We Queenagers aren't done we're just getting started...
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (January 8th 2024)
But that means conquering the fear of trying something new whether that's learning to swim (like Thelma below) or starting a new business or career
I woke up to the most beautiful Sun-day morning– blue sky, sun streaming through the window. Up at the pond where I swim nearly every day (yup even when it is 3 Degrees brr) the water was lit up with light and a flock of tiny blue-tits were swinging and singing in the branches of a silver birch as I changed. Sunny days are always good for twitching, the green parakeets were screeching, their bright plumage iridescent against the dark bark of the trees. The cormorant was sunning his wings on a big orange buoy and as I swam out over the lake I found myself whistling: “Keep on the sunny side of life”. It’s a good maxim and even more important in the pond where the sun on my face warms not just my cheeks but my very being, I close my eyes and feel the light fill my head. After, I shivered back into many layers of thermals (those birds got quite the view as I pile on three jumpers while the rest of me is naked to the elements). I walked briskly up a few hills, swigging hot tea to warm up!
And now here I am – and yes that first paragraph IS relevant to my newsletter today. When I was a newspaper executive this would be the time of year when we’d trumpet endless New Year New You diets and exercise regimes – just pick up any magazine in January and you can’t move for impossible (useless) diets and celebs boasting about their 5am fitness challenges. But the only way to find a physical challenge you’ll stick with is to do something you love: going to the pond every day energises me. I love the community there, I usually see a friend or make a new one, I watch the birds; and I find that returning to the same spot everyday I am struck by the minutiae of difference, familiarity breeds not contempt but an eye for what is new that day. It tunes me in and tunes out the noise and the nonsense.
Today on Noon – the website that is the Home of the Queenager, this newsletter is my weekly missive to our Noon community – we publish a wonderful article by Thelma Mensah. Thelma is a woman of colour who like many others never learnt to swim as a child. Now 51 she has a daughter who loves the water – but Thelma could never go in with her… until now. We were messing around talking about the Noon retreats we run (where we do yoga, swim in an amazing lake in the middle of an ancient forest and then do a Noon Circle you can sign up for the March one here). I wanted Thelma to come – she said she couldn’t swim. So we came up with a challenge: she would get swimming lessons (thanks to David Lloyd gyms for the lessons), we’d get her prescription goggles (thank you Vision Express, one of the reasons she didn’t swim was because she is very short-sighted and couldn’t see), she found a special larger swimming hat (getting her hair wet was another reason not to take the plunge) and she would come and swim with me in the lake in Wasing. And so it came to pass that Thelma learnt to swim, at 50 – something she never thought she would do. Not just in Ghana either or in an indoor pool where it is warm, but outside in the British cold, in a muddy lake!
I love Thelma’s story because it is proof that we are never too old and it is never too late to become the women we’d like to be. In fact, as I have found myself, sometimes setting ourselves a big new challenge, pushing the envelope on what we think we can do at 50 plus, is in itself revivifying. After all if Thelma can conquer her fears and swim, and I can reinvent myself as an entrepreneur after a lifetime as a journalist – then what could you do?
Sometimes the biggest thing holding us back is just that we haven’t done something before, or that we’ll have to learn a new skill… but actually the most fun we ever have and the most exhilarated we ever feel is when we try something new. It’s why our teens and twenties felt so exciting. But it’s the new-doing – not the age – which is the issue here. We can get back that excitement of the new at fifty, or sixty or beyond… we just have to get a bit vulnerable and go back to the beginning. I remember one of the most scary things about setting up Noon after I was made redundant was having to do everything myself. I’d got so used to having someone else who did my tech when it went wrong, or fixed my computer or booked my flights that when I was suddenly having to do it myself it felt terrifying. But three years on I am much more capable, whether it’s fixing a tech hitch or drafting a business proposal. Learning to do new things in my 50s was scary, for sure – the first time I ever did an Instagram live I had no idea how it worked and ended up sobbing on my stairs and my teen daughter had to show me how to do it. But I learnt and now do much more tricky things; there’s nothing like a Youtube video to show you how… (and no-one needs to know you had to Google how to do something really basic.) You just learn (slowly at your own pace) and then you can…and the learning breeds a confidence in learning something else new, and before you know it the paralysing fear of ‘can’t’ goes and you have a whole new life. You just have to learn to do one new thing… and then make that a habit!
So that’s my New Year’s tip… and do read Thelma’s piece, it’s a cracker.
While we’re on the subject of #queenagers and the new – I was very excited to read that on Forbes Magazine’s list of the most powerful women in the world, 80% are over 50. Well of course they are. It takes time to get to the top of any profession – did you know that the average age of a female CEO in the UK was 56, and a female Chair is 61? And that businesses started by oldies are twice as likely to be successful?
Our culture is too fond of making older women feel invisible (half of the Queenagers we surveyed said they felt they were). In a society in which women are too often only valued for youth and fecundity and where too many of us feel that if we lose our youthful looks we lose our essence, it is important to pause and think about what such a list shows us. The truth is that many women spend much of their earlier years – particularly the bit from 25-50 – raising families (of course that is not all women, nearly a third of Queenagers are child-free 40 per cent by choice). The most powerful woman in the world Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the EU, 67, had seven children and spent much of her thirties and forties concentrating on that. At 46 she began to work for Angela Merkel and her rise began. She became super-successful only in her 50s and 60s. This is an important model for all women to think about. We come into our work prime as we age, when many of our earlier responsibilities start to fall away. The other day I was talking to a group of women at a big company about Queenagers, about how women come into their prime in their fifties. I said that I wanted all younger women to look forward to their Queenage years as the point where it all comes together, when we finally live our best life, not dread it, or feel that they are past their sell-by date (god I hate that phrase). Some of the younger women in the room raised their hands. “Wow, I love the idea that this bit of life when I am juggling a job and small kids will pass, that I can really get motoring career-wise once my children grow up, that I don’t have to cram it all into my 30s” said one. The others all cheered. The said they felt that the ages 25-50 – often dubbed the Age of Achievement, didn’t feel like achievement at all, but “survival”. They felt that the idea that their big career moment could be later was a gamechanger. “Extending the runway like this, talking about Queenagers being in their prime, that doesn’t just help older women but ALL women” they said.
The point about these newsletters is to try and change the story that we tell in our culture about older women. What they are for, what they can do, how we should think about them. We need a different, more positive story which reflects the reality which is that women CAN have it all, but it is jolly difficult (and exhausting) to have it all at once. Ursula Von Der Leyden’s career trajectory needs to be normalised in all companies. We need to change the way we think about women’s careers to account for longevity. In the 100 year life, 50 is only half way through. We Queenagers aren’t done, we’re just getting going! Fifty shouldn’t be when we get whacked but when we power up into our work prime. We can change this story – just as we’ve changed the stories we tell as a society around race or sexuality. The next frontier is gendered ageism, where ageism meets sexism – we need to start valuing women for ALL that they are and can be at all ages and that starts with recognising that our best career years are probably in our 50s and 60s. I highly recommend Avivah Wittenberg Cox’s article for Forbes on this (she very kindly references Noon and our brilliant head of Noon Consulting Dr Lucy Ryan who has just written a fab book called Revolting Women: Why Midlife Women are walking out and what to do about it – you can read her article for Noon about it here).
So if you are new to this newsletter thanks so much for reading! And if you are more of a regular then a big thanks to you too for all your support. And whether you are new or old – would you mind taking this brief survey and telling us what you like about Noon and what we could do better?
Lots of love
By Eleanor Mills