I’ve always been a feminist. As a journalist in the 1990s, a business owner in the 2000s and a mum in the 2010s I’ve never felt that being a woman should stop me doing anything the men were doing. Work the night shift for BBC News? Sure, I’m tough enough for that! Attend that corporate retreat in Norwich for the weekend? Why not? Bring it on! Travel for work? No problemo! I can be at the airport by 5am!
We’re part of the ‘Have It All’ generation. We were promised we could have it all - the family, the relationship, the nice house with the Instagram-worthy decor AND stand side by side next to our male colleagues on the career ladder.
And that’s what we did. We worked hard, we didn’t make excuses, we arranged Triple-Layer Childcare (so that if our normal lady was sick and our back up lady was on holiday we could still go to that conference without having to utter those shameful words “My childcare has let me down”). We were more enthusiastic, more proactive and more productive than the job required because nobody, but nobody, was going to tell us that we couldn’t hack it in the man’s world of work.
And behind the scenes we kept our home ticking over (with the help of other paid and unpaid women), kept ourselves fit (so that the strain didn’t show) and taught ourselves how to make sushi in our spare time.
I Don’t Wanna!
Except that, now I’m in my late forties, I don’t wanna. I’m having a full-on midlife crisis.
It’s a crisis of identity - Who am I these days? Who have I become? Who do I want to be?
It’s a crisis of career - What work do I want to do at this point in my life? If not now, when will I achieve the things that are important to me?
It’s a crisis of health - Why is my back aching? Why am I so tired? Why don’t these jeans fit anymore?
It’s a crisis of lifestyle - Am I the only one who tidies up around here? Where are my hobbies? Could I just get a guilt-free minute to myself, per-lease?!
And I’m not alone.
Over the last few months as I’ve been experiencing this “existential crisis” I’ve talked to many other women roughly my age. They’ve described the same phenomenon.
They don’t want to fade away, retire, give up their job or take an entry level position because they can’t take the pace. They love what they do. They’re getting really good at it (as you do when you’ve been working at something for 30 years) and they enjoy the respect and status they get and the impact they are making.
But they don’t want to sacrifice their soul any more.
They want to do their job really well and then go home. They want to make a difference but they don’t want to play the games anymore. They want to have adventures not sleepwalk through their career. They no longer feel the need to prove themselves, to be extra keen, to work at the weekend or to put up with patronising or unpleasant people especially if the patronising and unpleasant person is their boss.
As the first generation of ‘Have It All’ women this is uncharted territory. We were promised everything and we set about getting it with gusto. Only, now we’re starting to wonder whether it’s what we want anymore. Getting here doesn’t feel like we thought it would feel and it’s coincided with a perfect storm of other events in our lives.
The Perfect Storm?
Maybe midlife is a time to reflect on what ‘Having It All’ means to us now.
Because, at exactly the point that we have all this experience and value to offer we hit the menopause. Our bodies start changing, our hormones make us in to crazy people and our energy goes AWOL.
We are the Sandwich Generation. Having had children later in life many of us find ourselves with kids at home at the same time as our parents are needing more and more of our support.
We are getting super feisty. We won’t take any nonsense and we’re determined that this is our time to break out and do something for ourselves.
Meanwhile our male colleagues are greying, their middles are thickening, their hair is thinning but, other than that, life isn’t changing too much. I asked a senior leader that I coach the other day whether having his 5th child in a matter of months was going to change much about the way he worked and he looked at me like the thought had never occurred to him. The. Thought. Had. Never. Occurred. To. Him.
For the first time in my life I feel that being a woman actually matters to what work I do and how I want to do it. Midlife for women and midlife for men feel like two very different situations. Yet the career ladder was designed for men. There’s only one way and that is up. And at this point in my life I wonder if up is the only direction for me.
From Midlife Crisis to Midlife Awakening
Of course, you could push on through. It’s what we’ve been doing for the last 2 or 3 decades anyway. You could reconnect with the ambitions you had for yourself in your 20s and 30s and re-commit to them. No one if forcing you to change the way you work and if it’s working for you, go for it girl! And we need more women at the top.
But what if there’s something in this itchy-feet feeling you’ve been experiencing? What if you actually answered the questions bouncing around in your head rather than ignoring them? Questions like “Who am I becoming?” and “What work do I really want to do at this stage in my life?” deserve an answer. And the answers might be different to the answers you would have given 15 or 20 years ago.
Rather than prolonging the crisis, answering these questions could be a revelation.
Midlife is a time of physical change for sure. But it’s also a time of awakening for many women. All of that experience we have now, all of the hustling and networking and long hours, all of the skill and confidence we’ve gained has got to be worth something. Maybe this is the time to start cashing in? If you were in the driving seat of your life and your career, where would you take it now?
Rethink your career strategy.What you thought you wanted when you were in your 20s and 30s might not be what you want now. What kind of work will work for you during this phase? More and more women are starting businesses in their 50s and 60s. That might be your next chapter.
You may want to specialise rather than generalise. Most senior leadership roles are general - Head of Operations, VP of Sales. These huge roles mean spreading yourself very thin. Instead you might become a highly specialised sole contributor with time to indulge your fascination with a particular area of expertise and without the hassle of managing a large and diverse team.
You might opt for a portfolio. Interim roles or a handful of part-time roles might suit you better now and allow you to capitalise on your expertise without being beholden to one boss.
It might be time to sell all your stuff and become a digital nomad, a worldtraveller, a full-time RV-er or something equally awesome and forego the career altogether for a while.
Rethink your working week. More and more jobs are becoming flexible. There are options to work from home or any remote location. There are even companies now that don’t care about your hours, just your results. Job-share and other part-time options used to be reserved for young mums only but that’s not the case now. Different work arrangements could give you more time for your side-hustle, more time for your family or just more days when you don’t have to set the alarm.
Stop playing the game. There is no obligation for you to play the same game as your male colleagues or the same game as you played earlier in your career. Most jobs don’t require that you get tangled up in the politics of the place. You don’t have to seek approval from anyone. No one is forcing you to dye your hair or wear shoes that cause you back problems. It might be the done thing to answer emails at midnight but what will happen if you don’t?
Over the 20 or 30 years you’ve been working you’ve accumulated a lot of trust and respect. You could start testing the strength of that by opting out of game-playing and just do your job. Become a curious observer of the madness rather than an active participant.
Focus on legacy. One cure for game-playing is to take your attention off the battle to climb the career ladder and focus on the legacy you want to leave in your organisation, in your industry or in the world.
What difference do you want to make? When you do eventually pack up your bags on your career, what do you want to leave behind you? With all the experience you have now, how could you pass it on? Mentoring younger colleagues, connecting and collaborating with external partners, corporate social responsibility projects, changing the culture in your business, putting your customer first, getting funding for a big breakthrough product...all of these might have more meaning for you than worrying about your next promotion or pay rise. Leave that to the youngsters. You’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Take care of yourself. Above all, this is time to put your needs higher up the list of priorities. Menopause and midlife generally can be a grueling time. Eat right, prioritise sleep and take breaks. Don’t constantly push through the pain barrier. You may be working for another 10 or 20 years. Pace yourself!