Back to the 50s: the “Best Decade”?

Two decades ago, when I was 36, I took over a major-market newspaper column called “Women in Business” at the then-thriving Saint Paul Pioneer Press.

The women part interested me. The maneuverings and machinations of business? Less so, which is why I gravitated toward interviews about how women in the 1990s were navigating the careers they thought they wanted with the maternal and domestic roles they were raised to have.

These women, I wrote then, were a “breakthrough generation.”

My favorite article, then and now (when I’m living it rather than researching it), was called “The Best Decade: Women in their Fifties.” It was published in December 1994, six weeks before I gave birth to my second baby.

Women from ages 49 to 58 told me of the freedom their mothers’ generation had bequeathed them. None mentioned contraception or the women’s movement directly, but they knew they owed a debt to the birth control pill, to the trailblazing careerists who were the “first” in their professions (lawyers, physicians, stockbrokers, business executives) and to the Mad Men-era mothers who raised these women with the bittersweet admonition to “do more” than they themselves had done.

An editor eventually helped me evolve the “Women in Business” column to “On Balance: Issues That Affect Work and Home.” That allowed men to join the conversation, too. As I launch an updated version of that column — with a new title, in a different medium and from the path, farther on, of 20 more years of experience — I want to review the wisdom those women in their “best decade” shared with my younger self.

Help me measure what holds true today:

  • “Women of my age or younger have a sense of possibility that is really greater than our mothers had,” said a woman of 57, an entrepreneur who returned to college to earn a master’s in theology.
  • “Midlife is a period of reflection. That is not a new concept, and it’s true for men and women,” said a business executive, 51. “What may be different for women, and women in business, is that the issues they’re looking at aren’t necessarily what midlife women traditionally were looking at.”

  • “The public perception is that this is a negative time of life,” said the founder of what was then called the MidLife Women’s Network in Minneapolis. “But a whole group of women is saying, ‘I don’t buy that.'”

Women told me they wanted to develop the creativity and space for contemplation that, by necessity, they’d set aside to pursue careers:

“The midlife issue is how to get more time for oneself,” said one executive. “We want to cook on Sundays. We want to have a conversation with a friend. We want to read a book. We want to take long walks. We want to be not so much career people.”

Integration was a common word among these women — the generation that had worn a uniform of blue suits, had resisted any urge to personalize their offices with pictures of family and children, had taken up golf in order to meet men on their own turf.

“I used to wear two hats,” said a Target executive. “One was my professional self,” she explained, drawing a small box in the air. “The other was the personal side: more fun, more relaxed. It was a protection, I think. It was how I fit in a man’s world. Now, who you see is what you get.”

Many women acknowledged the price they’d paid for their fast-paced careers — a topic that my blog, “The Middle Stages,” will continue to explore. “Whenever you make choices,” one explained, “it is at the exclusion of something else.”

Middle age is the chance to fill that void, to take the risks that seemed impossible at a younger age. As I look back on my earlier article about women enjoying “The Best Decade” of their 50s, I am struck by their ease and comfort with themselves. They refused to become “invisible,” to be sidelined by society. Having operated in a masculine world, they were learning to embrace the feminine virtues and pastimes they’d once shunned as old-fashioned or irrelevant.

“If I think about who I am — the athlete, the broker, the person who likes to knit or cook — all parts are equally valuable. They all deserve attention,” said an investment broker about to turn 50. “Looking back when I’m 100 years old, the only thing I’m going to have regrets about are the things I didn’t do.”

Lesson learned: A “sense of  possibility” is essential at middle age. Embrace aging, don’t mourn it. And see how much more expansive life can become.

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7 thoughts on “Back to the 50s: the “Best Decade”?

  1. Renae

    Until a couple of years ago, I would golf once a summer with my Uncle Jack. On one of the last occasions, I asked him what his favorite decade was. He was torn between two choices–his 40’s and 50’s. His testimony echoes what you report, i.e. that the middle years are precious because they allow for the development of human experience for its own sake, undriven or at least less driven by economic necessity .

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  2. Mary Davidson

    Very good! I had a different experience as I dodged the management role at work to concentrate on domestic management as a single parent.

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  3. Becky Amble

    Great to see you back with pen in hand! Always read your column in the past and in fact was the main reason we adopted our sons from Russia due to the issues that minority women had in biz (from your well researched article back in 1997 or 1998!).

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  4. L.J. Gage

    Nice article Amy. Although in my forties, so I have not experienced the fifties yet, I do appreciate the perspective I have now versus my twenties. I look forward to reading more on this topic. As you know, balance between work and life has always been how I personally define success. I am curious to hear others thoughts.

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  5. Cathy McLane (@cathyconnects)

    I will be watching (and reading!) your blog closely, Amy, as I too am experiencing the wild and wonderful “midstage” years – in life/age as well as in work! Kudos on getting this up and running and best of luck. I know you will have – and can get others to share – invaluable insights.

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  6. Paula King

    Amy, it’s good to hear your unique voice again.

    You ask a good question about trade-offs. Most of us would probably agree that life is a series of trade-offs and we can make the trade-offs mindfully understanding the implications of our choices or we can make the trade-offs robotically, without reflection on the impact of the trade-offs have in our lives.

    One trade-off I made was living a life packed full of work and busyness. While mired in back to back meetings It’s easy to think that the busyness is a sign of doing meaningful work.

    At times, I was too exhausted to really ponder or live an “examined life” with a set of mindfully selected priorities. Okay, perhaps saying “unexamined life” is too strong but once the busy life becomes normal I didn’t have the bandwidth to think about the obvious trade-offs I was making. The short list includes: restorative sleep, time alone,to reflect, time with loved ones, fun, free time to work out/hike/bike or pursue new interests, time in mother nature, and change.

    Eventually, my health pooped out on me and by default I had the time to reflect on what I really wanted and whether the trade-offs were working for me or not. Thanks for providing a space to think out loud about important topics. Paula

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  7. iriserlings

    Amy, I cannot wait to read more of your insights! If the Strib featured a weekly Amy column, I might consider not cancelling my (15 yr) subscription…

    One of the best things about entering the Middle Stage is breaking free of the shackles and insecurities of the images forced on women by mass media, corporate image peddlers, and ourselves – that we must be everything to everyone – and just be oneself and be at peace with it, in fact loving it, and discovering whole new countries (even continents) on one’s personality map.

    (I’m at a B&B in Winona, MN (the Alexander House right now, sipping coffee in a wonderful, oversized, bathrobe… ((Oh, and mustn’t forget that the sex just gets better and better ;))

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