Why saying 'late bloomer' is wrong
Share on Linkedin
(Credit: Joanna DeGeneres)
More than ever, people are succeeding at different ages. Why do we hold onto the notion of 'late bloomers'?

Doree Shafrir considers herself to be a late bloomer. She got married at 38, had her first child at 41 and generally sees herself as having been late “to dating, to sex, to marriage, to motherhood, to finding the kind of work I truly like to do, to being comfortable in my own skin”.

While the road hasn’t always been smooth, the Los Angeles-based author, 44, now has gratitude for her journey, along with a new perspective on the milestones she once felt she was missing. “These goals are relatively arbitrary and culturally prescribed,” she says. “I now see that the things I saw as ‘mistakes’ were just another part of my story.”

Shafrir views her memoir, Thanks for Waiting: The Joy (& Weirdness) of Being a Late Bloomer, as a “gentle corrective to the idea that we’re supposed to do things on a schedule”. Yet it’s a notion that’s deeply entrenched. Many of us feel – consciously or otherwise – that our paths should fit into a rigid timeline of professional and personal milestones. We may judge ourselves negatively if we hit these milestones ‘late’, in part because of a societal tendency to venerate youthful achievement.

Yet plenty of people find career fulfilment, financial prosperity or rewarding relationships in their own timeframe. In fact, research shows it’s increasingly common to accomplish major life events at a later age than previous generations. Given that we’re living longer, switching careers more often and seeking more meaning in our work, it makes sense for more people to ‘bloom’ later in life. And as they do, the stigma of succeeding at an older age – including the idea that it’s less impressive and more surprising than doing so young – is an increasingly outdated and narrow-minded view of age and achievement. 

The timeline of success

The fact that we use the ‘late bloomer’ label at all partially stems from our expectation that people accomplish certain life goals around specific, often young ages – and those who miss those marks are ‘behind’. Culturally, we tend to normalise particular timelines – and often view those who adhere to them as more successful – due to a widespread fixation on youthful achievement. Often, modern ideals of success come with the pressure to make it as young as possible.

These goals are relatively arbitrary and culturally prescribed. I now see that the things I saw as ‘mistakes’ were just another part of my story – Doree Shafrir

As a result, we may treat early-in-life accomplishments as either the norm or, in exceptional cases, inspiring, while older success merely meets our minimum expectations – or, in more extreme views, is even seen as ‘late’. Yet, while we’ve bought into this sooner-is-better narrative, we’re not actually hitting the milestones culture sets us up to chase.

A 2017 Stanford study showed that across generations, people’s ideal timing for achieving life milestones has, on average, remained consistent: start a full-time job by 22, start saving for retirement by 25, marry by 27, buy a home by 28 and start a family by 29. Every age group, however, has experienced a successive drop in the actual percentage of people hitting those deadlines in comparison to the previous generation, with 25-to 34-year-olds showing the largest gap between ideal and actual timing. The researchers concluded that chasing these antiquated targets is “setting up younger generations to fail”.

Yet even as more of us are ‘blooming’ later, discussions around late bloomers are unchanged. We continue to be surprised by stories of later-in-life success, and frame them as outside of the norm, in spite of their prevalence, both now and throughout modern history.

“In the current system, if you haven’t been identified as accomplishing something at an early age, we assume you’re not capable of it,” explains Todd Rose, author of Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment, who studies cultural attitudes towards success and individuality. “We’re surprised when someone that’s not young makes a major contribution – we don’t know how to make sense of it, and view it as a curious one-off rather than an underlying trend.”

Many more people are finding their success later in life – so why do we still insist on using the term 'late bloomer'? (Credit: Getty Images)

Many more people are finding their success later in life – so why do we still insist on using the term 'late bloomer'? (Credit: Getty Images)

What late bloomers stand to gain 

The construct of late bloomers is not only outdated, but can also be toxic to those who do succeed later in life, after the age they’re ‘supposed’ to reach a milestone. Such people may struggle with feelings of failure, negative self-comparison to others, and even the sense that they’ve been forgotten or left behind.

“We’ve all internalised the myth of young success to the point where, depressingly, a lot of older folks have bought into it as well,” says Rose. “We need to get past the idea that fast is smart and slow is dumb, and the attitude that ‘if I’m older it’s too late for me’. We can’t continue to leave it to late bloomers to scrape by, and hope the existing system doesn’t crush them.”

Ultimately, removing pressure to succeed on a certain timeline is not only good for mental health, but it can also enable the people we currently label ‘late bloomers’ to enjoy the distinct successes that come with achieving later. 

Many of these strengths and skills are a direct result of spending more time on self-discovery, learning and even failure. “Late bloomers may have faced additional challenges on their pathway to achievement, leading them to develop more resilience,” says Chia-Jung Tsay, an associate professor at University College London, who studies the psychology and perception of performance and advancement. “Such people may be more prepared to adapt to difficult circumstances, uncertainty and change.”

In the current system, if you haven’t been identified as accomplishing something at an early age, we assume you’re not capable of it – Todd Rose

Beyond increased flexibility, a longer road to success also brings opportunities to discover and cultivate meaningful values and passions that are personally resonant, rather than what society pushes us towards. “What allows late bloomers to break through is that they’ve had to accumulate enough experience to realise that following someone else’s view of a successful life is never going to lead them where they want,” says Rose. “My research shows that people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are unfulfilled and make a pivot in their lives or careers often end up making incredible contributions.”

Shafrir made one such swerve when she left her dream job in traditional journalism to launch a podcast in her 40s. Despite feeling like a failure at various moments along the way – like when she dropped out of a PhD programme, moved away from New York and undertook fertility treatments – in hindsight, she saw the value in her winding path. Despite fears and doubts, she realised she’d “found something better – something that, I was sure, made more of an impact on other people’s lives, and my own”.

Shifting the narrative

Clearly, we’re due for a reset in how we view accomplishments in terms of age – we simply can’t afford to maintain a bias that leads to overlooking a whole band of the population’s untapped potential.

“As a society, we need to change our mindset that views late bloomers as an anomaly,” says Rose. “There’s absolutely zero relationship between the age or speed at which you achieve something and the ultimate contribution you can make.”

While Shafrir learned this lesson in her own time, she hopes future generations will be spared from the age-related achievement pressures she faced – particularly as a woman. “We need to remain vigilant and continue to challenge the status quo that ultimately doesn’t serve so many of us,” she adds.

The pandemic may offer one such opening for culture to begin to course-correct. “The disruption creates an opportunity for us to intentionally shift the zeitgeist and see late bloomers in a new way,” says Rose. “The ‘late bloomer’ concept is a relic of a time when we thought pace equalled ability. Now, we’re shifting towards work being a source of fulfilment, not just income. Once people realise that fulfilment produces excellence, not the other way around, we can help people to make their best contributions, whenever they occur.”

Around the BBC