ON my 50th birthday, I sat on my deck drinking martinis with friends. I felt bulletproof. Accomplished. Content. And could not help wondering what all the midlife fuss was about. On my 55th birthday, I sat on the same deck with the same friends (and a negroni). This time, I knew.
It creeps up on you. At 55, I felt altogether less bulletproof. The Great Recalibration will do that to you. The dark abyss of a parent's traumatic illness and death. A key relationship finally unravelling. The prospect of losing a job. The inner work required to keep it together. Deep shifting sands of uncertainty and, at times, terrifying fragility.
And then suddenly, about four months after my Negroni birthday, I realised I was on the other side. With a new sense of possibility. A different horizon. And an altered sense of self.
Not a revolution (yet)
Fun fact. In the 1800s, most women in the Western world had around seven children and spent 17 years pregnant or breastfeeding, after which they were weakened or disabled, and probably dead by the time their children left home.
By the 1900s, however, the average Western woman had just two or three children and was around 53 when they left home. There was a whole lot of life left, but because their value had for so long been linked to motherhood, middle-aged women had become devalued because society limited their options. As Patricia Cohen writes in her book, In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age: “Primarily typecast as mothers and housewives, in society’s view they became functionally unnecessary after menopause and after their children grew up.”
The power of our 50s
But in the fifties, Margaret Mead declared: “There's no greater power in the world than the zest of a postmenopausal woman.” Mead was an American anthropologist who pioneered modern thought on sex and gender theory. It was a radical statement then, and the landscape hasn't changed enough that we don't still sit up and notice when a woman over 50 shines. But a shift is under way.
For one thing, we have ripped menopause out of the closet. The past few years have seen an unprecedented cultural conversation and shift in menopause awareness. The menopausal confessional is mainstream, albeit mainly in the worlds of the affluent Western middle class, but any conversation that drags menopause into the light is a win because once we have managed to find our way through the physical and emotional upheaval, we stand at the bow of the great ship of life, slicing through the water with the wind in our hair.
In an conversation between the American author and public intellectual Fran Lebowitz (72) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (62), they discuss the peak women reach in their fifties.
Fran: “There are certain ages that people fear, but that is great. The fifties are great for women. You know everything you're ever gonna know. And you still look fine. You may think you don't, but you do.
Julia: I know! I got breast cancer, and I still loved my fifties.
Fran: That's how great they are!
Susan Feldman is the founder of In the Groove, an online platform “that seeks to defy the way 50-plus women are represented and spoken to in the media". She says the fifties is a time of unparalleled emotional freedom, with the resilience and enlightened point of view that only comes with age.
“Once we get through those changes and come out the other side, I think our perspective on many things changes. I believe you think differently about how you prioritise what you want to do. You find the strength to say no more often. You’re energised by all the new things you engage in.”
Optimism and creativity peaks
Research suggests that after menopause, our emotional wellbeing flourishes. A study monitoring optimism development between the ages of 26 and 71 indicates that it climbs during early and middle age, peaking at 55 (for men and women).
A study of winners of the Nobel Prize in economics found that creativity has two life cycles. The early peak is in the mid-20s, the second in the mid-50s.
“Many people believe that creativity is exclusively associated with youth, but whether you hit your creative peak early or late in your career depends on whether you have a conceptual or experimental approach," says Bruce Weinberg, lead author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State University.
Midlife innovators are experimental innovators. They find new ways to analyse, interpret and synthesise the knowledge they have accumulated.
In contrast to societal stereotypes, many older women experience profound happiness. A 2014 study of happiness (among Americans) by the Brookings Institution found that people tend to be least happy in their twenties, thirties and early forties.
Sam Baker is the former editor of the British magazines Red and Cosmopolitan. In her forties, she started grappling with the new realities of a different life stage, and she is now one of a whole new pack of journalists and writers writing about life in the third chapter.
Her newsletter bio reads: “Women don't vanish after 40. Who knew?!"
Something in a recent newsletter caught my eye: it was one of those ripples in the zeitgeist. She wrote about a performance at the recent Glastonbury musical festival.
I watched rapt as a black-clad 55-year-old captivated a huge crowd of all ages, voice soaring over the Somerset fields as they danced, pogoed and chatted their way through a back catalogue of hits you didn’t know you knew all the words to until you’d sung along to every last one. Texas’s front woman,Sharleen Spiteri, was not just incandescent as she belted out her 90s hits, including Say What You Want, Black Eyed Boy and Summer Son, she gave the lie to the oft-repeated BS that women over 50 are invisible — and if they aren’t, they should be. Spiteri stormed the stage and didn’t let up for 60 minutes. Just watching her energy levels and stamina left me in shreds. Thirty-five years after she wrote I Don’t Want A Lover with her bandmate Johnny McElhone and was catapulted to stardom with their very first single, she exhibited the kind of self-possession and confidence that put her younger self in the shade.
“Slightly later the same evening, Sparks took to the stage. Two tracks in, Sparks brother Russell Mael welcomed a special guest who would be dancing to their track The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte. In one bound, Cate Blanchett single-handedly sent sales of yellow suits soaring and the audience and social media into paroxysms of ecstasy as she reprised her dance from the song’s video.
Spiteri is 55. Blanchett 54.
Ripple # 3
Two years ago, the US business magazine Forbes released its inaugural “50 Over 50” power list of women. Americans mainly, from TV producer Shonda Rhimes to veteran diplomat Madeleine Albright. But that ripple reflects a profound shift in the zeitgeist. Instead of yet another mover-and-shaker list of bright young things under 30, this was celebrating older women's energy and creativity. It was so successful that it has become a fixture, with the 2023 list of 50 Over 50 African women just released.
South African women on the list include Graça Machel (77); Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (67), chair of the International Olympic Committee Advisory Committee on Human Rights; Nolitha Fakude (55), president of the Minerals Council South Africa; social entrepreneur Wendy Luhabe (65); Irene Charnley (62), chair of Gibela Rail Transport Consortium; Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita (63), chair of Standard Bank Group; Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa (52), CEO of Naspers South Africa; Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe (60); Wendy Ackerman (87), founder and honorary life president of Pick n Pay Stores. The list goes on.
And if it is anything to go by, the fifties are only the beginning. Bring on the 60s! And the 70s (if I make it to there).
♦ VWB ♦
BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you!