Carl Honoré | TEDSummit 2019
Why we should embrace aging as an adventure
About a year and a half ago something really awful happened to me: I turned 50.
Even though I’m smiling about it now it was a really downer and the birthday cards didn’t help.
One said: 50 is the new… What was I saying?
But hitting the big five oh got me thinking about a problem we all face and yet seldom do anything about: ageism.
Stereotyping on the grounds of age.
Ageism can hit young and old, but weighs more heavily on those of us in later life.
Why? Because ageism is tangled up with the cult of youth.
The idea that the younger is always better.
Mark Zuckerberg once told an audience: “young people are just smarter!”
And many of us simply nodded.
The time has come to stop nodding because ageism is doing so much harm to all of us in so many ways.
The evidence is everywhere. These days we are living better for longer than ever before.
But have we ever felt more miserable about ageing?
The very idea of growing older elicits fear, shame, guilt, disgust and a lot of denial.
If you type into google search: “I lie about my…” Guess what the number #1 suggested query is.
But it’s not my weight, my income, my height. It’s not even how much porn I watch, right?
Although I’m guessing that’s in the top #3. It’s my age, right?
Ageism make us feel so bad about growing older that we lie about how old we are.
We lie on tinder and at work. We lie to loved ones and to ourselves.
A friend of mine, recently, celebrated her 39 birthday… for the fourth time!
Age is the most that divides us.
It puts the generations against each other at a time we need to be coming together, to confront and tackle the huge challenges facing humankind.
Ageism also harms us in ways that we don’t even realise.
Why? Because it works like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Studies show that worshiping youth and denigrating ageing makes you age less well.
You’re more likely to suffer cognitive and physical decline, develop dementia and even die younger. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that ageism is not invincible.
The cult of youth is not a permanent or inevitable part of being human.
Attitude to ageing shift and evolve over time.
We embraced the cult of youth in the 1960’s. We can choose to unembrace it today.
And there’re two very good reasons to believe that we can and will do just that.
The first is that most ageist stereotypes are actually flat out wrong.
Spoiler alert! Younger is not always better.
It’s not all downhill from 40.
Look at Christine Lagarde, running global financial institutions in her 60s.
Or David Attenborough banging out amazing documentaries in his 90s.
At the same time, the world is changing in ways that will help us both age better and feel better about ageing.
Let’s look at some of those stereotypes. I want to tear a few down for you.
Stereotype number #1. Later life is depressing.
Look at the words we use to describe older people: sad, cranky, crotchety grumpy. Untrue!
Studies across the globe show that human beings tend to follow a U shape happiness curve.
We start out high in childhood, fall steadily down as we bottom out in middle age and then we bounce back up again.
Across much of the world, the adults who report the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction are the over 55s.
Scientists have also detected evidence of a similar curve in chimpanzees and orangutans which suggests that the happiness boost in later life may even be coded into
our primate genes.
So, here I am in my 50s. That means I’m on the upswing.
Where are you on the curve?
Stereotype number #2. Creativity belongs to the young.
Again, wrong! Human beings can be immensely creative at any age.
And some forms of creativity actually depend on two things that only ageing can confer: time and experience.
That’s why human history is studded with examples of people doing triumphally creative work in later life.
From Michelangelo to Matisse, Beethoven to Bahr.
Artist Louise Bourgeois came up with her iconic giant spider in her 80s.
Today, physicist John Goodenough is helping reinvent rechargeable batteries in his 90s.
Writer Maya Angelo hit the nail on the head when she said you can’t use up creativity.
The more you use, the more you have.
Stereotype number #3. Older people are less productive, less useful in the workplace.
Think of those phrases: we are over the hill, finished at 40, right?
Again. Wide of the mark!
Productivity tends to rise with age and jobs rely on social acumen as more and more do. Why? Because our social skills usually improve as we age.
We also get better at seeing the big picture, juggling multiple view points and spotting those patterns and details that allow us to unlock solutions to difficult problems.
In the workplace, experience built up over the years can be a super power.
Studies show that a grasp of how the world works, why things are the way they are, only fully ripens around the age of 50.
No wonder companies with suggestion boxes report that more good ideas come from older staff and the best ideas tend to come from the over 55s.
Or, a recent study looking at all new companies started up in the United States concluded that founders are more likely to succeed in middle age or beyond.
In the middle age or beyond.
Finished at 40? Many of us are just getting started at 40.
Stereotype number #4. Older people can’t learn new things.
We all know that expression: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Well, it turns out that’s not even true of dogs, right?
And it’s certainly not true of human beings.
Vocabulary, general knowledge, expertise can go on expanding all the way through our lives.
And even if it takes us a little longer to master new skills, we can still do it.
Julia Child didn’t learn to cook until she was nearly 40 and then became one of the most famous chefs in America.
Vera Wang reinvented herself as a fashion designer in her 40s.
At this moment, more than a million of over 55s are learning how to computer code on the online platform Code Academy.
My own mother gives private French lessons in her spare time.
Her star pupil these days is in his 60s.
So, there you have four stereotypes about ageing.
All of them bleak, all of them widespread and all of them wrong.
Bottom line, the idea that everything gets worse as you grow older is weapons grade nonsense. Now, of course, we all know that there are downsides to ageing.
We all know that, right?
I cannot run as fast as I could in my 20s, my hair is thinning and I need reading glasses.
But that’s not the whole story. Not by a long shot.
Because what you discover when you stop obsessing about the downsides of ageing is that as you grow older many things actually stay the same.
And some even get better.
Sure, I need glasses to work out the small print.
But I tell you what: these days, with every passing year, I can see the world more clearly.
It’s why we need to forge a whole new narrative for ageing.
A whole new story to tell ourselves about growing older in the 21st century.
A narrative that’s richer, more nuanced and more optimistic, which brings me to my second argument: that the world is changing in ways that justify optimism.
Ageing is not what it used to be.
Look at the medical science, all the time coming up with new ways to deal with the wear and tear on our bodies.
Techniques to restore hearing and eye sight, to harness the brain, to control prosthetic limbs and computers or rebuild worn out joints.
Scottish hero Andy Murray is back playing top level tennis, with a metal hip.
Demographics: the planet is ageing.
There are more older people in the world every day and there is strength in numbers.
It’s hard to dismiss and denigrate a growing chunk of the population.
Especially when so many of them are taking life by the scruff of the neck.
They’re out there redefining what ageing looks like and can be in the 21st century.
They’re launching businesses in their 50s, learning languages in their 60s, running for political offices in their 70s, running marathons in their 80s, falling in love in their 90s.
And role models matter, because the more people we can see trampling all over these ageist stereotypes the easier become for us to do the same.
And, then, there’s the money. This generation of over 55s is loaded.
By 2020, households headed by over 60s could be spending up to 15 trillion dollars worldwide.
15 trillion dollars.
And like it or not, in our world, money commands respect, money bestows power, money talks and the culture is listening.
Look at the new Terminator movie: Sarah Connor is back!… wielding a rocket launcher in her 60s.
The truth is that every age has its pros and cons.
And every age can be wonderful, but only if we embrace it.
Only if we embrace the present without pining for the past and shrinking from the future.
In other words: only if we stop being ageist.
How can we do that?
What can we all do to fight back against ageism and the ageist industrial complex?
Well, we can start by launching big bold public campaigns against ageism to make it socially unacceptable, shameful, something nobody wants to be associated with.
We can pass new laws against ageism and start enforcing the ones that are already on the statute books.
We can bring the generations back together again at the workplace and beyond.
Because nothing shoots down stereotypes better than getting to know the people being stereotyped.
I’ll leave you with a couple of ideas for things that we, you, can all do in your own lives to join this battle to redefine ageing for the 21st century.
The first is check your language.
Let’s stop using phrases like senior moment, anti-ageing, wrong side of 40, feeling my age, showing my age, can’t teach old dog new tricks.
Because every time we use them, we are reinforcing the idea, the fallacious idea, that ageing is all about decline.
And last, but not least, let’s be honest, let’s stop lying about how old we are.
Because when we lie about our age we give the number a power over us that it doesn’t deserve.
We lock ourselves in to those dreary, downbeat age stereotypes.
But when we are honest about how old we are, when we own our age, we are able to free ourselves from the ageist script.
And define what our life will look like at every stage.
So, let’s start being honest about how old we are, celebrating those birthdays, instead of mourning them.
I’ll go first.
My name is Carl and I’m 51 years old.
And you know what? I’m ok with that.
And not only I’m ok with it. I’m proud of it!
And I’m looking forward to what’s coming next.
So whatever age you are, own it and go out there and show the world what you can do.
Thank you very much.
TED Ideas worth spreading
Original English video available here.