Maybe it’s my status as the oldest person in my graduate school class — not by years, mind you, but by decades.
Maybe it was my conscious career choice at 56 to walk away from a well-compensated director-level position rather than risk a late-50s layoff in that organization’s uncertain, chaotic culture.
My current job provides a lower salary but far less stress — and that has allowed me to branch out and explore at a time of life when I finally have the freedom to do so.
Research and anecdotal evidence show that some professional women are leaving the work force deep into middle age for reasons that include disillusionment, early retirement and elder-care duties. Other career-oriented women in their 50s and early 60s are scaling back their careers, as I did, shedding their intense, single-minded focus as they would a wool blazer on a warm spring day.
- “I find myself less ambitious by workplace standards — wanting to climb the corporate ladder — and more interested in doing work that is truly meaningful to me,” says a journalist, 64, whose children are older than some of her colleagues.
- “I have definitely shifted gears in the last seven or eight years,” says a nonprofit manager, 55, who would like to write. “Now that my sons are mostly off on their own, I don’t feel the pressure to provide for them like I used to, which meant going for the more demanding, higher accountability positions. I like having time to do other things I enjoy.”
- “Age both gives and limits options,” says a project manager who just turned 59. “As an empty nester whose step-kids have graduated from college and are married, I find that my husband’s and my significant expenses are behind us. There’s some freedom in that. At the same time, ageism is real. I would not want to be looking for a new job at my age.”
Do you consciously try to look younger?
My hair is finally turning gray, and I’m not sure I like either the expense or the ethic of maintaining “artificial auburn.”
Most respondents told me they do color their hair in order to appear younger at work. Others emphasized the importance of maintaining a wardrobe that defies stereotypes about their age. “I don’t wear things like flower-print shirts or tops with cats,” one woman says dryly.
“Looking younger is a tricky proposition, especially with women,” explains my 62-year-old neighbor, a well-coiffed Frenchwoman whose accent alone is elegant. “I dress to reflect that I have style but that I am not interested in looking 30.”
“I do worry about my looks,” says a friend and colleague, 57. “I feel young, but when I catch myself in the mirror on a day when I’m tired, I see an older woman, and I freak out. I fear others are judging me as not being in the flow of what is happening now.”
Seeking the perspectives of younger people helps some Baby Boomers stay current.
“I try to really listen to what younger generations do, say, think,” says a 55-year-old IT manager who oversees a young staff. “I like to know what they do for fun, how they’ve solved a problem, what they’re worried about. I think that keeps my thinking young.”
“Since I am somewhat slim and flat-chested, I don’t feel as if I am trying hard to appear young,” says a Chicago librarian, 54. “But because I have three youngish children, I have the vernacular of the young. That, more than my dressing, I think, makes me appear youthful.”
One 57-year-old entrepreneur maintains her vibrancy with daily meditation, healthful food and exercise. “I walk in a strong and confident manner,” she says.
Personally, I consider exercise the fountain of youth, and I am proud at 58 of being among the fittest people in my office.
How does aging benefit your career?
I inherited my work ethic — and perfectionism and sense of duty — from my father, a retired attorney and state senator who is now a relatively robust 90. I remember my dad’s exasperation in his 50s that his mind was less sharp, just as my own mental lapses now embarrass me.
Here is the key, the upside, the benefit to growing older: His younger law partners were turning to him for wisdom.
In a youth-obsessed culture, it is tempting to see middle age as an inevitably downhill slide, to experience it as a period of retrenchment and regret rather than of passion and possibilities. Regrets weigh on me in graduate school: Why didn’t I do this when I was younger?
Then I notice how I am relishing the endeavor — my desire to dig in and learn. My 30-something classmates with corporate jobs and small children are in school to get it done. The degree is a steppingstone in their careers.
“‘A’ is for anxiety, ‘B’ is for balance,’” a classmate told me recently, observing my meticulous note-taking and obvious efforts to earn the highest grade. A manager at 3M and the mother of a 2-year-old girl, she barrels through two classes a semester and contents herself with B’s.
I want a more holistic experience, a theme I hear repeatedly in midlife women’s approach to life and work.
- “I feel like I have a lot of information and expertise to share regarding aging, which is part of my career, and I am living the journey,” says an elder-care expert, 63, who is easing toward retirement by working part time.
- “Work has become much less important in my life as I age, while at the same time, I moved into a position where that is OK,” says a former journalist, 56, who now works in communications for county government. “I am bringing skills to my current position that I gathered throughout my career, which are appreciated by those in my organization.”
- “The 50s are a great age of coming into one’s own,” says an industrial psychologist who earned her master’s and Ph.D. while in her 20s. “I’m hitting my stride in so many ways. I’m doing work now that I could not have done even five years ago as a result of my cumulative knowledge, experience and expertise.”
Do you reveal your age at work?
Tellingly, out of 10 women who responded to my questions, the psychologist is the only one who willingly volunteers her age to colleagues and clients; unlike the others, she is self-employed and in a field where years of experience is highly valued.
Most said they wouldn’t lie if asked outright, but they don’t advertise their ages either. Being seen as overqualified or out of step with technology or “set in your ways,” as one woman put it, is too great a risk.
Then there’s the question of whether employers will invest in older workers: “Just recently I realized that there was probably no opportunity for a raise or promotion because they figure, accurately, that I’m unlikely to go to another job at this stage of my life,” says an academic editor, 62.
I consciously took a risk that my new employer would invest in me when I left the director-level job to return to school, launch a blog and care for my mother as she was dying. The pay cut was a blow to both my pocketbook and ego; the promise of my position growing into something larger is still a dream.
But here I am. I made the leap, and all I can do is move forward, keep learning, be present — and be grateful for knowing courageous women who refuse to let society define what “prime of life” means.