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Interview: Choosing Simplicity at Midlife


For more than two decades, the activist and author Bruce O’Hara has explored the world of work in publications such as Working Harder Isn’t Working and Put Work In Its Place.
bruce ohara
Now in Enough Already! O’Hara, 53, focuses on midlife and the opportunities it offers to create a more simple and balanced lifestyle.

AHB caught up with Mr. O’Hara in Courtney, B.C. where he lives with his partner Adriana.

Let’s start with retirement; you claim traditional retirement offers a false freedom. What do you mean?

Traditional retirement is full of limiting assumptions that masquerade as freedom. We are offered the “freedom” to never to work again, even though work – paid or unpaid – is one of the great joys of life. We are promised the “freedom” to take it easy and sleep in till noon, even though it is well documented that inactivity causes seniors to age far faster than they need do. A lack of new challenges is a recipe for boredom, not bliss.

“Freedom” from responsibilities is also part of the siren song: You owe the world nothing. The main reward for this supposed emancipation is usually social isolation and feelings of uselessness. It’s a toxic, often unconscious script that limits far more than it liberates. Retirement should be about having more choices, not fewer.

Explain the role of living simply. Are men and women ready to hear this at midlife?

While it can happen that a person who works, sleeps and watches TV through their midlife years will blossom into a vibrant, dynamic and involved elder later in life, it doesn’t happen often. Once you’re past the age of 40, whether you know it or not, you’re already in training for your retirement.

It is somewhere between difficult and impossible to hold down a full-time job – particularly in the long-hours culture of today’s workplace – and to have any life outside work worth mentioning. It’s not just a set-up for later unhappiness, it’s not much fun in the present, either. To actually have a life, a person needs to work significantly less than full-time, and that usually requires finding ways to live well on a smaller income.

Are most men and women ready to hear that at midlife? No. Most of my generation will wear itself out in the pursuit of false dreams. However, significant minorities of baby boomers are cutting themselves loose from the rat race, and are paying whatever financial price is required to do so. Others are being pushed into rethinking their priorities by depression, burnout or a health crisis.

Each person who chooses a simpler but richer life for themselves also becomes a beacon for others. My work is just to remind people they have choices. What’s your time worth? What is your life, your aliveness worth? Are you selling yourself out for toys and trinkets?

In your book, you emphasize the themes: purpose, connection and challenge. How are these important for those in their middle years?

Most North Americans are so frenetically busy, I don’t think it often comes up for them to feel either ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy:’ They live in their Do Lists. That being said, it is my perception that those basic needs are the keys to a richly satisfying life at any age.

It should also be noted that paid work often does a better job of appearing to meet those needs than it does of actually meeting them. A career that once felt like a special calling may have devolved over the decades into a gilded cage. Social connections at work can be hurried and superficial. Work can be very stressful and demanding, yet actually offer few challenges for new learning. The ‘challenge’ is simply to survive.

Part of the charm and attraction of places such as Mexico or Thailand is the strong and vital web of family and community relationships in those societies. The frenzied busyness of North American working life has made our communities hollow and empty by comparison. In this society, it usually requires a conscious, careful effort to meet fully our needs for purpose, connection and challenge. It also requires time, lots of time.

I find your book appealing because it is both philosophically rich and full of practical suggestions. What in your research surprised you?

I was surprised at the consistency of what I found. Whether it was the research of Successful Aging scientists, semi-biographical books about aging by seniors, more journalistic investigations such as Abigail Trafford’s My Time, or the many informal interviews I conducted with feisty seniors, the same themes kept recurring. After Enough Already! was already to press, I read Marika and Howard Stone’s book Too Young to Retire, and Ralph Warner’s Getting a Life, and was amazed at how both books had independently reached conclusions remarkably similar to my own.

The other thing that surprised me was that I really started to notice, in a more direct and visceral way, how differently we human beings age. Part of it was that I became ‘impolite’ enough to start asking seniors their ages. I realized that I had just assumed that 55 looks like this, 70 looks like that, 85 looks like that, and I had assigned anyone I met presumed ages according to those preconceptions. When I began to realize that some of my putative 70-year-olds were in fact only 55, while others were actually 85, I really began to take in not only how differently we age, but how much aging is a psychological process rather than a physical one.

And that was because the other thing I couldn’t help but see is that the more fearful and self-limiting people were, the more quickly they became old, frail and forgetful. Aging is 20 percent biology and 80 percent attitude. People need to understand that.

Enough Already! is published by New Star Books.
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