Anne Robinson is, as she says herself, the oldest woman on television not judging cakes.
But age has hardly mellowed her. Like the canny pro she is, the 76-year-old former Queen of Mean toned it down a bit for her somewhat unlikely new gig hosting the gentle teatime TV quiz show Countdown, but the pre-launch interviews were as sharp and punchy as ever. After this long in the business, she knows her shtick. And love it or loathe it, there is something rather thrilling about her determination not to be put out to grass.
This month, the US business magazine Forbes released its inaugural “50 over 50” power list of women making professional breakthroughs in later life, from the powerhouse Netflix producer Shonda Rhimes to veteran diplomat Madeleine Albright. It sparked such interest that it’s now planning more, sensing a market for something celebrating older women’s energy and creativity, instead of yet another faintly exhausting list of power brokers under 30. It’s not hard to conjure up some British equivalents. Dame Sarah Gilbert, the 58-year-old scientist behind the AstraZeneca jab, is an obvious candidate but so is the vaccine taskforce chair Kate Bingham, 55, whose knack for picking winners reflects decades of investment experience.
Older women’s nous seems, for once, to be in demand in politics too. When the pollster Deborah Mattinson joins a beleaguered Keir Starmer’s office she’ll bring not just extensive research from the so-called “red wall” seats where Labour is being pulverised, but the institutional memory of someone who has known the party inside out since the 1980s, worked with Labour prime ministers, and is acutely aware that female voters over 50 (among whom Labour does badly) help swing elections. Given half a chance, she’ll help Starmer understand this often ignored group. In Downing Street, 53-year-old Simone Finn, who has been in Conservative politics since the noughties, wields increasing influence. But how does any of this help ordinary middle-aged working women, battling that toxic combination of ageism and sexism that has yet to find a catchy name, under the shadow of a pandemic?
Pre-Covid, women were driving employment among the over-50s to record highs; by 2019, older female employment rates were up 15% from the millennium. But Covid hit this group hard. A Resolution Foundation analysis found lockdown had dented older women’s employment rates harder than any other major crisis since the 1980s, with Black women in particular struggling. The end of the furlough scheme this month will be a perilous time for older workers who fear being pushed into premature retirement. Yet with a bit of help from government, these don’t have to be older women’s doom years.
Female employment bounced back unexpectedly strongly this spring; older women are disproportionately likely to work in health, social care and education, jobs largely sheltered from the pandemic (and Brexit) storms. Mothers’ working hours have fallen, after months of grappling with home schooling, but by January the average woman without children at home – disproportionately likely to be either under 30 or over 50 – was working more hours than pre-Covid.
Some may be trying to compensate for a partner not earning, a phenomenon also seen after the banking crash when women’s work kept many households afloat. A surge of older female breadwinners would be little cause for rejoicing, if it merely masked a crisis for older men. But it may also reflect something about the women now entering middle age, raised and educated with higher expectations than their mothers. Many Generation X women have fought to hold on to their jobs while bringing up children and they can’t afford to let go now.
All the supercharged role models in the world obviously won’t help without hard policy. That means a properly funded plan for social care, to stop women being forced out of work by caring for elderly parents; more flexible working towards the end of working life; specific programmes helping unemployed over-50s back into work; and better healthcare through the menopause, something the public health minister Nadine Dorries’s review on women’s health is examining.
But where the Robinsons and Albrights and Binghams come into their own is as a visible counterweight to the gendered ageism that so often sees older women written off prematurely. As the saying goes, you have to see it to be it, and too many women glancing around their industries see a puzzling vacuum where the powerful over-55s should be. Any glimpse of an older woman in her professional prime represents a flicker of hope.