real life

JACKIE LUNN COLUMN: The unspoken truth about women over 40 in the workforce.

We have come to fear ageing as though it is a disease one might unexpectedly catch.

“Kate doesn’t want anyone to know, but she’s 48.”

“Doesn’t Annabel look good for 50.”

“It’s Miriam’s birthday next week. She’s 45.”

I’m a woman in my 40s and I don’t want to be a complete Debbie Downer but if you replaced the ages above with the words got ebola, hepatitis, malaria or Lyme disease there wouldn’t be much difference in delivery and feel.

The inference being something terrible, inescapable and life changing has occurred to that woman. Something that wasn’t meant to happen. She has caught ageing and life will never be the same.

It’s hard to fight history and the MTV channel. So much of a woman’s value has always been bound to her youth and all that connotes: beauty, fertility, insouciance, the way her legs look in a pair of tiny denim shorts.

But as Aristotle said (and he wasn’t referring to teens), “Nature abhors a vacuum”.

Growing older is not only about loss, it’s about those surprising, hard earned gains. Think of the experience, skills, confidence, patience, pragmatism, the ability to keep your mouth shut when you really, really want to tell a 24-year-old that adulting is not a verb. There is beauty too. A deeper more interesting kind.

But this is where ageing gets hard because logically all the women I know, including me, are aware of this. We know the decades have made us smarter, more resilient in some areas, more vulnerable in others, vocationally and emotionally skilled. But too often, in the very area these skills are most valuable and the life arena conviction is a skill in itself – the workplace – we doubt it.

Recently a friend of mine was recounting her meeting with the new CEO of the company she works for. There had been a restructure and she was worried if her job would be restructured right out the door. She has a mortgage and school fees to pay and while there had never been any talk of her job being made redundant, her age nagged at her. She became Doomsday Doris.

I will never get another job if I lose this one.

Who is going to hire me?

I’m actually no good with technology or anything really.

I’m too expensive. Why keep me when they can get a 20 something for a lot less money?

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My friend actually said to me, and I know how old she is, now that she is a woman of a “certain age” she’s scared.

She’s 45. I’d never thought of her as a woman of a “certain age” and she’s right to be fearful  – the average duration of unemployment for Australians between 45-54 is 58 weeks (long term 175 weeks) – but she’s still not right to call herself that.

Listen to Mia talk to The Mummy Bloggers author Holly Wainwright about kicking goals post 40.

It’s also true that a woman’s salary tends to peak at age 39 and men at 48. The 40s and early 50s are often the highest earning years for men whereas women tend to plateau at 40.

From what I’ve seen, and what I’ve felt, the 40s are the beginning of very sore fingers for women – they feel as though they are holding on for dear life to the workforce despite the fact they are eminently skilled and experienced.

They feel their age as though it is a liability, not a sign that they have amassed a deep set of skills, knowledge and understanding.

They talk of confidence but when pushed, they don’t believe in themselves. They see friends going for jobs that are advertised for recent graduates. They don’t make noise in the workplace when they should. They feel grateful if they have flexible work so they can balance career and family.

The 40s have become the decade of doubt.

My friend keeps seeing signs that any moment she is going to be called into the new CEOs office for the talk and I keep telling her, and I keep reminding myself, reminding every woman who is over 40 and scared sometimes.

It’s okay to doubt yourself but there comes a time to stop doubting and to stop letting other people doubt you. If you don’t believe in yourself how can you convince others to?

You have grown older. And smarter. And kinder. And more full of the good stuff: life, love, family, friends, work, weird digestion issues.

You can do this.

Because you’ve been doing this already for a long time.

Oh, and never call yourself a woman of a “certain age” again. Be certain instead.

For more pieces from Jackie Lunn, read:

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