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In business and in life what to expect as a woman over 60

07 August 2015

Renata Singer

“Elderly woman hit by car”.

Headlines such as these make the writer and educator Renata Singer (above) despair: “You immediately think, oh, the poor thing she can’t walk and has wandered off in front of a car, and then you read she’s 60… it’s really very unlikely to have been the case isn’t it? At 60, she’s hardly elderly.” (Larke Riemer former Director Westpac Women's Markets would agree.)

Loaded statements in the media may be commonplace but, as Renata points out: “We have to consider our own ingrained perceptions, our own negative conditioning.

I’ve caught myself walking into a room and thinking, there are only grey hairs here. I don’t always remember it, but I’m one of them.

“Our standards for women are way higher than for men – just look at newscasting teams. Many of our ways of thinking are based on stereotypes. Ridding ourselves of them - because they’re completely out of date if they were ever true - is hard work.”

It’s why Renata’s latest book Older and Bolder: Life after 60 (MUP rrp $34.99) has been such an exhilarating project for her.

According to the statistics, men and women, and especially women, can expect to live well from their 60s for another 30 years. In a collection of 28 interviews with women who are doing just this, Renata contrasts their experience against the anxieties of those of us facing getting older. She also reveals through research how misplaced those anxieties maybe.

“These are really inspiring women. Their stories made me not that worried about getting old anymore,” Renata admits.

“I’m a bit up and down as a person. I would think about how my knee hurts and then something else would be painful, and how my skin was going to pot and my hair was falling out and how I’ve another 30 years of this… going downhill. But after meeting the women I have - in the process of doing the book  - I now see those 30 years as a gift. I don’t say it’s probable, because we do die in accidents and of cancer, etc. but these women and their stories represent the possibility of how the last third of our lives can be lived.”

Renata Singer was born in Poland after the end of World War II. She moved with her family to Israel for nine months before arriving in Melbourne when she was five years old. Studying at University in Melbourne she met Peter Singer, the academic and philosopher. The couple married and have three children. They live half the year in Melbourne and half in New York - an existence in which they refer to themselves as “rootless cosmopolitans”.

“One of my daughters would like me to write up the stories of my youth. I realised she was asking me this because she was aware of my mortality and that I better do it now. I was quite huffy about it at first, but then I thought, it’s a good idea. I have a lot of material.

“I have had a very different life to the one my children have experienced and I think my daughter, who is at an age where you become a little more interested in your parents and their lives, wants to understand more about that migratory life and experience.”

In fact it was in living her migratory life that the inspiration for Older and Bolder came.

Attending what she terms “one of those boring things you go to that you feel you have to go to, like some company AGM [annual general meeting]” in New York, Renata was stuck listening to the usual things about strategic planning and forward thinking and KPIs and mission statements when it was announced that Bel Kaufman would now speak.

“Ooh, I thought. First of all, she is the granddaughter of this very famous Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem, and she wrote this incredible book in the 60s called Up the Down Staircase. It was made into a film with Sandy Dennis and it was the best book ever written about teaching in the New York school system,” explains Renata.

“I looked up to see this woman in high heels, blonde swirly hair piled on her head, magnificent glasses and scarf taking the stage. She was so funny and witty and together and she stood on these heels for 20 minutes and delivered this incredible keynote, and I thought, wow, that’s pretty impressive. I didn’t know people of 101 could do that.”

Bel Kaufman died in 2014. She was 103 years old.

Following the Kaufman experience, Renata began to notice little items in the media: ‘92-year-old woman has sell-out gallery opening’; ‘Japanese woman writes best seller poetry book at 102’; ‘Boeing female welder still working in her 90s’. Her radar up, she collected the stories in a scrap book she called “Fabulous Fems over 90”.

“I thought if I was excited by this then there might be a book in it. I wrote a book proposal (because I swore I’d never do another book without having a contract signed before I wrote it) and took it to MUP [Melbourne University Press], and they were interested,” explains Renata.

Older and Bolder isn’t just stories of older women achieving. They might be the inspiration, but importantly it is also a guide to women now on how we can do more as we get older and really take advantage of the last third of our lives.

“It takes effort,” explains Renata, “to live the last third of your life, but there are so many myths out there about older workers, older people, old age, that are just not true.

“Take happiness, for example. Studies have established there is a U-curve of happiness. We begin happy and as we move on from adolescence we become less and less happy until we reach the base of the curve in our 30s, 40s, 50s. We climb up again as we get older,” explains Renata.

In fact, for most women as they grow older, studies show they’re the happiest they have ever been - happier than men, the studies have found. Economic prosperity also plays little or no part in their levels of happiness.

What Renata does acknowledge as being very important for people’s well-being and happiness is work. Even bad jobs are good for you, she says. Work provides purpose and a sense of being part of the fabric of the community.

More importantly, she continues, our narrow definition of work must be re-defined: “There are so many things that need doing and so much work out there for us to do. I see doing a PhD as work. Work doesn’t have to be - in fact it can’t just be seen as - paid work.

“My full time working life has not been huge. I was a teacher and then when I married and had children I went part time. When we went to the US 20 years ago I couldn’t get a job because they only give you two weeks off a year and that would mean I couldn’t see my family in Australia. That was when I really started doing volunteer work seriously, and writing. I had to do something or your brain goes to moosh.

“I’ve had a non-career career, but in some ways that’s been better for me now. I was pretty close to 60 when we [Marion Webster and Renata] set up Fitted for Work in Melbourne [the social enterprise which retrains and prepares unemployed women for work].

“Now who would have thought I would do that at 60. Who would have thought I would be an entrepreneur and inspire people in my 60s?”

For Renata, perhaps it has all been about getting older and bolder.


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