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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. It might be a romantic snub or a missed promotion at work. For me it was discovering that I was the oldest player at a hockey tournament. It sounds trivial, I know, but it sure didn’t feel that way. Picture the scene: I was 48 at the time. I had just propelled my team into the semi-finals by scoring a dramatic goal. I was walking on air. And then came the crushing news, straight from a tournament official. “Mate”, he told me, “there are 240 players here – and you’re older than every one of them”. In the blink of an eye, I went from goalscorer to grandad. Even though I’d been playing well and having fun, the questions crowded in: Do I look out of place here? Are people laughing at me? Should I take up a more age-appropriate pastime?
My wobble got me thinking about a scourge we all face but seldom do anything about: ageism – stereotyping and discriminating on the grounds of age. Ageism can hit young and old but it weighs more heavily on those of us in later life. Why? Because ageism is tangled up with the cult of youth, the belief that younger is always better. The evidence is all around us.
We live in a world where companies market ‘anti-ageing’ products as if ageing were a disease. Where Mark Zuckerberg can declare with impunity that – and this is a direct quote – ‘young people are just smarter.’ The other day I saw a birthday card showing a woman recoiling in B-movie horror beneath the words, ‘Good God, you’re 30!!’ Even our language reinforces the idea that ageing is just a grim descent into decrepitude. Expressions like: Senior moment. The wrong side of fifty. Showing his age. Past her prime. Finished at forty. Feeling my age. Over the hill. But does it actually make sense to worship youth? Is it true that younger is always better? Is it really all downhill from 35? Of course not. Pull off those ageist goggles and look at your own social circle. Does everyone you know go into a terminal tailspin the day they no longer pass muster on Love Island? The hell they do.
If you’re like me, you know loads of people thriving on the wrong side of 40. I’m now 55, and in many ways feel at the top of my game. Let’s be honest, though: ageing does have its drawbacks. 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 many hours you spend doing Pilates, your body will work less well over time.
Even though I’m as sporty as ever, I no longer have the strength, speed or stamina of my youth. My joints are stiff and sore more often than I’d like. My hair is thinning and there are times when what I see in the mirror looks a little too Lucian Freud for comfort. Worse still, I now need reading glasses – and what a faff that is! My glasses are always so smudged it’s like peering through a kooky Instagram filter. Or they’re missing in action: I’ve broken three pairs by sitting on them. On a more sombre note, we also become more vulnerable to disease as we age – something the Covid-19 pandemic brought home with a thud. But that’s not the whole story – not by a long shot. After my demotion from goalscorer to grandad, I set off around the world to find out if there was a better story to tell about ageing. Spoiler alert: there is a better story to tell. A much better one. Why? Because what you discover when you stop obsessing about the drawbacks of ageing is that as you grow older many things actually stay the same – and some even get better. In other words, many ageist stereotypes are flat-out wrong.
One is that later life is depressing. Look at the words we attach to older people: sad, cranky, crotchety, grumpy. Actually, untrue. Studies show that human beings follow a U-shaped happiness curve. We start off riding high in childhood, fall steadily to rock bottom in middle age, before bouncing back up again. Across much of the world, the adults who report the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction are the over 55s. 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.’ Scientists have found evidence that chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans ride a similar U-shaped curve, which means a happiness boost in later life may even be coded into our primate genes. This chimes with my own experience. Sure, my twenties were roaring. But I am more content now in my fifties.
Part of that is down to feeling more comfortable in my own skin. As we age, we feel less need to tiptoe round other people’s opinions. As Ann Landers, the American agony aunt, noted: “At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.” I recognise that sense of lightness or freedom that comes upon us as we enter the second half of our lives. I find it much easier now to let go of people, stuff and routines that no longer light me up. To focus instead on what really matters to me. David Bowie once described ageing as “an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.”
“Sure, my twenties were roaring. But I am more content now in my fifties. ”
— Carl Honoré
I love that idea. That as we grow older we become more – not less – ourselves. We get to the core, the essence, the truth of who we are. Every one of us is a work in progress, and growing older moves that oeuvre closer to fruition. It helps that our brains – mine, yours, Bowie’s – can go on creating, learning and solving problems right to the end of our lives. We all know the saying that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Well, turns out it’s not even true of dogs. And it’s certainly not true of human beings. Vocabulary, general knowledge and expertise go on expanding as we age. And even if learning some new skills can take a little longer in later life, we can still do it. The notion that creativity belongs to the young is also ageist claptrap. Human beings can be creative at any age. And some forms of creativity actually rely on two things that only ageing can confer: time and experience.
That’s why history is studded with people doing triumphantly creative work in later life: from Michelangelo and Matisse to Beethoven and Bach. In 2017, the Turner Prize for visual artists scrapped its age limit of 50. Why? Because, in the words of the chair, “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 hill.
Because there is no wrong side of 50. There’s just the side you’re on and what you make of it. Who won the Turner Prize in 2017? Lubaina Himid, a sixty something artist. Writer Maya Angelou was right: “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” Ditto in the workplace. Productivity rises with age in jobs that rely on social acumen, as more and more do. Because social smarts improve as we grow older. We also get better at seeing the big picture, weighing multiple points of view and spotting the patterns that unlock solutions to thorny problems.
Think about your own work. Aren’t you better at it now than you were 10 years ago? I know I am. I also feel more entrepreneurial, more able to turn risk into reward. And I’m not alone in that either. While young guns strut and preen on The Apprentice, guess who’s really out there smashing it in the start-up world? Their parents and grandparents. Despite the fawning media coverage lavished on the Zuckerbergs of this world, studies show you’re more likely to create a successful start up in middle age or beyond. By the same token, the human body can deliver fine service long after its peak. Just look at the burgeoning army of people running marathons in their seventies, climbing mountains in their eighties and cycling cross-country in their nineties. Welcome to the age of the centenarian sky-diver. 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.
But let’s not get carried away. Our aim should not be to swap the cult of youth for the cult of the codger. Younger is not always better. But older isn’t either. The truth is that every age has its pros and cons. And every age can be wonderful. But only if we embrace it. Embrace the present instead of pining for the past and shrinking from the future. One way to do that is to yank the generations out of their silos and get them mixing again. Spending time with people of different ages makes us happier – and less ageist. After all, nothing shoots down stereotypes more than getting to know the people being stereotyped. Blending the generations also pays dividends in the workplace where the experience, patience and big-picture thinking of older employees can dovetail with the energy and modern outlook of younger ones.
Multigenerational mixing is easier now that we all have more in common. When I was young, my father seemed to live in a galaxy far, far away: we dressed differently, listened to our own music, watched our own TV shows. Though my son and I are separated by the same 30 years, we are much closer culturally. We play sports together, listen to the same bands on Spotify and share recommendations on Netflix. We use similar slang and would both be bereft without our iPhones. Even our wardrobes overlap enough to share clothes, hats and shoes. What this means is that chronological age is losing its power to limit and define us. Yet we can’t make the most of this new freedom until the idea of ageing ceases to elicit fear, shame, guilt, disgust and denial.
Until we put paid to ageism and embrace ageing as an adventure. This sounds like a tall order. But I know we can do it because I’ve done it myself. My own attitude to ageing has pivoted 180 degrees. Like anyone else, I still worry about what the passage of time will do to me. To my health, my finances, my looks, my loved ones. Nor do I want my life to end. But these days I no longer recoil from ageing, my own or other people’s. The shame is gone. My age has lost the power to make me question my right to do what I want to do.
These days, I will dare to eat a peach. I will part my hair behind. I will wear my trousers rolled. If I feel like it. I will also carry on playing hockey. And if I’m the oldest player at a tournament, so be it. Rather than deny or conceal my age, I plan to wear it on my sleeve. Literally. Throughout my playing career I’ve worn the number 10 on my hockey jersey. At the next tournament, I’m planning to replace that with my current age: 55.