14 February 2019 Courier Feb/Mar 2019

Emma Gannon: Think of your work life in chapters

'It's never too late to start that side project or take the first step towards launching a startup'


I really hate those 30 Under 30 lists,’ someone told me recently. ‘Why is everyone so obsessed with age?’

For a long time, 30 under 30 lists have been the shiny definition of millennial success. But as the years roll on, more and more people openly admit their contempt for them – including me, and I’ve been on one before.

While it was exciting, and more opportunities did start streaming in, deep down I disagreed with them: I don’t think being ‘young’ is an ‘achievement’. As I fast approach the other side of 30, I wonder how it’ll feel.

After all, at 30 we’re only just getting started. No one wants to think they’ve peaked too early. If anything, the opposite is a much better indicator of success: continuing to push forward, try new things and reach whatever goal you have personally set yourself.

Society has always been obsessed with, and applauded, young people. Can you believe Rookie magazine founder Tavi Gevinson is still only 22? Can you believe Zadie Smith wrote White Teeth aged 25? Can you believe Millie Bobbie Brown has 18 million Instagram followers and is only 14? These are all exciting exceptions, but they should never turn into being the rule.

We all know that great things can take a long time to grow, distil, ripen, mature, evolve; or whatever the word is. In a world of instant gratification and ‘content’ should we be constantly celebrating whoever happened to get there the quickest?

One of the biggest surprises with my work is the number of over-55s I come into contact with. I meet people of all ages, but it was particularly this demographic who had a lifetime of expertise under their belt but knew they would want to carry on doing something else once they had retired.

They are a cohort who love connecting with friends and family on social media, statistically spending the most money on the latest home tech and about to have more free time available to them. They tell me they are excited by the idea that it’s not too late to start something new or to have a side passion project.

We live a lot longer now than we used to and therefore will be working a lot longer, too. According to recent reports, around a third of millennials expect to work well into their 70s. It’s totally normal to live out our long lives in ‘chapters’. Therefore it shouldn’t feel strange to re-brand our careers as we go, at any age.

In a world that still loves stringent hierarchy and judges young people for their apparent narcissism and selfies, sure, we still need to highlight and give a platform to brave and brilliant young people’s voices. But with the 30 Under 30 lists, or at least the ones I see in the media, a lot of them have been held to account for not including a diverse range of people. It is usually an extremely privileged list. Global business publications have recently been called out for labelling reality TV stars ‘self-made’ entrepreneurs’ without making any mention of their famous family connections.

New, exciting, unconventional careers are often celebrated for being novel, but long-standing careers should be celebrated too. Iris Apfel is 96-years-old and has just released a book. Her body of work speaks volumes. We are all responsible for creating positive change in the world, and we should be applauded at any age.

Last year, I made a mini audio documentary for the Tate and travelled to St Ives to explore the artists who made waves there in the art community. As part of this, I went looking for painter Alfred Wallis’s grave in the Barnoon Cemetery that overlooks the beach. His grave stands out because his friends clubbed together to give him quite an elaborate send-off as he didn’t make much money from his work. It has beautiful painted tiles that make up a picture of a lighthouse with a person going in, symbolising the end of life. The Tate in St Ives has celebrated his work loudly and proudly.

I later learned that he only began to take up painting in his 70s. What a message: it is never too late to start that side project or take the first step towards launching a startup. Here’s a good place to look for inspiration: check out fortyover40.com instead.

Emma Gannon is a Courier columnist, podcaster and author of The Multi-hyphen Method. For more Courier columns, grab a copy of the latest issue here.

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