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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

How to Age

The School of Life

Anne Karpf



1. What is Age?

Wrinkles, sensible shoes and Alzheimer's – these, or something like them, are what most of us would come up with if we were asked to free-associate on the subject of age. But they're utterly misleading because they elide ageing with old age or sickness. In fact we're all ageing from the moment we're born: you could say that birth causes age – ageing certainly isn't possible without it. As soon as you understand ageing as something that happens throughout the life cycle – taking place right now to us all, whatever our age – you begin to see it in a different perspective from the standard one in which we're young and then, hey presto, once we reach a certain threshold (25, 30, 40, 50 – take your pick), we cross over into ‘ageing'.

That view, so culturally entrenched, is hard to shake off. It's certainly the case that most young people long to grow older – they associate ageing with the freedom to do things hitherto forbidden them. When can I stay up till ten? When am I allowed to go to a music festival on my own? I can't wait to turn 18 and buy alcohol legally. When you're young, ageing means freeing yourself from the tyranny of parents, making choices for yourself and gaining more control over your own life. Ageing, when you're a child, is viewed entirely as the medium through which your capabilities (to walk and talk, write and reason) develop and is toasted as the route to independence. It used to be your twenty-first but now it's your eighteenth, a birthday that shouts ‘At last!'

But then, almost imperceptibly, this view of ageing begins to change: for most of us, probably in our twenties, anticipation and optimism come to be joined, sometimes replaced, by anxiety and even dread. The brief interlude of freedom without responsibilities ends, and the demands of adulthood, such as having to earn a living, hove into view. The prospect of life without six-week-long summer holidays is a truly shocking rite of passage. People now expect you to behave in ways that accord with their idea of an adult, with a seeming disregard for the fact that you may not feel like an adult, or even know what feeling like an adult might feel like. Growing older begins to seem more loss than gain, something to be resisted. By 25 one has the right to do pretty much everything one longed for earlier, and now the rest of life starts to roll out terrifyingly ahead. Alexa, 16, a London schoolgirl, told her aunt that she woke up in the middle of the night, worrying about how she'd know how to fill in a tax return when the time came.

Indeed many young people plump for 25 as the age that adulthood really begins. It isn't an entirely arbitrary age, for only at 25 are our frontal lobes fully developed, and the need for instant gratification modified by cognitive maturity, a greater capacity for empathy and a longer-term perspective. Twenty-five, as 24-year-old Becky put it with just a hint of alarm, is a quarter of a century old. It's when she plans to give up smoking, as if she'll become suddenly more susceptible to mortality on the morning of her twenty-fifth birthday. Or perhaps on that day it will have become finally undeniable.

How completely our attitudes change, within the space of a decade or two: from looking down on those younger (in the family, at school), to looking down on those older …

Ageing today

Ageing in the twenty-first century is a particularly confusing business. Today, 34 often looks like 24 a mere fifty years ago, and 44 like 34. But just because you look this way doesn't mean you are.

Traditionally, growing up meant leaving home: you had to separate from adults before you could become one. This, though, has become an increasingly extended process. We can salute the fact that some ideas about ageing have become less rigid, and that most of us feel less programmed to get a job, get married, buy a flat and have a child – all of these, in this order, at a prescribed age.

But tuition fees, high unemployment, the exorbitant cost of housing – all these mean that young people are financially reliant on their parents for far longer. ‘Youth' used to be a short transitional phase between childhood and adulthood: today it can extend to your thirties. Parents are having to plough so much money into their kids that some expect a return for their investment. They also consider themselves entitled to a greater degree of involvement in their children's decisions – after all, they're paying for them – even though they may be ill-equipped to give advice about the new and unprecedented social realities that their kids are facing.

(In Ford cars there's now a feature which allows parents to control in advance the speed at which their children drive, along with programming insistent seat belt reminders and low-fuel warnings. It's like having your parent in the car along with you – a kind of Sat Nag. To the refrain ‘get out of my life', adolescents will now be able to add ‘get out of my car'.)

Increasing numbers of those in their twenties and thirties now fear growing up. The man-child holds on tightly to his video games and comics, and refuses to change. He equates being grown up with joylessness. But perhaps it's less about having a mortgage or a pension and more about learning to take responsibility for your spending; about being able to defer gratification instead of insisting ‘I want it now'; about not saying the first thing that comes into your head and thinking about other people as well as yourself? Perhaps growing up is another way of saying that your perspective widens and lengthens. We need to rethink our ideas about what ageing means at every age, and not just old age.

Reversing age?

And yet even the perpetual adolescent, offered the chance to relive his teenage years, would probably refuse. All right, mutter those who decry the ageing process: perhaps there are some pleasures brought about by ageing, maybe being 15 wasn't the utopia we nostalgically reimagine it to be. But wouldn't it be wonderful to go back to that earlier age with the knowledge accrued from this later one? To be younger but wiser – can there be a more common fantasy? Or a more preposterous one? It's like wanting your child to be born with the ability to walk, or able to recite Homer's Odyssey in Greek at the age of 3 – a petulant, infantile, if altogether understandable, desire to obliterate time.

All sorts of films have reimagined the life cycle and rearranged the ages: from Big (1988), in which Tom Hanks plays a 12-year-old boy transposed into the body of a 30-year-old man; to 18 Again! (1988), where an 81-year-old man played by George Burns swaps bodies with his 18-year-old grandson; to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), based on the Scott Fitzgerald short story, in which Brad Pitt's character is born with the appearance and maladies of an old man and ages in reverse.

We can read in these popular-culture fantasies a generation wrestling with the meaning of age. They end either sadly or with the protagonist reverting to their real age – of course they do, because we age in concert with our peer group (to be singled out as the exception is a lonely experience), and at a particular historical period. We're a mulch of personal but also social and cultural memories. It's a completely different experience to grow older in the early twenty-first century, for instance, when being young is looked upon as a distinct, enviable and prolonged state, than it was in, say, the 1940s, before the arrival of teen clothing and culture, when adulthood was so admired and young people couldn't wait to cultivate all the appurtenances of adulthood – to look and sound like grown-ups.

There were all sorts of reasons for this cultural shift, including the development of the market. Before the 1960s you were either a child or an adult – there wasn't much in between – and this was reflected in the kinds of clothes and leisure opportunities available. But economic growth and the invention of the teenager gave birth to a whole new, age-segmented category of consumer. At the same time youthfulness came to be so prized that today, it sometimes seems, adults just want to look and sound like their kids.

But of course we can't go back. Human existence is temporal; as the Zen Buddhists put it, being cannot be apart from time. We live inside time: that of our own individual lives but also of our generation, and the era into which we're born. Ageing is always not just a physiological but also a psychological, intellectual, social and cultural process – the idea that it's simply a case of swapping responsibilities for play does real injustice to the complexity and richness of the experience. Our bodies change but at the same time (unless we rigidly, compulsively, repeat old patterns) we mature; ageing is therefore less about the old and more about the new. Our brains, our minds, our relational capacities – given enough food, love, health and encouragement – all develop and grow. Indeed the capacity to play (especially among those in whom it was stunted in childhood) can effloresce with age. How can this be anything other than a cause for celebration?

If you want to play the decade-switching game, instead of imagining yourself younger but with your current level of knowledge and maturity, try playing it the other way round: what would my younger self feel about myself now? Except in those who nursed absurdly inflated expectations when they were young, most people trying this age-shift come up with the same ‘if only': if only I had realized then that life would get better.

Proud to be older

Parents take delight in watching their children develop. Is it possible to take satisfaction from a similar process in oneself – from observing the way we weather life's difficulties, for instance? This isn't narcissism: it's self-help in the truest sense of the word. For most of us, growth and maturation are hard-won, and a source of satisfaction – we wouldn't want to forsake them. We enjoy our older self; we're grateful to have been allowed to develop. Ageing, whether at 10, 20, 30 or 40, is rewarding, or can be. By contrast, those who scare younger people with platitudes about schooldays being the best years of their lives, or single out their student days as their happiest times, reveal more about their own lives and their sad inability to change than about ageing itself.

Of course different people are happiest at different times in their lives, but what does it say about a person if they wag their finger at young people and tell them reprovingly that they never had it so good? Or if they talk, however flippantly, about being ‘the wrong side of 30'? And what stereotypical attitudes are exposed in a younger person who asks someone older, how was it ‘in your day'? Lucy, a 63-year-old teacher from Manchester, gently informed her son when he used this phrase that ‘actually, today is my day, and so will tomorrow be.'

There is no template for ‘ageing well'. It may be a cliché deployed to comfort the bereaved but nevertheless it's true: some people who die young pack more living into their short lifespan than others who survive to advanced old age. Similarly, we each of us grow and mature in idiosyncratic ways: young people can be wise and old people idiots, and vice versa; most of us are by turns wise and idiotic – in the same week, the same day, sometimes the same hour. Life is constant flux, but age stereotypes arrest it, deadening us like pressed flowers. The idea, for example, that young people are indefatigable hedonists, forever in search of their next pleasure-fix, surgically attached to social media, utterly belies the fact that young people are more prone to wrestle with life's meaning and purpose than older and often more cynical adults. Frequently dismissed and mocked as youthful angst, in reality the questions they raise are ones that thoughtful, sensitive individuals return to throughout their lives.

Cultivating what's important

We can help the process if we think of ourselves as wine connoisseurs laying down bottles that will improve with age; similarly, we can try to foster in ourselves qualities that deepen and enrich over the years. These qualities differ for each of us, but for most people they include finding enduring sources of meaning – in work, or through relationships, interests or making a social contribution; getting to know themselves; making genuine contact with other people; and developing the capacity to love – whether people, ideas or experiences. These are essentially internal resources that can be cultivated and drawn upon throughout life. If we think about our entire lifespan, as I suggest in Chapter 7, scary though this is, it's easier to see what resources are necessary for the journey and begin to understand how to husband them.

All this sounds sobering, as though frivolity and fun drain away with the passing of time – no wonder people try to stuff them into their younger years. But the ability to laugh, like any other emotional facility, develops through use, and finding oneself convulsed with laughter, decades after childhood when it's so common, is sweet indeed.

Going forward into ageing

What would it be like to relish ageing? To continue, after the age of 25, to say ‘I hope to grow older. I hope to grow old'? To genuinely look forward to ageing and not, at best, merely tolerate it? At this point, cynics will direct you to Voltaire's novella Candide, in which the tutor, Pangloss, regularly intones that ‘all is for the best'. But although Voltaire was satirizing the follies of unbridled optimism, he didn't extol pessimism, concluding instead that ‘we must cultivate our garden'. Pragmatic optimism like this is all that I am advocating here. It's much easier to adopt this outlook if we don't take a long lifespan for granted, but recognize instead that it isn't given to the majority of people in the world, especially the developing world: that to age is in fact to be blessed. The idea of age as a privilege seems radical in a culture where it's so often seen as a burden, but it's an invaluable reminder of how relatively recent, and limited, widespread longevity is.

Those who age best are those who travel lightest, who can jettison the prescriptive ideas they've cleaved to at one stage of their lives when they find them ill-suited to another. A certain suppleness of spirit is needed. But the mantras of self-help, though they flow easily, invariably make things sound more effortless than they really are. Letting go of old narratives can be an extremely painful business: it involves mourning what never happened as well as what did, and admitting failure, wrong-headedness and poor decisions. Most unforgivably, it demands that we recognize that life unfurls beyond our control.

Freud made the crucial distinction between ‘acting out' – the compulsive reenactment of trauma – and ‘working through', in which a person remembers traumatic events, losses or bereavements but reaches an accommodation with them, allowing them to change and so restoring vitality. Sometimes we need professional help to accomplish the task. But it's an enormously important aspect of the ageing process because it's the means through which we shed surplus baggage as we pass through life.

How different the life cycle looks if we substitute the word ‘growth' for ageing. The word ‘age' has become so contaminated by contempt and fear that it's tempting to dispense with it altogether. Better, though, to try to reclaim it, detoxify it and attach it to the whole life cycle, rather than just offloading the idea of ageing onto later life. For to age is to live and to live is to age, and being anti-age (as so many products proudly proclaim themselves) is tantamount to being anti-life. By embracing age we embrace the life process itself, with all its pain, joy and difficulty. If we can cultivate a respect for our own growth, and develop the ability to greet our ageing self with both pleasure and realism, and without the need to either idealize or deride its younger incarnation, then we're putting in place important capacities that will serve us our entire lives.

The next chapter shows just how ageist modern life can be, so it might sound odd to say that never has thinking about the process of growing older been more exciting. A major grant-giving body calls itself the ‘New Dynamics of Ageing' and, as the experience of ageing is increasingly being held up to public scrutiny and challenged, it's a good name – for the possibilities of a new dynamic of ageing are emerging both collectively and individually. The following pages give examples of people ageing creatively. This doesn't necessarily mean engaging in creative activity, but rather applying their imagination and adaptability to the business of ageing, and finding ways of living zestfully as they pass through the different stages of life, in spite of the disappointments and losses they meet along the way.

Ageing zestfully – not a bad motto.

Copyright © 2014 by Anne Karpf