Tag Archives: Women and work

Become a Midlife Revolutionary: Walk to Work

Minneapolis is among the 10 safest cities for pedestrians in the country, the local newspaper announced this week. Seattle was the most safe, Detroit the least among the 25 large urban areas studied.

That’s comforting news, given that I do a lot of walking in Minneapolis and its twin city, St. Paul, where I live and work. But the data ignore the more interesting sociology.

Buried in a recent U.S. Census Bureau analysis of the percentages and characteristics of people who walk or bike to work is an age-related statistic that speaks to the subtle mind shifts that start to happen in middle age.

Although walking to work is most common — no surprise — among young adults with relatively low incomes, it creeps up again among people 55 and older. People like the violin maker who lives across the street from my house and walks more than a mile to work in all weather, or like his wife, a college bookstore manager who commutes a similar distance by foot or bicycle.

People like You Are Hereme, who a year ago traded a 40-mile commute for a walkable distance to work of 1.2 miles. Now, instead of nonstop meetings by iPhone in unpredictable weather and crawling traffic, my commute entails reading sidewalk poetry, admiring the art of urban landscaping and simply getting lost in my own thoughts.

Why walk? Why bother?

A higher percentage of people walk to work in Minneapolis (and, by extension, St. Paul) than in other cold Midwestern cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, according to the Census data. Across all 50 metro areas studied, an eco-friendly commuting method — walk, bike, bus, train — is most prevalent among people who live and work in the same city.

But the uptick in “older worker” walking interests me most — because my experience correlates exactly with the statistics. Walking has become, for me, a social statement, a political action. I walk to work because our neighborhood streets are choked with cars. I walk because I polluted the planet for years so I could enjoy both the city career and the small-town family.

I walk because the United States has become a fat and lazy nation, with obesity rates more than double what they were in 1970 and an average of 2.28 vehicles per household. “We don’t have a parking problem” in St. Paul, a City Council legislative aide told me recently. “We have a walking problem.”

And so, while it would be easy for me to talk about the more balanced perspective that middle age brings — along with the resulting confidence to slow life’s pace, to find my path — in truth I’m not sure that’s why I’m walking more. I walk because “excess” has become the U.S. brand, a hedonism we export to further justify our self-centered shopping and consumption.

I walk because I’m a child of Depression-era parents who raised my siblings and me without air-conditioning, with one TV and with the discipline to turn off lights even back when electricity was “penny cheap.”

I walk because I’m a sucker for the starfish story, and walking to work is one thing I can do, one small difference I can make, in a planet that grows more damaged by the day.

It’s not easy being green

Living an eco-life is more palatable and possible in a granola-eating, rainbow-flag–waving neighborhood with bus lines close by and a grocery store, Thai restaurant and charming retro movie theater within easy walking distance.

Still, walking to work has its challenges, especially for middle-aged women. Discomfort and inconvenience top the list:

  • Walking takes longer than driving, and that’s a pain on Monday morning when I have to be at the weekly staff meeting by 8:30 a.m.
  • It rains in Minnesota, and, of course, it snows.
  • My building has a Wudu station in the second-floor bathroom where Muslim women can wash their feet before prayer, but the closest showers for commuters who walk or cycle are at the athletics facility across campus.
  • My lunch gets squished in my backpack, which also gets heavy with a laptop and a pair of work-suitable shoes inside.
  • It’s harder to walk and wear a skirt or suit — the expected attire for a woman my age. I dress more casually than I’d like because it’s easier to stuff jeans or cotton pants in my backpack than to carry dry-clean-only clothes.
  • You have to plan. I need my car for work — at least that’s what I tell myself when I have an appointment more than a mile away. Instead, I have learned to plan outside meetings at the top of the workday, so I can drive there and back, park my car at home and then walk in. I also meet with people more often by phone.

Most important: I have a tolerant employer who has no problem with me working from home sometimes or varying my schedule. And that’s what a walk-to-work movement will require — flexibility from employers who recognize that a healthy, calm person is a more balanced, productive employee.

The sidewalk art three blocks from my house says it best: I don’t know enough about balance to tell you how to do it. / I think, though, it’s in the trying and the letting go / that the scales measuring right and wrong — quiver and stand still.

Lesson learned: “Walking the talk” is a literal action. By living my values, I may inspire someone else to do the same.

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.