Like many ideas, 50 Challenges began with a question: what was I going to do for my 50th birthday? This was a good 18 months before the event, but my husband had celebrated his a couple of years before, and we were being invited to increasing numbers of parties to mark the big five-oh of friends, so it seemed a topical question. Most friends threw a big party; a few had a special holiday. Neither of these seemed adequate.
My forties were not an easy decade: I was on medication that caused severe depression, the fog of which led me to make some poor decisions, which created additional strains. It was an extremely hard time personally, and a very hard time for my family; it’s not easy for young and growing children when their mother is there in person but absent in spirit. The medication/anti-depressants/both also caused me to put on weight, so I ended up at my lowest ebb, both mentally and physically.
The turning point for me was a hysterectomy when I was 45; no longer needing the medication, I came off the anti-depressants and began rebuilding myself. Key to this – and almost an accident – I took up running; I ran the London marathon in April 2015 when I was 47, completing anther two marathons within the next 12 months.
As I contemplated my 50th birthday, I felt stronger – mentally and physically – than at any other time of my life. This wasn’t a passing thought, but a conviction that grew the more I thought about it. I realised I was approaching my 50s from a position of strength – something that I would never have been able to envisage in the bleak years of my mid-forties. It was also something that seemed worth more than a party – however good it might be.
I also realised that how I felt about myself as I approached mid/later life (you may not want to think of it that way, but however you do the maths, 50 is the later part of your life), bore no relation to the role models I had before me. As I thought back to my parents and their friends, and the parents of my friends, I could see little resemblance between me and my friends and the previous generations.
When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, women approaching 50 seemed to buy their clothes from a dedicated shop called Frump; all the middle-aged mums I know today shop in the same stores as their teenage daughters, and there’s not a huge distinction between their wardrobes.
My parents’ generation was also that of the early retirement packages. My father was one of thousands who quit big multi-nationals with a generous pay out in their early 50s; although my father continued to work well into his 70s, many of his peers took to the golf course and never worked again. Many of them may well have suspected that they would keel over by their mid-60s, as this was when their own parents had died, so their attitude was to enjoy life while they could.
Contemplating 50 in 2017, the idea of stopping work completely – when I have more energy, stamina, knowledge, skills and drive than ever – seems counter-intuitive to the point of bewilderingly alien.
And this, I think, is the nub. As we contemplate 50 in 2017, 2018, 2019… we are starting from a very different position from the generations who have gone before. As I look down the barrel of 50, I expect to have another good 40 years ahead of me; I accept that I’ll probably get dribbly and incoherent eventually, but I expect to be able to enjoy – in every sense of the word – the next 40 years.
That’s a privilege that previous generations haven’t had. When I was in my teens, women in their late 40s didn’t take up endurance sports. When I was in my twenties, men approaching 50 didn’t invest in Lycra and start cycling furious miles every weekend. We are all approaching later life from a position of health never enjoyed by those who have gone before us.
And the more I have talked to other people about it, the more common I believe it is that our generation is approaching later life from a position of great mental strength as well. My own situation is extreme – from the maximum dose of anti-depressants and unable to get out of bed to running marathons and my own business, as well as my home and family – but I know that it is not unique; I have talked to many people who have had extremely challenging times in their forties who say they feel mentally stronger than ever as they approach their 50th.
So, 50 Challenges emerged from the idea that we have no blueprint for what 50 looks like; 50 today is so very different from 40, 30 or even 20 years ago, that we need to create our own model that reflects our position of strength. More than that, this model should ideally shape how we see our later life progressing: it sets the foundations for our 60s, 70s and 80s, because the role models we have for these decades are also obsolete.
Of course there are those who are approaching 50 from a different position - possibly feeling slightly lost, not knowing what their identity is as they face their next chapters, particularly as their children become more independent. But they too also have another good 40 years ahead of them. So, whether you have emerged from your 40's feeling stronger or questioning what the next chapter holds, it's important for all of us to shape our own definition of how that chapter might unfold, because we can expect it to be a longer, healthier chapter than previous generations have enjoyed - we owe it to ourselves to make the most of it. If you can't look ahead with clarity to that chapter, 50 Challenges is also there to help you define it on your own terms.
50 Challenges is exactly that. It’s not a bucket list – we are a long, long way from kicking the proverbial! It’s about facing mid and later life from a position of strength, it's about redefining ourselves positively at a time of big life changes - and celebrating and tackling both of those by challenging yourself to do more, think more and be more than ever before.
As I approach 50, I am so excited by the next 40 years. My overwhelming reaction is: “Bring it on!” I’d love you to join me on the journey.