Why women of 40 and 50 are the new ‘ageless generation’
Lean, lithe, beautiful and effortlessly cool, Polly Kemp teaches yoga at the hip hotel and members’ club Babington House in Somerset. She’s addicted to Instagram and loves fashion and travelling.
But no, she’s not the woman on the left — that’s her 19-year-old daughter Iggy, a model who lives in London. Polly is a mother of three (she also has sons Gabriel, 22 and Finlay, 17, with her photographer husband Iain) and is 51.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m under no illusion that I am 19 or look 19; I’m very comfortable in my own skin — lines, grey hair and all,” she says.
“But I know I live very differently from how my mother and grandmother did at my age. Iggy and I often borrow each other’s clothes, although we might not wear them in the same way. And we both love vintage clothes, so we often trawl charity shops together. We enjoy the same TV series on Netflix, such as Schitt’s Creek, Girlboss and Grace and Frankie; and we’re following the same online daily yoga challenge on YouTube.
“When I hear the term ‘middleaged’, I have to stop and think, ‘Is this meant to be me?’ I don’t polish silver or plan menus, and I’m not interested in housework. I am also spontaneous and I don’t think that’s a quality traditionally associated with middle age.”
Polly’s age-defying attitude is something I can relate to. Growing up, if I’d pictured myself aged 53, my hair would be a little less long and blonde and a great deal more grey than it actually is — and I’d be wearing frocks and face powder, not jeans and CC cream.
Vibrant and young
And now a new survey exclusive to the Telegraph has found that, like Polly and me, 96 per cent of 40-plus women don’t feel middle-aged at all.
The study of more than 500 women by marketing agency SuperHuman found that 80 per cent felt society’s assumptions about middleaged women do not represent how they live their lives. More than two thirds considered themselves in their prime of life; 59 per cent felt as vibrant and young as they ever have — partly due to a focus on health and fitness — and 84 per cent said they don’t define themselves by age.
SuperHuman was founded by Rebecca Rhodes, 44, and Sandra Peat, 42, who feel brands are failing to realise just how midlife women have changed.
Armed with negative stereotypes about older women, companies still focus on millennials despite the greater financial firepower of 40-plussers. Says Rebecca, ‘By 2020 it is estimated that up to a third of the UK workforce will be 50-plus and they will control 80 per cent of the wealth.
“We know that 85 per cent of purchasing decisions are made by women and yet 91 per cent of women don’t believe advertisers understand them. This isn’t good enough.”
As a result, she adds, “Eighty-four per cent of the women we surveyed used products and services they felt were aimed at younger women.” But the generation gap is closing. “Fortyplus women today look, feel and live differently than the generation before them — 90 per cent consider themselves to have a much younger attitude than their own mother’s generation at the same age,” she adds.
In short, women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond no longer associate themselves with a life of lawnmowers and Rotary Clubs, cheese and wine parties, elastic waists, river cruises and walking tours of Madeira. Even the term “middle aged” is fast becoming obsolete.
People magazine recently named Julia Roberts, 49, as the World’s Most Beautiful Woman 2017, 26 years after she first made the list. And France’s youthful new president Emmanuel Macron, 39, has been pictured passionately kissing his glamorous blonde wife Brigitte, who just happens to be 64.
Everywhere we look, highly visible older women are rewriting all the rules. From JK Rowling to Nicole Kidman; Michelle Obama to Anna Wintour, they are at the peak of their power and creativity.
They are engaged, influential and often increasingly political.
There’s even a new term to describe people with this no-age mindset: “perennials”. It was coined by US internet entrepreneur Gina Pell, 49, who explains, “Perennials are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, and are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded risk takers.”
This attitude can be helped by the way we look. And if that sounds trivial, it’s not, according to Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University. Her researchers have found that people who feel old compared to others tend to age faster, and a major factor in this is the way they dress. Those in the study who wore uniforms, and so dressed the same as younger colleagues, suffered fewer age-related illnesses.
The good news is that we don’t need a white coat to gain the same health benefits; nor do we need to dress “young”. “Since the 1990s, society has become increasingly informal and fashion has become more generic,” says Rebecca.
“In today’s Converse-and-jeans uniform, worn by everyone from 10 to 70, you often can’t tell how old a woman is from behind.”
Indeed, a glance at shots of classic perennials Julianne Moore, 56, and Emma Watson, 27, reveals that despite their three-decade age gap, they favour an identikit look of striped tees, oversized coats, leather jackets, jeans and trainers.
Assessing her own fashion evolution, Polly says, “I thought that by this age I’d want to look ‘smart’. Instead I like to look cool and sexy, and I live in trainers to the extent that I wonder why I even have my other shoes. Like Iggy, I’m in jeans all the time, though I might pair mine with a silk blouse and a jacket.”
Happily, SuperHuman’s survey found that 67 per cent of women over 40 felt more confident than they did a decade ago, and just as many were more ambitious too. “Doing things that challenge me” was important to 60 per cent of women in the survey; personal fulfilment was a priority for 61 per cent, while 63 per cent described themselves as “very optimistic” about the future. Almost 80 per cent said they had a strong appetite to explore and experience new things with or without their kids.
“The idea of retiring at 50 and having an empty nest is totally out of date for most people,” says Richard Cope, a consumer trends analyst at Mintel. “Economic pressures and increasing pension ages mean women are working longer and thus spending time with younger colleagues. At the same time, due to property and rental costs, more adult children are living at home, and their attitudes are influencing their parents, causing what’s known as generational blurring.”
When her 17-year-old daughter became vegan a year ago, author Fiona Gibson, 52, ended up dramatically changing her own diet. “Erin opened my eyes to the ethical issues and health downsides of my more meat-heavy diet. I probably eat By the numbers
of 40-plus women don’t feel middle-aged
feel that society’s assumptions about middle-aged women do not represent their lives 67% consider themselves to be in their prime of life 84% say they don’t define themselves by their age 91% don’t believe advertisers understand them
vegan four days out of seven now.”
Lynne Barratt-Lee, 58, also a novelist, says she’s picked up her 24-year-old daughter Georgie’s online shopping habits. “We get confused over who’s put what in the Asos basket,” she says.
But there’s one black cloud in this sunny picture. While 40-plus women feel very confident in their abilities and opinions, 48 per cent of those surveyed said they felt less confident about their appearance than they had a decade ago, citing pressure to stay looking young — and 83 per cent felt this affected their self-image.
Rebecca calls this the “confidence paradox”, and adds that while older celebrities and models are more visible than ever before in adverts and on screen, women in their 40s and 50s still feel ignored.
Entrepreneur Grace Fodor agrees. Two years ago, she founded cosmetics brand Studio 10, aimed at women in midlife. “Currently, older women are part of the zeitgeist,” says Fodor, 50, citing Michelle Obama and Jenna Lyons as examples. “But remember: we’re for life, not just this season’s marketing strategy.”
The future, says Gina Pell, lies with forward-thinking companies such as Netflix and Amazon who profile customers by their tastes, not by their age. “Defining people by their birth year is so antiquated,” she concludes.
Julia Roberts is
From left: Nicole Kidman is one of the many 40-plus women experiencing a career high. named as the World’s Most Beautiful Woman. JK Rowling is a member of the “ageless generation”.