We Gen X-ers are worker bees, a pioneering generation of women

The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (October 2nd 2022)

We've come a long way since Kate Reddy and I don't know how she does it...

Dear Queenagers

It’s been a busy week! On Monday I took some lovely Noon ladies to dinner at the Groucho Club and was struck once again by the brilliance and high calibre of this amazing community. Sitting round the table we realised we’d all been the breadwinners. Some were mothers, some not – all of us had worked solidly from our twenties to our fifties. We are Gen X worker bees, we never expected a man to keep us, we defined ourselves in our own terms.

That is part of what makes Queenagers different from the midlife women who came before us. We are a pioneering generation, we entered the working world believing we had equality (hah! That was a lie I know… I’ll come back to that later.) But there is no question about the fact that we got on the working-woman train and never got off it: the data is there in the 2019 census – that was the first time EVER that women over forty earnt more money than women under forty.

Just think about what a seismic shift that is. Up until only a few years ago younger women out-earnt older women because so many women when they became mothers worked part time or stopped altogether. For Gen X that hasn’t been the case. For starters nearly a third of university educated women don’t have children (in fact the more highly educated a woman is the less likely she is to have sprogs, and in our Noon Queenager research we found that of those who were childfree 40% had chosen to be).  Many of those of us who did have kids didn’t stop working when we became parents. In fact half of Queenagers are the main breadwinner or sole earner in their household. We are behind over 90 per cent of all household consumer purchases – yet appear in less than 12 per cent of advertising. Even though we outspend millennials by 250 per cent.

As one of the amazing women in the Noon focus groups put it: “I am 50, the partner in a law firm, I don’t have kids – I am disposable income-erarma. But I feel invisible, it’s as if I don’t exist in the culture.” She couldn’t understand why no brands were targeting her. Despite the current tough headwinds it is a fact that Queenagers generally – and particularly those of us who are professionals and who have had, or continue to have, good jobs- have money to spend.

But more seriously, let’s go back to where I started – about how when we Queenagers entered the workforce in our twenties we were told that women had equality. What they really meant was; you are in the room, right? What more do you want? Shut up and be grateful!

I was thinking about this because last week the Editor whom I worked for for two decades finally left my old paper. He was a brilliant editor; in that he had a genius for unerringly knowing the weakest link. You could be in the office every night till 10pm – and know that on Friday you’d be there till 2am (yes I did that through both my pregnancies).  But the one day I’d try to leave at six, say, to pick up a kid from a playdate, he’d wander into my office with a raised eyebrow just as I was guiltily scooting out the door and say quizzically: “Half day?”

I was so grateful as a young woman to be allowed in the room, so excited and proud to have a seat at the top table that I just took it. It was a tough, long-hours culture. The majority of the male execs had wives at home hoovering up al the domestic responsiblities allowing them to focus entirely and exclusively on their jobs at all times. I wrote an article for the Telegraph last week about Allison Pearson’s I don’t Know How She Does It – and how that book blew the lid off the stresses on working mothers. Gave us a language to talk about it.

Thinking back to that time now it feels like a different world. I was often the only, or one of very few. women in meetings. It would be normal for all the blokes to turn to me and say: “What do women think?” This was important as it was a national newspaper, what I said could often determine the editorial line. It was a huge responsibility. Particularly as I had a very senior role before I was even thirty. I remember feeling simultaneously powerful and insecure. Aware that the price of being in the club was not to rock the boat, not to be ‘miss-ish’ about sexist banter or laddish behaviour. It often meant disguising what I really felt.

I responded by being tough, on the outside at least. My mantra was “Never show fear.” I’d learnt that young. At the public school I went to in the sixth form (800 boys, 80 girls) my nickname was “Jugs” – it was normal for the boys when greeting me to look first at my ample chest and go: “Hello Leftie, Hello Rightie… Oh – hello Eleanor.”

Writing that now the sexism of it is unbelievable. When I tell my teenage daughters about that kind of thing, or share it with millennials when I give keynotes to corporates, they look – rightly – horrified.

But at the time I kind of thought it was funny. The fact that I didn’t get upset about it, that I played along, was the price of entry to the boys’ club. That training in dealing with public school banter was invaluable in my years in the newsroom.

It wasn’t just women who had to play along like that. Anyone who wasn’t a posh white man had to do it too. At a party the other night,  I was chatting to a very old friend from university who I had always known as Bob. He is Indian, so I suppose it was weird that he was called Bob but I’d never questioned it. These days he is known by his Indian name and when I was drunk I mistakenly called him Bob – and apologised profusely. We started talking about where that name had come from. “At my public school,” he said, “They just thought it was funny to call me Bob, they couldn’t be bothered to learn how to say my Indian name.”

Just like me with “Jugs” back then he’d gone along with it. He hadn’t called it out as racist, just as I hadn’t made a fuss about sexism. Talking about it we agreed that at the time we’d had to go along with it, we couldn’t even admit to ourselves it was demeaning. We sucked it up, a badge of belonging; the price of being in the in crowd.

At the party, we exchanged these stories with mounting horror. From a 2022 perspective it is of course appalling, and unbelievably racist that my friend was renamed. He sees it and we talked about how hard it is to name it when it is happening to you. When he started his professional life he went back to his real name. But he told me that because the school he went to was so famous and its alumni are everywhere ‘Bob’ stalks him – whenever he bumps into an old school ‘friend’ Bob is what they call him. He has had to get really vocal about insisting that they don’t. Even now.

When I talk about Queenagers being a pioneering generation this is what I mean. We entered a work force where casual racism, homophobia and sexism were the norm. Where objecting to it would have you excluded, seen as pathetic, not tough enough to fit in, not made of the right stuff. It wouldn’t have been said directly, of course; but complaining would see you outcast from the inner circle.

Many of us battled our way up through these kinds of workplaces to the top – only to hit another kind of exclusion, one that we hadn’t bargained for, when we got there.

It is not an accident that so many senior women disappear from institutions….

I remember older men in my life wincing with revulsion when they saw an older woman on television, groaning that they looked hideous with their wrinkles. The men took it as an afront that the woman on the screen wasn’t eye-candy, not there just to please the male gaze. I remember the raised eyebrows and shared smiles when women got ‘emotional’, or stood up for themselves, particularly when they got older and less pleasing to the men, both physically and in terms of behaviour.

Too much of this still persists. It is called gendered ageism – it is where ageism meets sexism and it is alive and kicking.

It is the bit of diversity and inclusion society hasn’t got round to dealing with yet.

This is my new crusade. Just as the kind of casual racism, sexism and homophobia of our youth is now seen as unacceptable, I want gendered ageism to be similarly reviled. Rather than growing up being flogged ‘anti-ageing’ products and being taught to fear getting old, I want younger women to look forward to being fifty as when they come into their prime.

It is my crusade for older women, Queenagers, to be valued for all the wonderful things they are. For all women NOT to be seen as just there to please men; or to be valued by the man they have on their arm. I want a society where women aren’t valued just for their fecundity and fanciability as they are by patriarchy, but for all their other wonderful qualities – their intelligence and wisdom, kindness and knowledge – all the other parts of the rainbows that constitute the many colours and constituents of our characters.

I hope that just as now my Indian friend and I look back at the world of our younger selves and are horrified by the treatment we accepted, in a few years the culture will be similarly disgusted by the invisibility of Queenagers and older women in our world today. That is what Noon and this Queenager email is all about.

Sorry if that got a bit long! If you’d like to support my work on eradicating gendered ageism and changing the narrative about Queenagers to one which is more positive and fit for purpose do become a paid subscriber.

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