So Taylor Swift has made it, shooting into the Forbes power list of the world’s most influential women at the grand old age of 25. She’s included, apparently, to mark her victory in a power struggle with Spotify and definitely, absolutely not to enable newspapers to publish a huge picture of her if they fancy giving Forbes some free publicity. But let’s not be churlish. There’s no denying Swift’s economic and cultural clout, but what was striking about those higher up the list (she’s at number 64) was their age. And I do mean age, not youth.
Three of the top six – Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and Janet Yellen – are over 60 and a fourth, Christine Lagarde, is just a few months shy. It’s hardly unusual for people in very senior positions to be older, obviously, but some of these women are well past pensionable age and often significantly older than the men who preceded them in those jobs. Get used, said the 67-year-old London mayoral contender Tessa Jowell defiantly last week, to the idea of “more women in very senior positions in public life who are older”, having waited for their children to grow up first. To which many of her contemporaries may respond, somewhat bitterly, “if only”.
In her report on keeping the over-50s in work this spring, government adviser Ros Altmann recounted damning tales of job candidates suffering endless rejections and then suddenly getting interviews after rebranding their tell-tale O-levels as GCSEs. Grimly, she advised older jobseekers not to put their dates of birth on application forms, even though age discrimination is obviously illegal. It would be nice to think that, as Jowell says, “this ridiculous ageism that creeps out like a bad smell will just disappear”, but to anyone who senses themselves being “granny-tracked” at work – subtly counted out of the running – it probably doesn’t feel that way.
This isn’t, for once, about the way women look. All those tales of newsreaders being shunted off-screen, and actresses considered too ancient for romantic leads in their 30s, are shocking but not that relevant to the vast majority of ordinary employees whose faces were never their fortune yet who still wonder about knocking a few years off on their CVs. What they fear is being wrongly dismissed as past it: out of step, technologically or culturally, with an office of bright young things and incapable of learning new tricks.
Older men experience similar prejudices, of course. But there’s an extra blood-boiling frustration for women who find the window between being overlooked for promotion (because they might have a baby) and overlooked for promotion (because it’s a bit late now) dismayingly small. Career progression tails off for men roughly at 55, Altmann suggests, but a decade younger for women. Her surprise finding, meanwhile, was that some women are now dropping out not because of motherhood but the menopause. Hot flushes, like babies, can keep you up all night, but it’s a confident woman who’ll volunteer that as an excuse for being bleary-eyed in morning meetings.
Yet against these odds, some baby-boomer women are now pushing the frontiers of working life not just because they can – now mandatory retirement age has been scrapped – or because they need the money. They’re doing it precisely because their working lives weren’t like men’s; because if you had a career break and still managed to get back into the game, you’re not letting go in a hurry.
Jowell once told me that when her kids were small she would forgo sleep and work through the night just to claw back time with them the next day. If you’ve done that for years, the prospect of working well into your seventh decade probably seems a breeze by comparison. Aspiration, whatever that means, isn’t just for the young.
Odd then that the glaring omission so far from the “why Labour lost” debate isn’t geography or ideology but simple demography. The Tories enjoyed a 5.5% swing among over-65s, whom they have shamelessly cultivated with promises to slash inheritance tax and shield pensioners from austerity. By 2022 the pool of younger voters among whom Labour did better will be shrinking, and there will be 3.7 million more of the over-50s who on past trends may lean conservative. If Labour can’t find new and relevant things to say to older people, an ageing nation is a recipe for electoral suicide.
And championing the half of Britons who say they’d like or need to work longer – even if only part-time – could benefit the rest of us too. An interesting little study published this week by the consulting arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers found that the qualities needed in transformational leaders – the sort of strategists capable of rethinking an organisation riddled with cultural and existential problems, like banking after the crash or traditional industries threatened by upstart new rivals – are most commonly found in women over 55.
What counts, they concluded, is knowledge of what makes people tick; experience of coping with failure, and thus knowing not to panic when things go wrong; and a certain detachment. This kind of leader, it noted, was often “shaped by different experiences to their peers”, which helped them do things differently. We just need to stop seeing that difference as the problem. – By Gaby Hinsliff
Image – German Chancellor Angela Merkel alongside Hillary Clinton to speak to the press prior to a meeting at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 14, 2011. (AFP)