The author of four books has a new one, Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives, which is about living longer— how we can do it better and feel better about doing it. It’s his rallying cry against the last form of discrimination that dare speak its name: ageism.
We are revisiting the great Carl Honoré. Carl is famous in the world of slow. He has a massively popular TED Talk on it and is currently putting together a course dropping later this year on how to slow down for TED’s latest initiative, TED COURSES. He launched the movement with his book In Praise of Slow, which examines our compulsion to hurry and chronicles a global trend toward putting on the brakes. It is a particularly timely concept in the time of Covid lockdowns when slow is about the only option we have.
After working as a journalist with street children in Brazil, he covered Europe and South America for the Economist, Observer, Houston Chronicle, Miami Herald, and other publications. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, grew up in Canada, which no doubt contributes to his ability to take a global overview of what is happening in the world around age.
How did you become interested in the field of age?
The spark was a small existential crisis. It hit me when I discovered I was the oldest player at a hockey tournament. I was 48 at the time. I had just propelled my team into the semi-finals by scoring a highlight-reel goal. I was walking on air.
And then, out of nowhere, an official informed me that there were 240 players at the tournament — and I was older than every one them.
“Even though I’d been playing well and having fun, the questions crowded in: Do look out of place here? Should I take up a more age-appropriate pastime?”
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? Bingo, perhaps?
I came away from that tournament keen to understand why I felt so bad about my age. And to see if there was a more upbeat story to tell about aging.
Spoiler alert: there is!
Are you being treated differently now that you are over 50?
So far I have not really noticed much difference, to be honest. Apart from my hockey teammates sometimes needling me for being an old-timer.
I don’t feel less in demand in my work. And since I’m not on the dating scene I’m never in a position to receive a romantic snub for being too old. The main difference right now is that I will be getting the Covid vaccine earlier!
Cultural Differences Around Age
What are some of the cultural similarities and differences around age that you have seen in your travels?
I love the way Latin cultures are more likely to mix up the generations at social events. What surprised me most in my research for Bolder is that the cult of youth is alive and well in Asian cultures. In the West, we often assume that Eastern cultures do the whole aging thing better than we do — that they respect and look after their elders and look forward to growing older. Think again.
Sure, many Asian cultures have outward rituals that honor elders. But the horror at aging seemed to me on par with the West. South Korea has one of the highest levels of cosmetic surgery in the world — and, trust me, nobody there is going under the knife to look older!
By the same token, Japanese pensioners are now committing petty crimes in order to be sent to prison — because they feel so lonely and abandoned by their family and society. That is hardly the mark of a culture that places elders on a pedestal.
Hockey, Rollerblading, Boxing, Pilates…
How do you stay fit?
Sports, sports, and more sports!
When there’s no lockdown, I play hockey as often as I can. On non-hockey days, I go for a run, rollerblade up hills, do a boxing class or work out with a personal trainer. I used to do yoga but have recently switched to Pilates. Since lockdown, I’ve added a five-mile walk to most evenings.
To stay fit mentally, I meditate. I also try to learn new things and expose myself to novel experiences. I started doing life-drawing classes during lockdown. My pictures are still pretty rudimentary — my human hands always come out looking like alien claws — but I can feel my brain getting a good workout every time I pick up a pencil.
What sort of diet do you follow?
I don’t follow any official diet. The guiding light for me is to eat real food — nothing processed. I eat fish and a little meat but mostly vegetables. I snack on nuts and fruit. I love bread but eat it sparingly. Now that I say all this out loud it kinda sounds like a less carnivorous version of keto!
The Benefits of Slowing Down
How does slowness intersect with aging?
As we age, we tend to lose physical vigor and some cognitive zip. That slowing down gives aging a bad name in a society that worships speed. The silver lining is that slowing down delivers a host of benefits. It helps you listen better, enjoy the moment more, build stronger relationships, think more deeply and be more creative.
I think slowing down also goes hand in hand with living less selfishly. This may partly explain the growing urge to be of service that many of us feel as we get older. As the old proverb goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
What would you say to someone who is experiencing ageism in the work place, and perhaps had been pushed out of their situation?
First, not to believe the myth that you are less useful with every passing year. Second, not to give up hope. Demographics and attitudes are shifting, which means more and more companies are waking up to the many benefits of keeping older workers on board.
If finding such a company is proving elusive, then I would recommend striking out on your own. Taking your expertise to the world through your own business, consultancy or non-profit.
“Some forms of creativity rely on two things that only aging can confer: time and experience”
Do you feel you are more creative now than when you were younger?
Definitely. Which is not surprising given that some forms of creativity rely on two things that only aging can confer: time and experience.
I see things more clearly now. I have a broader, more nuanced view of the world and how it all fits together. And I know how to manage my body and mind to get the creative juices flowing.
How do you see yourself at 80?
With a smile on my face. Looking back on a life well-lived but also looking forward to the next step. Waking up every morning feeling curious, energized and eager to seize the day.
That’s the plan, anyway …
What is fascinating you these days? Any new topics you are studying?
The human brain is a source of endless fascination to me. How it works. How to make it work better. I feel like we are on the verge of some extraordinary breakthroughs in neuroscience. And I’m looking forward to how that feeds into the never-ending debate about what it means to be human.
On the work front, I’m looking into ways to harness the power of multigenerational workforces.
What are you reading?
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It’s a novel narrated by more than 160 voices. It’s mind-bendingly original and it’s forcing my brain to stretch and leap and pivot in new ways. Saunders is a fine example of the reassuring fact that we can go on being creative throughout our lives. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel – and he published it in his late fifties.
“The research shows that productivity tends to rise with age in jobs that rely on social acumen”
Do you find older people are more or less productive than younger people?
Everyone is different. But the research shows that productivity tends to rise 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.
How do you organize your days?
Now that my children have left home I don’t have to set an alarm anymore! But I still wake up around 7am every day. I listen to the BBC news for 30 minutes and then get up and do a few stretches. I go downstairs and make a green smoothie for breakfast. I drink it sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with my wife and perusing recipe books. I don’t look at my phone or laptop till 9am, which is when the work day starts. Mornings are when I do my creative work. Afternoons are more for administration, work calls, planning, etc. I take lots of breaks and always stop completely for lunch. No dining al desko! I also try never to work evenings or weekends.
“As we grow older we become more — not less — ourselves. We get to the core, the essence, the truth of who we are”
Why do you feel people tend to become happier after mid life?
Part of it seems to be hardwiring. 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. This chimes with my own experience. My twenties were roaring, but I am more content now in my fifties.
Part of this is down to feeling more comfortable in our own skin. As we age, we feel less need to tiptoe round other people’s opinions. As Ann Landers, the agony aunt, put it: “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.”
A lightness or freedom comes upon us as we enter the second half of our lives. We find it easier to let go of people, stuff and routines that no longer light us up. To focus instead on what really matters. David Bowie once described aging as “an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.”
In other words, 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. And what could be happier than that?
What do you feel are the advantages you have now over when you were younger?
Take your pick!
Feeling happier, more sure of myself and more creative is just the start. Research shows that vocabulary, general knowledge and expertise go on expanding as we age and I notice that every day.
My ability to read and handle people has improved. I am better at seeing the big picture and connecting the dots. I reflect more and react less.
I also feel more entrepreneurial, more able to turn risk into reward. And I’m not alone in that, either: despite the fawning media coverage lavished on the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world, studies show you’re more likely to create a successful startup in middle age or beyond.
Next 5 Years
What are your ambitions for the next 5 years?
-To find more ways to give back. Tutoring underprivileged children will be the first step.
-To make a TV series about aging around the world.
-To create a workshop to help people age better and feel better about aging.
-To write another book, though not sure what the topic will be.
-To do more walking and hiking holidays.
–To get better at drawing human hands.
To learn more about Carl:
His TED Talk on Embracing Aging: https://tinyurl.com/vlrg5cu
His BBC Radio 4 piece on Ending Ageism: https://tinyurl.com/y6k5a38g
BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week (an abridged audio reading of Bolder): https://tinyurl.com/vkue8fw
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