Starting again at 48

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

My name is Katherine and I’m an intern at The Spectator. What does that say about me? If you had to guess, you’d probably assume I was just finishing university and that I’m perhaps the niece or goddaughter of someone important. Because that’s how the media works, isn’t it? That I’m probably unpaid, but it doesn’t matter because my parents will sort me out — that’s if they didn’t buy this internship for me in a charity auction in the first place. And to be honest, that’s exactly how I imagined interns, too. Yet here I am, a 48-year-old mother of three.

I felt embarrassed telling my husband I was applying for this scheme, suspecting he might think l had taken leave of my senses. When I was successful, and told one friend, he spluttered ‘YOU?’ in astonishment, before quickly recovering his composure. My other friends were surprised too, but delighted for me nonetheless.

Yes, taking an internship at my age is unusual. But not, I like to think, entirely illogical. For 15 years I’ve been subsumed by my children. I didn’t earn enough to cover the childcare — but in any case I wanted to look after them. I don’t regret a day of it: my three boys are growing up fast and I’m lucky to have been there for all of their milestones.

Now, though, they are getting older and I’m once more thinking about my own life. What do I want? Well, it seems what I really want is the writing career I never had. I nearly went into journalism after my English degree, aged 21. Why not now? Donald Trump has changed career at 70 (more’s the pity) and David Attenborough is still working at 90. Soon we’ll all be working into our seventies. I might not be the next Kate Adie, but even starting now I could have a 30-year career. Crazy? Perhaps. But then, aren’t a lot of endeavours when you first embark upon them?

I’m not alone. There are millions of women in Britain who have had a great education, who have focused on their families but who now have more time and a lot to give professionally. Many will not have wanted to stop working in the first place. But while British childcare costs have increased by more than a third since 2010 and are the highest in the western world as a proportion of income, wages are below where they were ten years ago. Among the casualties of this are the mothers whose skills are lost to the economy. As the Labour MP Jess Phillips says: ‘The UK has a massive productivity problem and I think that’s largely because we forget about half the population.’

In Scandinavia, the world capital of affordable childcare, more than 80 per cent of women are working outside the home, the vast majority in full-time roles. Surely creating ‘a country that works for everyone’ includes doing something for women who want to do more, but who have been priced out of the labour force by childcare? There are moves in this direction. Nursery entitlement has just doubled from 15 to 30 hours per week for most parents. And a new tax-free childcare scheme can give parents up to £2,000 per child.

This is one of the many upsides to the skills shortage: companies are having to be more creative to find staff. Some of the larger ones are trying to lure back the mothers they lost by offering ‘returnships’. First introduced in the States in 2008 by Goldman Sachs, the idea is to tempt back those who were quite a few steps up the career ladder before taking their maternity break. One of Theresa May’s more welcome initiatives has been allocating £5 million to such schemes in the public sector. Four were announced last week.

But what of those who want to start again? Our culture assumes that no one over 40 starts at the bottom. But why not? Why should it be funny when we try? Surely the funny thing is that more people don’t do it, and that many companies only recruit from one age group. Of course, perhaps people my age have been persuaded that they’ve missed the career boat, that they’re too old to roll the dice again. Perhaps they assume that the odds are too heavily stacked against success, that they won’t be able to deal with the new technology. And that employers value youth above all else.

Yet career success doesn’t fall into anyone’s lap at any age. Technology can be learned. And the better employers actively seek a mixed workforce. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook understands that ‘diverse teams make better decisions’. Diversity surely should include having people of different ages, as well as nationalities, genders and backgrounds. As Theresa May said, women leave work to care for their families and find ‘the doors shut to them’ when they want to return: ‘It isn’t right, it isn’t fair and it doesn’t make economic sense.’

The Spectator’s internship scheme has a no-CV policy, so they don’t care (or ask) if you’re 16 or 60. They select on the simple basis of what you can actually do. Completely sensible, utterly egalitarian and yet highly unusual. I sent off a 200-word blog, three suggestions for articles, fact-checked an article (by Polly Toynbee on inequality) and made a three-minute audio file analysing a Prime Minister’s Questions (this last one nearly scuppered my entire effort and I almost abandoned the whole thing). Out of 150 applications, only a dozen get through. So like all of the interns, I ended up here on merit.

And yes, the others are young and bright — the young man next to me is studying politics at Cambridge. Yet here I am. Every-one has been unfailingly lovely, I had a piece published on the website within three days and, despite being almost the oldest person in the building, I somehow don’t feel out of place.

Perhaps this is the start of something. Attitudes to work and age are changing all the time, and even the government is beginning to realise that expensive childcare is thinning out the national workforce. Perhaps the next stage might be to recognise that women like me, mothers with school-age children, might want to work more. Experience never gets old.

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