Carl Honoré captured the zeitgeist with his international bestseller, In Praise of Slow. Now he tackles another emerging global movement, the new reality of aging. In Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives, he challenges us to examine our approach to—and attitudes about—later life. His newest book explores his own biases about aging, ageism as a collective influencer and the infinite possibilities if one radically rethinks what it means to get older. Honoré travels the globe in search of influential figures who are bucking preconceived notions of age, whether at work or in their personal lives.
Michelle Warren, YouAreUNLTD’s managing editor, caught up with Honoré to talk about life on the precipice of “the golden age of aging.”
Your book ties in to what we do at YouAreUNLTD—tearing down the status quo and redefining what it means to get older. What made you tackle aging? And why now?
I think that we all have a moment. It can be an illness, it can be another relationship falling apart or it can be a missed promotion at work. For me, it’s probably feeling that I was getting more towards the end than the beginning, or maybe I was somewhere near the halfway point. I was rollicking along in my life, feeling pretty happy about everything and I’d just pushed aside the whole question of aging because it didn’t seem to be making that much of a difference to me. Then you have a moment and for me that moment was in the hockey dressing room [Honoré shares this story in the opening paragraphs of his book]. You get to a certain point and you begin looking back in a different way. And begin looking forward in a different way. You might feel that something’s not quite as it should be or there’s something holding you back.
How did this play out for you?
I was in my late 40s, 48, and I could see that I had probably 40 more years ahead. And I wondered was I really going to be approaching them with the right spirit? And I thought, no, I’m not because I had imbibed this chamber of horrors view of aging. I’ve been ageist since as long as I can remember. And I’ve absorbed all of that downbeat grim view of growing older, as being a downhill spiral from 35 or wherever you’re drawing the line nowadays. All of those things came together and I suddenly began to wonder if there was there another way of thinking about my aging and aging in general? And that was the spark.
Ageism is so prevalent, but we don’t really think much about it until we’re in that space ourselves. Then we start to see ageism all around us. What surprised you the most as you started researching and writing about aging?
I had such a bad view of growing older that pretty much everything surprised me once I started scratching the surface and looking at what actually happens as people grow older, and the kinds of experiences people have. In my 20s, I definitely looked down on people in that middle-aged bracket as being over the hill and past it. Once I started doing the research and crunching the numbers, and interviewing people and talking to experts, and looking with a clear eye at what aging is, then right away I started finding things that just completely blew me away.
The U-shaped happiness curve and the fact that we start off very happy in youth, and then we kind of tend to go downhill, then we bottom out somewhere in middle age. And actually, across most of the world in most ethnic groups and economic socio groups, people are happiest in later life. And that runs so profoundly and utterly counter to the dominant narrative from the culture, which is that older equals sadder. It’s depressing. It’s lonely; it’s grumpy old man, cranky old woman…. The U curve was one of the first things that I came across and I thought wow, if that’s the case, then I wonder what else is out there.
The stereotypes didn’t hold up. What else changed your mind?
The more I dug, the more good news I found. The fact that creativity holds up or gets better in many ways, and productivity goes up in jobs that require social skills. Social skills improve. We get more at ease with ourselves. We become a little bit less self-absorbed and solipsistic and selfish, and maybe more prepared to think about the greater good. So many pieces to the puzzle were really upbeat. And it just completely knocked me off guard. And once I’d caught my breath from the shock of it all, I began to feel pretty good. And I thought well there is really a book to be written here. Because I don’t see this being put out in the way that I would like to read about it. Obviously there are books about growing older, but they seemed to me to fall into not very helpful categories. A lot of them were kind of misery memoirs, or very personal memoirs. Or there was this kind of relentlessly upbeat sort of self-help type approach, which made it sound like everybody had to be kite surfing at 85 or you were a loser.
What did you set out to accomplish with this book?
I wanted something much more nuanced. I scratched the surface and found good news. But it’s not all good news. I mean that’s the whole point of what I’m trying to say in the book is that there’s the rough and the smooth. Some things get worse. Many things stay the same, and some things get better. It’s that whole mixed picture that I wanted to get across.
Part of what you do is give voice. Often it seems like older people disappear from the media. Or we see only stereotypical reflections of what it means to get older.
Yes, what I’m trying to do is take on the cult of youth and take down the idea that younger is always better. And to kind of mix it up and say there are so many different ways of being yourself, at different ages, and moving away from these straitjacket stereotypes that lock us in to being certain ways. Or feeling we need to give up certain things, or deny ourselves certain experiences. Or behave in certain ways because of the numbers on our birth certificate. Let’s open things up. We’re presented with such a narrow range of imagery for people in later life. The trouble, of course, is that stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies. Especially when it comes to aging. The attitudes have failed to keep pace. We’re still stuck in this cult of youth idea that we’re finished at 40, and that every birthday makes us a worse version of ourselves.
How do we shift attitudes?
There are so many reasons that we should be feeling upbeat. We have advances in technology and medicine; and this generation happens to have money. I think we are entering a golden age of aging. There’s never been a better place or time in human history to grow older. Time is what we need now; I feel like all the pieces are there. People are living longer and they are below the radar redefining aging right across the board. Doing all this stuff that doesn’t fit into the story many of us have in our heads of what growing older looks like. It’s already happening…look at master sports. We’ve got to narrow that gap between what people feel about aging and what actually aging is. That’s cultural change and it takes time, but we are moving in the right direction.
Shining a spotlight on the issue, getting people talking, is an important step.
Definitely. WHO (World Health Organization) is now running four different studies worldwide on ageism. It’s very much on the radar. The more people talk about it, the more people present stories and the more evidence that stacks up, then the weaker the ageist industrial complex will be. All of the stuff we need to turn this around is already happening. It’s just we need more of it, and we need more people onboard. And not just a few people who are writers or campaigners—ordinary people. Of course, the one advantage is that everybody benefits if we take down ageism. Because, you may be 25 today, but later you will be 55.
You’ve changed your mindset, and you’re evolving, but big picture, what do you see coming out of Bolder?
One is for (aging) to land with readers, in the same way it landed with me, which, is for people to read and to exhale and think, “It’s going to be okay and, in fact, it could be pretty wonderful if I go in with the right spirit.” There are many levers we can pull to make sure, whether we’re 30, 40, 60 or 80, that the next number of years can be really, really, good and we can get the most out of them.
This interview was edited and condensed.