As someone who is pursuing a deferred dream later in life, I got a kick out of this piece about Heidi Hansen, a 42-year-old nursing student at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who is a finalist for the school’s Homecoming Queen.
My father went to college to prepare himself for a good job; a “good job” being one that would support your family until you retired, at which point you would kick back and enjoy whatever time you had left. After graduation and a stint in the Army, he settled into a career as an IRS agent, advancing in the agency but not even thinking about alternative employment.
The men who served as godfathers for my brother and me followed similar paths—one occupying the desk adjacent to my father’s for over 30 years, the other a “company man” at IBM. Most of the men we knew kept their jobs for the duration of their professional lives, if they were lucky. In the eyes of our community, losing a job was disgraceful, and men who moved from one job to another were unreliable drifters.
The women, of course, stayed home and raised the children, unless they were unmarried or widowed and “had” to work outside the home. These women were objects of pity. And everyone became depressed on being made obsolete—the men on retirement, the women when the last child had left home.
There was a certain amount of security and stability in the old system, but how much more interesting things are now! A yoga teacher and mother in her 40s can graduate from college as a nurse and start an entirely new phase of life. A psychologist like me (who had already worked as a magazine editor and speechwriter before returning to school at 30) can perform as a singer and improviser. A musician friend has embarked on a second career as a poet; his closest colleague is a retired businessman in his eighties who is considered quite promising.
There are drawbacks, of course, to being an older newbie. It is harder to break into a new field, for one thing. The learning curve is steeper, and the fatigue factor can be intense. A friend in his 60s, who started acting after selling his business and gets a lot of work in regional and touring companies, told me, “It’s great to be cast, and especially to get paid! But after a certain age, it’s arduous to hop a bus from one city to another, staying at third rate hotels.” An attorney friend is thrilled to be part of an improv troupe, but said, “I am easily the oldest person by 20 years, which is invigorating, but they keep booking gigs that start at 10 PM—I’m exhausted!”
But the rewards are enormous. I think Heidi Hansen sums it up for all of us when she says, “I’m not trying to be a young person. For me it’s just a continuing process of being engaged in the world around me.”