I was 65 when I became chair of a powerful House of Commons committee, arguably a peak in my political career. I continue to do my job as the MP for Barking in my 70s, and I have just taken on honorary academic positions at two leading universities.
Other women are doing even better. Look at Theresa May and Angela Merkel, both women enjoying top jobs in politics at around 60. Or Hillary Clinton, who, if she succeeds Barack Obama as president of the United States, will take the oath of office aged 69. Nancy Pelosi is the leader of the US Democrats in the House of Representatives at the age of 76.
Similar stories can be told about women pursuing other careers. Daphne Selfe, at the age of 88, is the world’s oldest supermodel. She gave up modelling in 1954 when she married and had her children, but she returned to the job after her husband died, in 1997, and now regularly appears in Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. Think of successful actors such as Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith or Mary Berry, whose Great British Bake Off starts this week.
And, of course, there are the men. We still enjoy the performances of Leonard Cohen and the Rolling Stones. We tolerate the Today presenter John Humphrys. And we marvel at David Attenborough, now aged 90.
My own experience, and those of others, demonstrates to me that life – particularly working life – is a marathon, not a sprint. That is really important, especially for women. It is we who tend to bear the brunt of the responsibilities of caring for children or elderly relatives. Even though fathers are more hands-on today, who buys the shoes and makes the dental appointments? And as the Institute for Fiscal Studies report this week shows, the gender pay gap balloons after women have children.
Many of us choose to be mothers or carers, but we also want to succeed in our jobs. Yet in a society that promotes the cult of youth, that is hard. In so many fields of work, people are always on the lookout for the next generation of talent, the emerging youthful stars, the new and ever younger people whom they want to place on the top of a pedestal.
So people who want to succeed in their paid jobs feel that they can’t take time out for other things. The obsession with youth means too many believe that if they haven’t made it in their career by the time they are 35, they have failed.
Nothing could be further from the truth. At a time when we are living longer than ever, we are being written off earlier. Of course we should promote young flair and new ideas but we should also value experience – and delight in talent and innovation at all ages.
The cult of youth must be matched by a celebration of the continuing energy and contribution of others. Mhairi Black, the SNP MP who gave a barnstorming maiden speech last year when she was only 20, has as much to offer as Marie Rimmer, the Labour MP for St Helens South and Whiston, who joined parliament in the same year at the age of 69 after a successful career in local government.
And we should stop putting pressure on people to race to the top before a hint of a grey hair appears on their heads. This pressure makes young people feel they must decide on their career choices too quickly, and then stick to them. At a time when people are likely to work for longer, they are being compelled to decide their future jobs at an ever younger age, and in doing so they are narrowing their options and limiting their opportunities.
For women, the societal pressures are particularly tough. The time when we tend to have our children coincides with the point when society tells us we should be climbing towards the top of the career ladder. What should be the very best years of our lives rapidly become the hardest as we struggle to marry two important ambitions and feel guilt about not fulfilling either role properly. Yet if life is a marathon, why can’t you coast in your paid job for a few years, while your children are young, and return to the competitive fray when they become more independent? Those few years out of the race do not diminish your ability to contribute or succeed later, when you are a little older.
I chose not to try for a seat in parliament until I was 50, when the youngest of my four children was 13. I certainly got to parliament later than my contemporaries, such as Jack Straw and David Blunkett. And when my husband fell ill with cancer I took a year’s compassionate leave from my job as arts minister. Coming back after that year was hard because I had lost Henry, but resettling into work helped me through that period of grief. Indeed, I feel that both the time spent parenting and the time spent caring influenced – and improved – my approach to my job. I was more focused, more balanced and more appreciative of others.
I don’t want to be critical of women who drive forward their careers at the same time as caring for children or relatives. We need to do all we can in terms of childcare and flexible working to make that possible. And there are many who don’t have children, for whom developing their careers is the primary focus. But choice matters. Those who choose to spend some years more focused on their children or elderly relatives should not be shut out of advancement in their careers a little later, simply because of society’s fixation with youth.
Enabling women – and men – to progress outside these parameters must not become an excuse for sidelining the battle against continuing gender discrimination in the labour market.
And if we respond to looking older by subjecting our bodies to facelifts and Botox in the hope that we can then present our youthfulness to the world, we are avoiding the problem. The fact is that healthier lifestyles and medical advances mean that we can maintain physical energy and mental alertness for longer. We have just got to stop linking an ageing appearance to a loss of physical and mental capability.
The journey I have been on will be different for others, as I am not involved in manual work. But recognising the differences should not justify ignoring the need to challenge entrenched attitudes, and to enable people to take a long view of their years in work.
As the world of work is transformed by new technology – for example, the people who currently wear themselves out stacking shelves will in the future most probably be monitoring robots doing that heavy lifting – it will become possible for people to do those manual jobs for longer.
Our approach to this thorny issue is full of contradictions. We want people to work for longer, yet we write them off at an increasingly young age. We want women to be equal yet we continue to implement policies that stop that. We want to encourage new ideas but we dismiss many of those who have them.
I know I have been very lucky. I shall be publishing my first book on my time as chair of the public accounts committee next month, just after my 72nd birthday. I am planning a second book, on immigration. But I want my luck to become the norm, so that what I managed to achieve becomes available to others. If life is a marathon, then none of us should have to damage our lives today because we are made to think there is no tomorrow.
This article was originally published in the Guardian here