career

"I didn't want to waste any more time": Three women whose careers started after 40.

Last week, American writer and editor Doug Murano issued an appeal via Twitter.

"I get tired of 'under 40' lists," he wrote. "Show me someone who got their PhD at 60 after losing everything. Give me the 70-year-old debut novelist who writes from a lifetime of love and grief. Give me calloused hands and tender hearts."

In the comments beneath, dozens of people shared their stories of mid-life success, of leaping into long-desired new careers or mature-age study.

The fact that such stories are anomalies shows that we still tend to walk a career path that's linear and, sadly, becomes increasingly narrow toward the end. 

The median age of the Australian workforce is 39, and on the far side of that, opportunities are fewer and far harder to land. Particularly for women.

An Australian Human Rights Commission’s Willing to Work inquiry in 2016 found that, as well as facing the usual barriers to employment (age discrimination, difficulties accessing training and arranging flexible work opportunities), older women are more likely than older men to be perceived as "having outdated skills and as being too slow to learn new ones".

Part of changing those perceptions involves championing the stories of women who disprove them.

Women like psychiatry registrar Dr Louise Randall, interior designer Maria Georgiou and Stella Prize-winning author Vicki Laveau-Harvie (pictured above). These three women each changed careers and achieved success after the age of 40. 

They spoke to Mamamia's daily news podcast, The Quickyto share how they made it happen.

Dr Louise Randall

Dr Louise Randall was nearly 50 when she decided journalism was no longer for her.

"I had always wanted to study medicine; I'd always felt slightly dissatisfied that I hadn't. In 2011, I was working as the ABC New South Wales editor, which means I was in charge of the news operation for all of New South Wales. And we had a helicopter crash, which very unfortunately killed three of my colleagues. And then followed about 18 months of real turmoil where people kept confiding in me and it really struck me how distressed people can be whilst living perfectly functional lives, and I became extremely interested in mental health, in particular. 

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"I thought, 'What do I really really want to do?' And I kept coming back to medicine... I kept thinking to myself, 'You are absolutely crazy.' And then I thought, 'Do you know what? I'm never going to be quite happy in life if I don't go to university to study medicine.' So I thought, 'Oh hang it all; I'll just give it a go.'

"I didn't earn at all for five years. I was in the privileged position of having a partner who would support me and then, unfortunately, things went downhill during the course and we split up. So that left me relying on maintenance and Centrelink benefits, really. It was incredibly tough. I was also the parent of a primary-school-age child. But at least I wasn't working shift work, so I could do my university in the day then parent at night.

Listen: Just the beginning... hear the rest of these three women's stories.


"I remember the first time I went to university and everybody used to look a bit at the mature age students... But actually, the level of maturity of the cohort meant that they just really accepted me and seemed very grateful to have me there, because I brought a certain different flavour to the course, my knowledge of the outside world.

"Obviously when you're in your early 20s, your brain is going full power and you're at the top of your mental game, so to speak. I certainly had a problem with rote learning — and medicine is full of rote learning. I just found that I was getting really frustrated because information that would have just slipped into my brain and stayed there when I was a youngster no longer did that, and I would have to go back again and again and again. However, the upside of going to study medicine as an old person is that you've got a huge amount of knowledge that you acquire over the years about how people work, about how systems work, about what's expected of you as a professional. So whereas there were some negatives, there were lots of positives in there.

"To me, it came down to: if I got to my deathbed and I hadn't done the thing that I wanted to do, would I be disappointed? And I kept coming back, thinking, 'Yes.'... If you're looking at a career change in your 40s and beyond, I think you've got to think, 'Is this worth it in terms of my own satisfaction?'"

Maria Georgiou

Maria gave up her 18-year teaching career to become an interior designer at age 40.

"It was very hard because when you've been in teaching for 18 years and you've got an established career, you start thinking, 'Is this the right thing to do? Am I going to regret this?' And so you get a lot of these thoughts going through your mind. But it's funny how certain things come into your life when you are ready for that change.

"My sister-in-law was building a house and then the thought came about, 'How about looking into interior design?' So I did an online course first, and it wasn't until three years later that I decided I wanted to do more face-to-face study and then decided that it was now or never — take the plunge. I didn't want to stay in teaching forever, and I didn't want to waste any more time.

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"I had no regrets leaving teaching even though at the time I was very fearful of leaving. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.

"You don't want to look back 20 years down the track and think, 'Why didn't I do it?' I'm no one extraordinary; if I could do it, I think anyone can do it. It's just a matter of just making that decision and just going for it."

Vicki Laveau-Harvie

After years working as a translator in Canada and France, Vicki moved to Sydney to become a university lecturer. After her retirement, she taught ethics to primary school students then picked up a pen and wrote a book about her family's struggle with her mother's mental health issues. In 2019, that book won major literary award, the Stella Prize.

"I was in my 70s. I didn't sit down to write it as a book. I sat down to write because I loved writing; I loved the process. I wasn't that concerned with sending it out into the world... But this experience with my parents in their very late years, and how things managed to be tragic and ludicrous at the same time, I found interesting and I thought, 'I would like to capture this on the page.' And then when it did win the Finch Memoir prize [an annual award for an unpublished memoir], I thought, 'OK, this book may be interesting to people who have had similar or the comparable problems in their own families.' 

"What I want to do and what makes things interesting for me is finding some kind of meaning in them. And I think that's what everybody is looking for. In all various ways, children always are always asking you, 'What does that mean? And what is that?' And I think if you are an adult and you keep asking yourself those questions, you're probably doing the right thing with your human potential. That's my belief.

"We carry the double burden of being women and being older, which makes you damn near invisible in the supermarket aisle. But we still have some agency if we're articulate and if we are looking for some meaning. So let's use it.

"I think as long as you wake up and you're conscious in the morning, it's not too late to do anything."

Feature image: Stella Prize.

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