How women over 50 are reinventing their careers and the future of work

02 avr. 2024


How women over 50 are reinventing their careers and the future of work
Laetitia VitaudExpert du Lab

Autrice, consultante et conférencière sur le futur du travail, spécialiste de la productivité, de l’âge et du travail des femmes

Employers have long failed to show any interest in the discrimination faced at work by women over the age of 50. Yet, ageism is keenly felt by those affected, warranting greater attention within diversity and inclusion initiatives. Indeed, there are many compelling reasons to prioritize supporting and including women over 50! Not only do they represent a vast and underused talent pool, but every young woman is a future older woman. So recognizing this particular kind of intersectionality can foster a more inclusive environment for all women (and all people).

Many women over 50 exit the corporate world prematurely, resulting in significant economic and talent loss. This loss is compounded by the prevalence of female poverty in old age. Gender pension gaps are huge. A toxic blend of ageism and sexism perpetuates harmful stereotypes and undermines women’s confidence and opportunities in the workplace. This not only diminishes the contributions of older women but perpetuates harmful norms regarding aging. Our fear of aging generates so much anxiety!

Yet, in many ways, women over 50 give us a glimpse of what the future of work will be like. They reinvent themselves professionally. They turn their resume gaps into strengths. They represent the demographic group that produces the most new entrepreneurs. They challenge our relationship with work and time. They show that ambition and success don’t necessarily come with full-time employment. They work for longer but in more diverse ways. They may disappear from the corporate radar, but they create value in countless ways.

Why so many 50+ women leave corporate jobs

Age is always an issue for women in the workplace. In their twenties, they struggle to be taken seriously, while their thirties bring discrimination due to potential pregnancies and the motherhood penalty. By their mid-forties, they’re often labeled as “too old.” Consequently, the few who persist beyond menopause are in the minority. Some leave because they can no longer juggle caregiving and working full-time with no flexibility. Others leave because of the combined forces of ageism and sexism.

In Revolting Women. Why Midlife Women Are Walking Out, Dr Lucy Ryan draws on groundbreaking research to challenge the misconception that midlife women lack motivation and energy or that it’s all because of the menopause. The leadership coach and advocate for women’s professional development analyzes the obstacles they face and why so many of them “disappear” from the corporate world. Ryan also says it’s imperative that employers understand these challenges and implement simple changes to retain and develop this growing, invaluable pool of talented women.

She writes: “Much of what we dread about aging is actually the result of ageism, which we can, and should, battle as strongly as we do racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry… The research is very clear. As men age, they are viewed as more competent and valuable in the workplace; as women age, they lose their credibility with every new wrinkle. The message is consistent: Looks matter. Age matters….” The observation of the “double standard of aging” is not new. Susan Sontag wrote a landmark article about it in the 1970s. It’s terrifying to realize we still have to face it in 2024!

Contrary to popular belief, which associates midlife women with the “empty nest,” most midlife women don’t have a lot of free time. The majority of women in their fifties and sixties find themselves in caregiver roles, balancing responsibilities for children, aging parents, and sometimes ailing partners. Many are stretched thin by unpaid caregiving duties, leaving little room for paid work. The burden of care, largely unacknowledged by society, disproportionately affects middle-aged women, who often have to juggle roles in a workplace that doesn’t take their situation into account.

Ryan refers to this unpaid care as the “hypocrisy economy.” She explains it this way: “That is when people talk about empowering women, because they now also work outside the home in the paid economy, in addition to taking care of their children, parents and home, without any systemic attempt to encourage men to take more responsibility.” Yes, it’s hypocritical to focus on an individual’s “leadership skills” when caregivers are systematically prevented from accessing top positions. Women face systemic barriers to advancement, perpetuating the association of ambition and power with traditional, linear, full-time careers (with no gaps).

How these women reinvent work and careers in multiple, inspiring ways

Many of these women are boldly transformative. Ryan aptly titled her book Revolting Women because she is convinced (as I am) that they embody a reservoir of vitality, ingenuity, and originality that promises enduring impact. After years of (relative) underrecognition and binding familial obligations, they often resurface with renewed vigor, driven to reclaim lost opportunities and realize untapped potential.

Faced with a corporate landscape that undervalues their contributions, women over 50 are increasingly embracing entrepreneurship and freelancing. In fact, over the past few years, this demographic has represented the fastest-growing segment of business founders, leading Forbes to refer to them as “the new entrepreneurial superpower.” While many of these businesses may remain modest in scale, their successes blaze trails for others to follow, proving that age brings advantages in the entrepreneurial arena.

How 50+ women are reshaping the world of work

There are many ways 50+ women are trailblazers of the future of work. I can identify at least four ways in which they are reshaping work and careers, offering valuable lessons for everyone:

  1. Their careers are multi-stage journeys characterized by gaps, transitions, and reinventions. They transition from being employees to working part-time or exiting paid employment altogether, before eventually venturing into entrepreneurship – though not necessarily in that order. This varied trajectory underscores that tomorrow’s careers won’t adhere to linear paths; there’s inspiration here for everyone.
  2. Many women in midlife seek greater meaning and fulfillment in their work after confronting significant challenges such as illness or loss, hormonal changes, economic setbacks, and divorce. These experiences can prompt a profound realization of life’s finite nature. This underscores that the quest for meaningful work transcends generations, resonating even more strongly with people in their fifties than with Generation Z.
  3. Balancing caregiving responsibilities with work is increasingly becoming a concern for individuals across demographics. With demographic shifts shaping the future of work, employers must recognize the growing importance of accommodating caregiving responsibilities. Flexibility in work arrangements is key. You shouldn’t have to adhere to a traditional full-time schedule to pursue ambitious goals!
  4. Women over 50 provide valuable blueprints for professional reinvention. Their experiences often follow a three-step model: Encountering a crisis with multiple challenges, taking a reflective pause for introspection, and ultimately entering a transformative moment of reinvention and change. As we confront challenges, such as the march of artificial intelligence (AI), aging populations, environmental concerns, and geopolitical instability, the ability to reinvent oneself may become essential for workers across industries. Let’s take cues from these trailblazers as we navigate the changing landscape of work.

Professional women over 50 are playing transformative roles in shaping our world. It’s time for businesses to recognize the potential of this often-overlooked demographic and harness their talents for greater success. Empowering them is not just a matter of justice; it’s a strategic imperative for businesses and society at large.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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