By the time they reach midlife, people expect to have accomplished most of their career goals and to be considering activities to pursue in their retirement. But a growing number of Americans, especially women, are defying these expectations. These late bloomers dare to dispel doubts, change tracks and launch themselves into careers they had long dreamed of.
A few years ago, Prill Boyle was reading a newspaper when a story of a woman fulfilling her dream late in life caught her eye. "Wini Younker, a Kentucky woman was 65 years old," she says. "She had for 39 years kept this dream alive inside of her of joining the Peace Corp. The day I read about her, she was leaving for Ukraine."
Inspired by Younker's courage and persistence, Boyle decided to write about late bloomers. She was one of them, herself. She graduated from college at age 39 - about 15 years older than her classmates, and had a teaching career for nearly a decade. Then at age 49, she left the classroom to become a fulltime writer. Surprisingly, she says, she met many other women who had similar transformations late in life. "One woman became a molecular biologist (at age 40) that had never studied biology before," she says. "And she had some patents to her name. There is a woman named Rainelle Burton from Detroit, Michigan. She had been -- in her 20s -- homeless, living in a car with a baby, and she's dyslexic. At age 50, this dyslexic woman that doesn't have a lot of resources at her disposal ends up writing a critically acclaimed novel, called The Root Worker."
The dozen women Boyle profiles in her book, Defying Gravity: A Celebration of Late Blooming Women, include a homemaker who was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives at age 48, a 47-year-old breast cancer survivor who discovered an eye for photography, and a medical technician who became an anthropology professor. "Her name is Patricia Symonds, she became an anthropologist in her 50s," she says. "She had not even graduated from high school in her 40s. She was hired by Brown University, an Ivy League school, at age 60. She's 71 now and she's been promoted recently by Brown."
Boyle says late bloomers are hard workers, creative and persistent. She points to Evelyn Gregory, who worked as a bank vice president until her retirement. Then, she became what she had always dreamed of, a flight attendant. Boyle explains it wasn't easy for Gregory to get herself hired because of her age-she was 71. "It wasn't overt because airlines are not allowed, legally, to say 'I'm not going to hire you because you're such and such an age," she says. "She would make it all the way through the interview process up to the last step and there would also be some reason why she was not the candidate. So rather than just saying, 'I'm too old' or 'Nobody is going to hire me,' and giving up, she got fired up by that! What she ended up deciding to do was to become a gate agent and let the corporate brass get to know her, and after 6 months of that they saw that she had the strength and stamina that one would need, and she made it clear that she wanted to be a flight attendant. She was hired by USA Air Express and flew for them until she was 78."
Though Jeanne Ray is not among the women profiled in Prill Boyle's book, she can relate to their experiences. At age 65, she was happy with her life as a wife, mother and nurse until one day at the grocery store. "As I walked beside the magazine section, I saw two magazines that really changed my life," she says. "One cover said, 'Beauty at age 20, 30 and 40.' And one said, 'Sex at 30, 40 and 50.' By not saying the words '60 and beyond,' I suddenly just felt this black cloud descend on me. [I thought] Maybe it's all over and I'm just too stupid to know it."
At that moment, Ray felt the urge to write about what life is like at age 60 and beyond, and how people at that age can still be vibrant, intellectual and attractive. Then she saw a video of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. And that was the inspiration behind her first novel, Julie and Romeo. "I decided that was the perfect venue for my book, but that I would make the characters, instead of very, very young, I'd make them in their 60s,and they would be from warring families," she says. "I put it together over a nine-month period of time during the night, while I was working as a nurse during the day. It was published. It went to the New York Times best-seller list. It was optioned for a movie. It was printed into 26 languages."
Jeanne Ray and Prill Boyle have teamed up on a tour to promote their books and get their message across to a larger audience: old age can be the most fulfilling period of life.
"It's almost like adolescence when you have a new time to make up your mind about where you're going," Ray says. "I think a lot of people make the mistake of not seeing aging that way. I think it should be celebrated I think everyone should say, 'Thank God, I'm going to be 70 next year! I can't wait to get old.'" Boyle adds, "Let people, young people, have something to look forward to, rather than have everyone keep looking back."
And with people now living longer than in previous generations, the two authors hope society will start to reconsider aging, encouraging people to explore their talents and pursue their dreams… in midlife and beyond.