You are, one way or another, perhaps in the age business. Your company is trying to build a rich dialogue with older shoppers, tourists, students… Your campaigning organisation lobbies for better treatment for elderly patients, grey voters, the locally bereaved and bereft… Your political party has to consider how the sexa-septua-octogenarians ought to be addressed, captured and, the bitter thought, afforded…

In any such role, you may well occasionally ask yourself about the quality of modern life-narratives about ageing : what messages are we receiving from the front-line? If indeed there has never ever been a Third Age as healthy, as resourced, as well-educated and as technologically sophisticated than the one swelling before us now, then what is it really saying, wanting, needing? Beyond the cold facts about ever-stretching life-spans and underneath all the hoary assumptions about the senior life, what really is the emerging human vibe?

And so three cheers for this selection of mini-essays, showcasing such eminences as Gloria Steinem, Penelope Lively, Hilary Mantel, Charles Handy, Paulina Porizkova, Diana Athill, Ursula Le Guin… as they dip their pens into either the honey or the vinegar (or some cocktail thereof) produced by their ageing selves. The compositions are categorised by age, ie from authors currently in their 50s right the way through to even their 90s – them that see it coming, them that are in its hands, them that are in its throes. The editorial conceit is “informed aging”, sharing lessons about the personal adjustments necessary to each new phase, down the declension of the decades, down – as one writer puts it – “that long beige corridor”.

A lot of this is not at all cuddly. The getting-on-a-bit-now supermodel considers the attractions of cosmetic surgery “because nothing ages as poorly as a beautiful woman’s ego”. A man made redundant in late middle-age struggles to make himself appealing to employers who privately admit to him that they “were afraid of hiring someone too old or too experienced”. A university professor, a success in life, wishes she had a role model, “someone to show me how to age with dignity” now that she realises that she had not loved her grandmother properly – “dead for twenty-three years but I am still trying to make peace with her”.

But some of the writing is sumptuous, the honesty haunting and a lot of the revelation uplifting. Any self-pity is usually suppressed by the better wisdoms and by a sense of opportunity, a presumption that ageing can be a skill and that self-awareness can be turned into a good plan for the long term. Ageing has, clear here, been morphed by feminism, by shifting definitions of beauty and transcendence, by science and by wealth, by the ability to retrieve memories that generations before would easily and prematurely lose forever, by the compression of most intimacy-taboos, by therapies (formal and informal) for the wrinkled soul. Most refreshingly of all, there is little New Age rhubarb on offer; you cannot hum the bad karma out of the tent; you do ache, as Leonard Cohen puts it, in the places where you used to play; and “the winter of old age is not going to give way to spring”. (P. Lively). More, the sting of much encountered age-discrimination is to be wincingly endured.

Listening to these entries, it is nevertheless not possible to leave with the conclusion that ageing in the Western world is, as it were, the same old same old. For this a collection of very strong and also very varied voices, all unafraid to riff about both the fun and the turmoil of a long life. The theme of apprentices-at-ageing provides a platform for what effectively are illuminating human case studies, an experience laboratory. And not one dud among all the contributions. Bravo.

In his book Old Age – A Beginner’s Guide, Michael Kinsley talks of the culture of “aggressive victimhood”, how we all prefer the gutsy never-say-die (strange phrase really) person who battles adversity (such as a debilitating illness) to the one who just goes gently. Ms. Narboe’s collection here shows us just how nuanced and indeed colourful is our emerging cult of ageing. It is not just acceptance; it is not just denial; it is not just decrepitude. If you are a little bit lucky, your Third Age can be what you make it. An apprenticeship is, after all, a path to a profession. That is the way we – whatever our role in business or in politics – are all starting to think about the extended life now, no?

You are, one way or another, perhaps in the age business. Your company is trying to build a rich dialogue with older shoppers, tourists, students… Your campaigning organisation lobbies for better treatment for elderly patients, grey voters, the locally bereaved and bereft… Your political party has to consider how the sexa-septua-octogenarians ought to be addressed, captured and, the bitter thought, afforded…

In any such role, you may well occasionally ask yourself about the quality of modern life-narratives about ageing : what messages are we receiving from the front-line? If indeed there has never ever been a Third Age as healthy, as resourced, as well-educated and as technologically sophisticated than the one swelling before us now, then what is it really saying, wanting, needing? Beyond the cold facts about ever-stretching life-spans and underneath all the hoary assumptions about the senior life, what really is the emerging human vibe?

And so three cheers for this selection of mini-essays, showcasing such eminences as Gloria Steinem, Penelope Lively, Hilary Mantel, Charles Handy, Paulina Porizkova, Diana Athill, Ursula Le Guin… as they dip their pens into either the honey or the vinegar (or some cocktail thereof) produced by their ageing selves. The compositions are categorised by age, ie from authors currently in their 50s right the way through to even their 90s – them that see it coming, them that are in its hands, them that are in its throes. The editorial conceit is “informed aging”, sharing lessons about the personal adjustments necessary to each new phase, down the declension of the decades, down – as one writer puts it – “that long beige corridor”.

A lot of this is not at all cuddly. The getting-on-a-bit-now supermodel considers the attractions of cosmetic surgery “because nothing ages as poorly as a beautiful woman’s ego”. A man made redundant in late middle-age struggles to make himself appealing to employers who privately admit to him that they “were afraid of hiring someone too old or too experienced”. A university professor, a success in life, wishes she had a role model, “someone to show me how to age with dignity” now that she realises that she had not loved her grandmother properly – “dead for twenty-three years but I am still trying to make peace with her”.

But some of the writing is sumptuous, the honesty haunting and a lot of the revelation uplifting. Any self-pity is usually suppressed by the better wisdoms and by a sense of opportunity, a presumption that ageing can be a skill and that self-awareness can be turned into a good plan for the long term. Ageing has, clear here, been morphed by feminism, by shifting definitions of beauty and transcendence, by science and by wealth, by the ability to retrieve memories that generations before would easily and prematurely lose forever, by the compression of most intimacy-taboos, by therapies (formal and informal) for the wrinkled soul. Most refreshingly of all, there is little New Age rhubarb on offer; you cannot hum the bad karma out of the tent; you do ache, as Leonard Cohen puts it, in the places where you used to play; and “the winter of old age is not going to give way to spring”. (P. Lively). More, the sting of much encountered age-discrimination is to be wincingly endured.

Listening to these entries, it is nevertheless not possible to leave with the conclusion that ageing in the Western world is, as it were, the same old same old. For this a collection of very strong and also very varied voices, all unafraid to riff about both the fun and the turmoil of a long life. The theme of apprentices-at-ageing provides a platform for what effectively are illuminating human case studies, an experience laboratory. And not one dud among all the contributions. Bravo.

In his book Old Age – A Beginner’s Guide, Michael Kinsley talks of the culture of “aggressive victimhood”, how we all prefer the gutsy never-say-die (strange phrase really) person who battles adversity (such as a debilitating illness) to the one who just goes gently. Ms. Narboe’s collection here shows us just how nuanced and indeed colourful is our emerging cult of ageing. It is not just acceptance; it is not just denial; it is not just decrepitude. If you are a little bit lucky, your Third Age can be what you make it. An apprenticeship is, after all, a path to a profession. That is the way we – whatever our role in business or in politics – are all starting to think about the extended life now, no?