Queenagers and work. "Sometimes I feel like I am shrivelling inside"
The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (February 26th 2023)
Sounds like it's time to find your voice and do something new...
It’s been a busy week. It was such a treat to see a whole room of you lovely ladies at our mushroom launch at the Groucho Club on Wednesday (couldn’t resist showing you the pic above) ; big thanks to everyone who made it and our wonderful Queenager panel including Gail Porter and Thelma Mensah. We heard from Martin Powell author of Medicinal Mushrooms about how mushrooms feed the gut and the brain and from nutritionist Romina Melwani about how reishi mushrooms and sage can be great for hot flushes (I’ve taken note of that) and Lion’s Mane is brilliant for Focus (I’ve been trying it, it’s like drinking a good cup of coffee but without the jitters and seems to boost my concentration). I’ve also been taking Chaga mushrooms for the Biome and digestion, anti-inflammation and better skin. As Thelma put it: “What I love about these mushrooms is that it doesn’t take three months to work, you can feel it instantly.” Gail said: “The Dream mushroom supplements have give me my best sleep in years.” Hope you enjoy some of the clips and pics on our social media. And if you want to check the mushrooms out for yourself this is the website.
What I really want to write about this week, however, is Queenagers and work. It’s been on my mind because I kicked off last week by trotting off to EY towers in London Bridge to give a keynote speech at a conference about age in the workplace organised by 55 Redefined. I was talking about the power of the Queenager demographic and why companies need to be speaking to them; and the importance of retaining and looking after senior women. I couldn’t quite get over a feeling of big disconnect as I looked out at the super-corporate audience and thought about the conversations I have over and over again with women in our community.
Let’s take Kate. She is a producer at the BBC, a brilliant programme maker who has worked there since 1994 and wants to take the redundancy package which is now on offer (because the Beeb has got to save loads of money so is shedding its most senior – expensive/experienced – staff). I’m going to tell her story because she organically reflected all the most salient points of our Noon research into this topic!
So Kate said: “I love my job, I’ve been at the BBC for 30 years so I am a lifer and I have worked on great programmes. But a few years ago I had treatment for breast cancer – luckily it was fine – and since then I’ve been really focussing on my health and not getting too tired. I find it really valuable just having time to walk or make supper slowly, or hang out with my two teenage children who will both be off in a couple of years. And I am the only sibling in the UK, with an 85-year-old mother in Leeds who keeps having falls and needs attention; thanks to lockdown I can work from there sometimes but I am getting a bit sick of always being on someone else’s timeline and having to ask permission all the time. I really value my autonomy.
“Also, although I usually work three or four days a week – and have done for decades – I only have a two day contract, so that is all my small pension is based on. And if I take redundancy I’ll get three years salary which I could use to boost my pension or pay off a chunk of my remaining mortgage. I know they would use me as a freelance and I could also get work elsewhere so that is tempting…
“But most of all I am finding it harder and harder to take instructions from people much younger and more inexperienced than me. They’ll say: Let’s do this. And I think, we did that 25 years ago, and 10 years ago and it didn’t work. Yesterday I got quite cross, which is really unlike me, I don’t think I can go on being polite about it and biddable, sometimes I feel my insides shrivelling, I just feel: oh no! And I’ve always fancied teaching English Literature and I kind of feel I’ve got ten good years left in me and I quite fancy a challenge. I was reading about Lucy Kellaway [on our Noon Advisory board) and her Now Teach scheme and I felt inspired and excited about doing something new…”
Our Noon/Queenager research shows that Kate’s story is very typical (I’ve picked out the key words here in bold): over half of women 45-60 have experienced at least five big life events – divorce, bereavement, redundancy, bankruptcy, abuse, mental health problems, elderly parents needing help, their own physical health problems, menopause, a child or teen needing attention…. (I can feel you nodding as you read this, as women do when I say it in a room). This list goes on. I call it the midlife-clusterfuck, a whole load of issues hitting together, alongside a growing sense that for decades we’ve put everyone else first and that this is OUR time, when it finally gets to be about ME. (Half of the women we surveyed agreed that: “This is my time, when I come first, I can prioritise myself”). We call these Queenagers Forged in Fire – and the more they have been through, the happier they now are with their lives. They are resilient and wise enough to set things up exactly as they want: they talk about being ‘delightedly divorced’ or how ‘I am just getting the hang of things’ – how the wisdom comes from the dark times, knowing they can survive and thrive.
I love this graphic from our Noon research of the stages of women’s lives and how in the Queenage years we recentre and come into our prime. Hope it resonates with you.
Part of this, as Kate expresses, is about not wanting to be pleasing and biddable anymore. So many women end up being what Rebecca Hill author of From Work Life to New Life calls “wives to the organisation” – mentoring, doing the behind-the-scenes admin, providing the social oil, picking up all the drudgery that keeps the wheels rolling but never gets recognised. It was how we Queenagers were brought up: just think of that ridiculous Brownies motto about never asking for praise or attention but just working hard quietly in the background… I say enough!
I talked to another Queenager, an inspirational Asian lady called Uma. She talked about the pressure she’d always felt to “be collegiate, not draw attention to myself because of my generation and my culture”. She is also 58 and has recently changed her stance, these days she has turned up the volume on herself and her life; she now posts regularly on LinkedIn. “I share my experiences and my views, I have a lot to offer, I have been in my profession for 30 years. I found it really hard to find my voice, at first it felt very uncomfortable, I have been trained to contribute behind the scenes, that it shouldn’t be all about me, but by sharing my inner narrative, what I really think, I am getting great traction. My boss’s boss said: ‘stop’ when I was talking the other day because he wanted to record what I was saying because he thought it was so good. At 58 I am finally blowing my own trumpet for the first time and putting myself out there – I am being asked to speak all over the place, I’ve become a thought-leader! I can’t believe it. But along with the excitement and the pleasure I also feel angry: angry at the conditioning that kept me silent for so long, at the freedom and power I could have enjoyed earlier in.”
Uma’s shift came about, she says, because her husband died suddenly. “I was sad of course. But in the end it was also a liberation. Until that point I had worked but I had thought of myself primarily as a wife and mother. But my kids are grown up and have left home, they don’t need me now. So with my husband gone I felt I could finally shake all of that off and create my own identity, the roles I choose. I feel these are my golden years, that I am in my prime. I’ve learnt it is so important to use and voice all the experience and wisdom we have as women in our fifties, the world really needs it. And by creating a strong brand for myself now I feel I can future-proof myself to be a consultant, to go on being relevant into my sixties and seventies. My strong point now is technology; women have to learn to upskill themselves, to go on being relevant and to find their voices and speak up. After all, if not now then when? No-one will do it for you. You need to have the confidence to realise how much you have to offer. I’ve learnt to advocate for myself both behind the scenes and in the open. And that means I can give back and open up opportunities for other women. I just wish I had known this before, that is why I am speaking up now.”
I love these two stories because they bring to life so much of what we found in our Noon research. How we can move into our power and find our voice in our fifties and beyond, and the necessity of that. The hunger for a new challenge, to which we can bring everything we already know but also experience the deep excitement of learning new things, becoming something new. It is that which makes us feel young again, the creation of new, salient, meaningful experiences.
Looking out at the conference room last week I just felt a huge disjunct between what Queenagers want from jobs and employers: to feel valued, autonomy, flexibility and control over their own time, meaningful work, purpose, to be seen – and what the corporate world tends to give older women. Ummm… status if they are still in a job (although flexibility is valued 16 times more than status in our research) and lots of ‘corporate wife-ing’. As I walked out a senior woman banker in her fifties said to me: “It felt so good this morning to actually feel relevant again, like someone was interested in me and what I have got to offer [because the conversation was about age]. To be seen… it made me realise how invisible I usually feel.”
No wonder so many women are starting again at this point. It is what the new Chair of the Global 30 Per Cent Club described as the new brain drain for women; it used to occur after motherhood, now women are leaving at around 50. If we are ever to get gender equality in leadership we need these women to stay – and companies need to get better at giving them what they want. The Menopause Charity says that one in ten women leave their jobs as a result of menopause; I would say menopause is a part of it, but the bigger reason is the midlife clusterfuck, all the different things which collide at this point and make us want to re-think. (If you are interested in hearing more about this I will be doing a LinkedIn live at 5pm tomorrow, monday, if you want to tune in)
I understand why so many of you are exiting the corporate world. I say onward Queenagers, embrace your prime – and if that isn’t inside an organisation there is lots of fun to be had outside!
If you are in a place of shift, considering a change or having change thrust upon you (that happened to me almost exactly three years ago this weekend) then come and join us at the Noon Circle this Tuesday, February 28th. It’s for Paid Subscribers only, at 7pm in Soho.
If you want to come (or are already coming) and are a Paid Subscriber just email me – email@example.com so I know how much food/booze to buy. And if you aren’t one yet, then sign up and email me and I’ll send you the address. We’ve got some great members of our advisory aboard attending and a special guest who has just left her very high profile job after three decades. I promise fun, conviviality, encouragement and practical advice. It’s a lovely small, supportive group – you will be very welcome.
And when it comes to Queenager finances – we all need some help there – Sasha Speed has just written this great piece for Noon – https://www.noon.org.uk/how-to-make-your-money-work-for-you-not-the-other-way-round/
And is doing another online session about midlife women and finance this week https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/helping-you-to-manage-your-money-tickets-556625300257
By Eleanor Mills