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2018 – A Look Backwards & Ahead

9 Minute Read

I turned 57 in 2018 and, above all else, reaching this less-than-milestone age informed my year more than any other particular incident. Closer to 60 than 50, I began to see, with greater clarity than the year earlier, how my age was coming to define my life and my place in the world.

Take, as an example, my tech startup, Frugl, a website that curates daily deals from most of the leading providers such as Groupon, Living Social and Wowcher. I’d created the Frugl app in 2014, when I was 53, as an adventurous idea to help myself and others enjoy London’s culture on a budget spurred on by the rather naive belief that if I gathered enough users it would somehow become profitable. As someone who had always enjoyed hunting out fun and usually free events in London for the greater part of my life, I had witnessed, in the more recent past, how much harder it was to find them (especially as Time Out was no longer my go-to source). Four years later, having pivoted the business a number of times, burning through cash and experiencing more than my fair share of ageism and sexism, I realised:

a) with the benefit of hindsight, the original app would have made a great social enterprise (having learned this past year the difference between a social enterprise and for-profit business) seeing that Frugl had been championed and particularly popular amongst young people, often on low incomes;

b) that, generally, equity funded businesses (the ones you read about receiving large amounts of investment) are ones that solve clear, genuine technological problems and are easily scalable. In a bizarre twist, I did discover that in trying to build the latest iteration of Frugl, the one that I had hoped would feature all the deals, vouchers and sales across the UK, there was a genuine technological problem to be solved. The problem being, I just don’t have nearly enough cash to solve it and…

c) being an older woman working on a technology-based business isn’t much fun unless you enjoy the challenge of fighting the status quo 24/7 and

d) most companies that receive investments are fronted by young, white and middle-class men (see c).

Would I have embarked on this new career path having known all this back in 2014? Perhaps not. Did I regret the time I’d spent learning just how tough on women (especially) the sector can be? Maybe but, as a result, I’d met an investor, Yvonne Fuchs, that turned into a great friend and is now working with me on my social enterprise Advantages of Age, created in 2016 to challenge some of the biases I’d encountered through working on Frugl. So, in the end, there has been a silver lining (always there, if you look for it)! We’ve been discussing how we can redevelop the original Frugl app as a loyalty product with a bias towards helping those over 50 save money so watch this space!

If 2018 taught me anything it was to be resilient and flexible. My income stream, until quite recently, had been through generating PR for SMEs, diversified to such an extent that it made answering the question, “What do you do for a living?’” practically impossible to articulate in less than 10 minutes. I have become the very definition of a woman with a ‘portfolio career.’ Since then I’ve heard others in similar circumstances describe themselves as polymaths or renaissance people, both of which seem grandiose terms to describe what constitutes just keeping one’s head above water.

Here are a few of the things I have done this year to earn a living:

Rented out a room on AirBnB
Taught a business course for over 50s
Given talks at Soho House
Managed communications for a co-working space in South London
Sung bawdy blues at a club in Camden
Freelance writing
Been part of various focus groups

As a result, I managed to stay afloat while gaining a deeper perspective of the career challenges many over 50s are now facing as we move towards an ever more distant retirement. Never before have I had to take on so much work to earn so little.

Meanwhile, I’ve watched as friends and colleagues my age struggled with redundancy and unemployment.  This actually has allowed a handful to find purpose in their lives, many having previously defined who they were by what they did. The problem is – how to earn money from their passion. The past six months I’ve been trying, along with Yvonne, to figure out how to solve what is a genuine problem of how to keep over 50s in work, either by helping them to start a business or finding a job. It’s the one thing that keeps me up at night and I can’t say I’m anywhere close to cracking it yet! I’m looking forward to 2019 as the year where AofA can play a part in supporting over 50s to generate an income that aligns with their skills and passions.

Social media isn’t delivering results for my businesses like it did a year ago. Back in 2016, I invested in an internet marketing course with a ‘social media guru.’ I was naturally sceptical about a course that promised to deliver £10k a month in revenue within a year, and I quickly realised that the course was primarily aimed at those who wanted to coach or consult others and not the perfect fit for me. Word of warning – if you’re being sold a course that promises you £10k/month in revenue from the get-go, the likelihood is that you’re going to be learning how to create a course not dissimilar to the one you’re on that you can resell to others. Even so, my ‘guru’ did manage to deliver one killer piece of advice, ’start a Facebook group.’

I chucked in what little paid work I still had left and decided to spend 8 hours a day on Facebook building a community – called Advantages of Age – Baby Boomers & Beyond – of over 50s who, like myself, refused to give in to the media narrative around ageing. It now has over 3.5k members but with less active members than I expected or noticed a year ago. It may be that quite a few are lurkers, those that read but don’t post, but I suspect that the algorithms have changed and many users aren’t seeing the group posts. That makes reaching them difficult and figuring out how we can help them with some of the challenges they are facing, even more so. The more we can connect in other ways, whether it’s email or hosting events that bring our members together, the happier I will be. I fear that one day we’ll all be having to spend money using Facebook simply because we haven’t figured out how to communicate with each other in a convenient way! (Anyone who has any suggestions as to how to avoid this, I’m all ears).

The other social media channels aren’t as interactive for the over 50s community as Facebook and I’m reaching a point of wondering how to get back to stuff that happens in real life and not online. Part of this has been spurred by my renewed interest in singing, the biggest surprise, and delight of 2018.

In March 2018 I was given three singing lessons with a well known vocal coach and performer herself, Nikki Lamborn, as a present by one of my best friends and my two children. I’d been a jazz and session singer in my twenties as a sideline and missed performing in front of an audience. But, following menopause and over two decades of not singing, I’d moved from alto to more of a baritone. I couldn’t hit the notes I used to and singing along to the radio was painful for anyone without earshot. Nikki took me under her wing and, over 6 months, got my voice good enough to guest at one of her gigs where I sang three bawdy blues songs from the 1930s, my favourite era for music. This led to my own sold-out gig at the same venue, the Green Note in Camden. I’ve also been booked for two more shows and am even thinking about how I can work my set up into a one-hour history of the bawdy blues in time for the Edinburgh Festival!

I love singing now and my range is slowly coming back, thanks to lots and lots of practice. I love performing in front of others, seeing my friends in the audience and for it to be something which others are willing to pay for (maybe I’m a renaissance woman, after all). It has come as a complete shock to me that within such a short space of time, I have been able to get a show together and find a young and accomplished pianist who enjoys playing the dirty blues as much as I enjoy singing them. Nikki and her partner Been are even talking about writing a song for me and producing an EP! It’s a wonderful feeling to know that I haven’t lost my voice and a  brilliant way to wind up what has been an eventful year. If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be ending the year with my own sold-out show, I
never would have believed you.

Finally, 2018 was the year that taught me never to give up on the idea of finding love. I got divorced back in 2001 and, since then, have been in and out of relationships, some good but mainly not so great. In between, I’ve tried most online dating sites, with varying degrees of success. Friends often said they admired my tenaciousness when it came to finding a partner but were also, I’m guessing, doubtful that I ever would. Then I met a man in March with whom I felt a genuine affinity and respect. My feelings for him have deepened over the past year. Like me, he has also spent over ten years online dating and neither of us are spring chickens. It’s very much a relationship of equals, not one where one person is trying to fix or save the other. We’re having a lovely time together and I’m looking forward to the year ahead with him.

I don’t like to plan too far ahead but I’m looking forward to spending more time with friends and family in 2019; as well as developing the work we’ve been doing at AofA into a clear, strategic plan that can see us become a truly sustainable enterprise by the end of the year; and working up my bawdy blues repertoire. My motto for next year is Think Big and that’s what I intend to do.

A Fresh Start Post Redundancy

1 Minute Read

I moved to Canterbury in 2000 to take up the post of Head of Culture with the City Council. When I was interviewed, I knew with absolute certainty that this was where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do and who I would become. I got the job and I loved it with a passion. I learned over time that I was an enabler. I had good ideas, I could bring people together, I could develop projects and find investment for them, I could write policy and strategy, drive change and influence decisions. I could make things happen. The job changed and grew and so did I. It became who I was and vice versa. I lived and breathed it. It was work and play. It was everything. Until it was deleted and I was made redundant.

In March of this year, I celebrated my 59th birthday. Nearly a decade earlier I’d reached fifty filled with anticipation, excitement and threw an extravagant party. Five years later I greeted fifty-five with a sense of satisfaction and optimism after a period of big achievements at work. But from the moment I turned fifty-eight, I dreaded being fifty-nine. I saw it as an unwelcome milestone, a drum roll sent to dramatically reveal the big 60, glittering on the suddenly not-so-distant horizon. And I was very scared of being sixty.

It’s not that surprising. A year ago I was tired, jaded and close to burn out. I felt I was on the brink of sliding non-stop into old age with a shorter temper, thinner hair and diminishing energy. I was juggling a demanding job with caring for my increasingly frail parents. My husband, Andrew, had recently lost his father. His mum, who lived 100 miles away, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He himself lived with the after effects of late- diagnosed Lyme disease. Anxious, stressed and pulled in several directions, I was feeling less and less equipped to balance my personal life with my professional life and I could only imagine it getting more difficult. I was sure something would break and thought it would probably be me

Then both our mothers died, sooner than we’d expected and within half a year of each other. These two foundation-shaking events were devastating and eclipsed everything else for me and Andrew. They stopped our world and put it on pause for a while, but as we moved on and began to move forward, a new clarity emerged. Priorities shifted. The order of things began to fall into place. I started to move with the flow rather than resisting it and my eyes were opened to opportunity and change, though I can’t explain exactly how this happened. I’d been seeing a counsellor for a few months, and she had certainly helped me to reconsider my identity and to ask myself some starkly honest questions about me, my work, my relationships and my future. When mum died, the loss helped me answer those questions and put things in perspective. I’m sure it set off a chain reaction, because from that moment, my life changed.

There had been talk of a senior management restructure at work for months. All of us on the team knew there were big cuts to be made. I thought about it a lot. There were days when I desperately wanted to be in the firing line, other days when I hoped I’d dodge the bullet. Looking back, the very fact I was having those thoughts at all was an indication that it might be time for me to go, but I didn’t fully recognise it.

Then, one chilly October morning, just three days after my mother’s funeral, I walked into my boss’s office for a meeting about the proposed changes, fearing the worst, and I was right. Yet despite the news that my post would be deleted in the new structure, our conversation was positive and upbeat (all credit to my boss for that) and I walked out filled with a sense of liberation.

When you face redundancy at this stage of your life it can be devastating. For some, like me, what you do is who are – your identify is completely wrapped up with your work and status, a key to how you see yourself and how other people perceive you and behave towards you. Removing that piece of you is major surgery, and it’s life-changing.

My first reaction to the news was fear. Of course it was. Suddenly you find yourself on a cliff edge and you have to go forwards – to fly or fall. But that acute anxiety lasted only seconds, then something else – excitable, unsure, but full of anticipation – bubbled up. I wanted to physically jump for joy, right there in the Chief Executive’s office. He could see it happening in front of his eyes. My boss had given me the opportunity to take my life back, and a few months later, two days before my 59th birthday, I left my job of eighteen years and walked out into a brave new world – scared, energised and ready for a fresh start.

My professional and personal passion is culture and the arts. I absolutely believe that it is a transformational force. Culture can empower or enlighten a life at a deeply personal level, or sweep in on a spectacularly grand scale, making and changing places for a moment or forever. My work in this sector has been the motivating force in my life for 35 years, so how could leaving it all behind excite me, thrill me, reboot me?

My early jobs, straight out of university, were in bookselling and the BBC. I loved those jobs and knew I was privileged to have them, but I wasn’t ambitious in either. They were, I suppose, moving me along a route to somewhere else, but I had no idea where that might be and I didn’t really care. I remember the day that all changed, when a colleague told me that a wonderful old cinema in Leeds, the second oldest in the country, was having to close down. We hatched a plan to save it by organising a weekend festival to build public support and raise money. The idea took root and started to grow – soon it had turned into a week – long event, then two weeks. The council gave us £20k and persuaded a sponsor to match it. That was a lot of money back in 1985 and expectations were high. Thankfully the festival was a great success and the next year I left the BBC to run it full time. I thrived in that role for eight years, nurturing the Leeds International Film Festival as though it were my child. I suppose in many ways it was. It broke my heart to leave, but new opportunities beckoned, leading an organisation in Glasgow that supported and developed young Scottish filmmakers.

After that I moved back to my alma mater city, Manchester, to head up the northern branch of BAFTA. My next job, working for the Arts Council in Newcastle, was a dream – running the film, photography and literature department in an organisation that was helping drive massive change through culture-led regeneration. Hundreds of million pounds of investment transformed the Newcastle-Gateshead quayside; artist-led initiatives sprang up and flourished; talent across all the art forms was nurtured, supported and given a local, regional, national and international platform. They were exciting times and I witnessed, for the first time, the power of the public sector, working with partners, to reimagine, redefine and transform a city. I was completely inspired by this and wanted to spread the word, to do the same, somewhere else.

Which was when I became Head of Culture at Canterbury City Council. We bid to be European Capital of Culture, but quite rightly lost out to my home town, Liverpool. The bid, however, created ambition and momentum and over the next ten years we attracted millions of pounds of investment to the district. Culture transformed Canterbury, not least with a fabulous new theatre and a restored, extended, art museum in the heart of the city. Organisations thrived, festivals grew and new ones sprang up. Culture was placed right at the heart of the council’s vision, and that was reflected in my changing role. For a while I led on corporate communications alongside culture, and then a new department was set up bringing economic development, tourism and culture together – a powerful mix that was a catalyst for more change and investment. They were heady days, when anything seemed possible.

But times change and so do politics. A new government brought austerity. Local councils were portrayed as profligate and inefficient and made scapegoats for all of the world’s ills. My job changed again and again. My focus now was saving money as our budgets were cut, then cut again. And again. Investment in culture fell out of favour. This cycle is a normal part of life in the public sector, but it took me further and further from the things I loved. And those things – art, heritage, creative education, cultural industries, – needed fighting for more than ever. Add my growing frustration to the fact that I was tired, genuinely burning out, and it’s obvious why my redundancy turned into more of a silver lining than a cloud. I know it isn’t like this for everybody. I’m in a fortunate position. Being over 55, my local government pension was released when I was made redundant and even though it’s much less than if I’d paid into it up to retirement age, it gives me a cushion and the means to live.

Many people facing a major life change like redundancy don’t have that, so I’ve a lot to be thankful for. I do still need to work, but I can think about doing it differently now. Maybe part time, maybe freelance. In that sense I’m lucky.

I feel in my gut that it’s time to go back to the cultural coal face, but though I’m full of energy and ideas, I worry that my age will count against me and I won’t be as interesting proposition as a younger person, hungry, ambitious and determined to make a mark. Me, thirty-five years ago. I still am that person of course, with the advantage of a lifetime of experience, but will others see that or just see an ageing facade? I honestly don’t know the answer, but I’ll be finding out pretty soon.

In the meantime, I’ve enrolled on a twelve-month photography course. It’s been my ‘hobby’ since I was given a Nikon for my 21st birthday, but over the years (and several cameras later), it’s been pushed into a mentally locked cupboard, waiting for a moment when I ‘have more time’ – and now I do. I also get to spend more time with Andrew, with my dad, and with my lovely bearded collies, Bella and Alice.

In terms of my professional life, I’m being proactive. I’ve accepted an invitation to join the board of The Marlowe Theatre. I led the project to rebuild it and it’s been an important part of my world for many years now, so I’m over the moon to be moving forward with it. To test my freelance wings I’ve taken on a couple of pieces of pro bono work for small cultural organisations. It’s a whole new way of working for me and though I’m not being paid, doing this will help my CV, while I’m helping them. And – most exciting of all – I recently managed a multimedia launch for my husband’s novel, Anatomised. It brought together some things I’m passionate about – literature, promoting creativity, being an advocate for art that has
something important to say. The buzz of producing a successful public event is hard to beat, particularly when it’s for something you’re so invested in. Afterwards, I felt the seed of an idea that’s not quite ready to bloom …but I think that it might. For now, it’s just germinating, while I decide if it’s real or just wishful thinking. Again, I’ll find out if it’s got legs soon enough.

I’ve also talked to friends and colleagues who have ideas about possible future projects and opportunities, and I’m hoping one or two of them will bear fruit. If they don’t, I think there will be others because I’m full of optimism again and for the first time in a long time, my mind is completely open to opportunity and I’m excited to see where my road will lead next. I’m also realistic enough to know that it might lead nowhere, and then I’ll return to that germinating idea and try to build something right here.

Whatever happens – even if nothing happens – I can see now that over time, I lost myself in my job. Losing it has helped me find myself again, and no matter what comes next, that has to be a good thing.

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