ‘old’ is so toxic that Dame Judi Dench has banned its use in her home and ‘age’ is the first answer to come up when you type ‘I lie about my . . .’ into Google Search.
But is growing older so bad it should be a dirty secret? Is it really all downhill from 35?
Clearly, there are drawbacks to ageing. To hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near can be an existential bummer of the first order. No matter how much kale you eat or how long you spend in spin class, your body will work less well over time and your brain will lose some zip. Like most middle-agers, I need reading glasses – and hate them.
But there is another, surprising side to the story: many things can actually get better as we age.
As the years pass, we tend to become more comfortable in our own skin, worry less about what others think of us and enjoy more fulfilling relationships. Perhaps that’s why people often report the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction after the age of 60. Even Pete Townshend confessed to feeling more cheerful in his sixties than when he wrote one of the most ageist lines in the pop music canon: ‘Hope I die before I get old.’
The human brain can also go on creating, learning, innovating and solving problems deep into later life. In Britain, the prestigious Turner Prize rewards original work by visual artists. For years you had to be under 50 to qualify, but in 2017 the age limit was scrapped. Why? Because, as the chair put it, “artists can experience a breakthrough in their work at any age”.
At any age – three little words to lift the spirits of anyone worried about being over the creative hill.
The same goes for the sciences, where Nobel winners are peaking later and later. Take John Goodenough, a poster child not only for late bloomers but for the idea that you never have to stop blooming. When he started his degree in physics at the age of 23, a professor told him he was already too old to make a mark in the field. Three decades later, Goodenough helped invent the lithium-ion rechargeable battery. And he wasn’t done there. Not long ago, in his mid-nineties, he unveiled an even better battery.
In the workplace, where brainpower trumps brawn like never before, the idea of being “finished at forty” is ripe for retirement. Productivity actually rises with age in jobs that rely on social skills, which often improve in later life. When companies set up suggestion boxes, older staff usually generate more and better ideas, with the best proposals tending to come from the over-55s.
While young guns strut and preen on The Apprentice, their parents – and grandparents – are out there smashing it in the start-up world. A recent study of new businesses in the United States reached a conclusion to gladden the heart of anybody on the ‘wrong’ side of 40: “We find no evidence to suggest that founders in their 20s are especially likely to succeed. Rather, all evidence points to founders being especially successful when starting businesses in middle age or beyond.”
By the same token, the human body can deliver fine service long after its peak. I no longer have the strength, speed or stamina of my youth but I’m just as sporty now as I was in my twenties – maybe more so. And these days I can look to a burgeoning army of role models running marathons in their seventies, climbing mountains in their eighties and cycling cross-country in their nineties. Of course, not everyone will be able – or even want – to emulate these evergreen athletes, but thanks to better nutrition, healthcare, technology and understanding of how we age, all of us can now aspire to keep on keeping on.
To do so, though, we must detoxify ageing – and that’s starting to happen. Fifteen years ago, I spotted the first signs of a cultural shift towards embracing slowness. Today, the Slow Movement influences our approach to everything from work and sex to travel and education. Maybe you’re helping fuel this shift by tuning in to one of the many Slow Radio or Slow TV broadcasts out there.
The same is now happening with ageing. With more and more of us living longer than ever before, the cult of youth is coming to look as outmoded as the cult of speed.
One way to drive this change forward is to be honest about our age. Lying gives the number a power it does not deserve – and reinforces the canard that younger is always better.
Honesty is certainly my policy these days. I’m now 51 and going grey – but not ashamed of either. On the contrary, I’m proud to have come this far and excited that good things await me in the coming years.
I’m even toying with wearing a Number 51 shirt at the next hockey tournament.
Here are my 12 Rules for Ageing Boldly!
1. Keep on learning and experimenting. The adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks isn’t even true of dogs. Novelty keeps you energised and engaged.
2. Cultivate strong relationships.
3. Draw inspiration from role models. Think Helen Mirren, David Attenborough or even Michelangelo, who rebuilt St Peter’s Basilica in his 80s.
4. Keep brain and body fit by exercising and eating right.
5. Channel Marie Kondo. If something – a job, a friendship, etc – no longer sparks joy, drop it. Streamline to make every moment count.
6. Find a purpose that puts meaning in your life and fire in your belly.
7. Be honest about your age. Lying gives the number a power it does not deserve – and reinforces the myth that younger is always better. Owning your age is the first step to making the most of it.
8. Remain flexible and open to change, growth and evolution. As Lao Tzu put it: “Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.”
9. Ignore the doom-mongers who say sex, love and romance belong to the young: they do not. Make room for all three however you old you are, if that’s what you fancy.
10. If you think growing older will be bad, it will be bad. Be positive and focus on the upsides of ageing: feeling more at ease in your own skin; deeper relationships; more happiness, altruism, creativity, knowledge, experience.
11. Cultivate a sense of humour. Laughing boosts health and longevity. As George Bernard Shaw put it: ‘You don’t stop laughing when you grow old, you grow old when you stop laughing.”
12. Think about death. Don’t dwell morbidly on it, but don’t shy away from it, either. An awareness that time is finite gives life shape and meaning – and spurs you to make the most of here and now.
Carl Honoré, is a faculty member of A Higher Branch Success Academy and was a guest speaker at our annual event Upgrade Your Life 2019. Carl will be returning to Upgrade Your Life 2020. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletters to find out what Carl’s topic will be.