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Ter gelegenheid van Internationale Vrouwendag hield Yvonne op 8 maart 2017 een inleiding bij Euronext, op uitnodiging van Blackrock’s Women’s Initiative Network WIN. Lees de volledige tekst onder de video.

Fear of freedom, new challenges in a boundless environment

Introductionary speech by Yvonne Zonderop for Blackrock’s Women’s Initiative Network WIN on International Women’s Day 2017 at Euronext, Beursplein 5, Amsterdam.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

Happy International Women’s Day. Let me start by introducing to you: Diane Tavoian. She is a barista at Starbucks in Covington, Texas. Diana is finishing her bachelor’s degree with the financial aid of her employer. She is 64 years old.

Diana left college when she was 21 and has worked ever since in costumer service jobs. At 61 she retired, briefly. She found it plain boring. So she reentered the job market. To a reporter of the New York Times, who ran her story, she said: ‘I like showing the younger barista’s that a frail old lady cannot just keep up with them, but actually pass them by.’ Diane is 64 and obviously having fun.

And so said the headline in the NYT: More women in their 60s and 70s are having way too much fun to retire. Its what new data show: more women are keeping up, working longer, taking care of themselves.

I found it an encouraging read. Women are picking up on men in the workplace, especially in the second half of their career. That’s when they catch up after spending extra time with the children in their thirties and beginning of their forties. But they return stronger, they keep up longer.

And so they should. We are all expected to live longer. Half of the children who are born today are expected to live a hundred years or more. In the next 20 years, the amount of people over 65 will grow with 1,5 million, up to 4,5 million. On average they will live another 20 years, women often even longer. So we need to adapt, to be active and productive longer than we used to. To keep our wealth, to keep our health.

And the good news is: women can. The data show it. And so does my personal experience. Women adapt to new circumstances easier then men, generally speaking.

How about your experience? How many men can you come up with who are over 55 and still able to genuinely change their mind? Can I see hands? Any hand is welcome. We can use all help in adapting to a new era in which it will be more about networks, collaboration, diversity, agility. About engagement. And less about authority, rules, topdown approaches or alpha male behaviour.

I’m an example myself, as you may have gathered. When I was 21, I started working as a journalist, just like Diane. During my twenties I worked as a reporter, full time and more. In my thirties I went back to working four days a week to enjoy our children. And when I was 39, and our youngest had started elementary school, I was appointed as the first female deputy editor of the Volkskrant.

It was quite a demanding job, to be honest, way over 40 hours a week. I stayed for 8 years. Then I stepped back, did some reporting for a while. And at 50, I made an important decision. I needed a new challenge for myself, a challenge the Volkskrant could not provide. And so I left to become a freelancer for numerous things, like for instance speaking to you today.

And I have been part of a trend. Many women feel the need for a change when they reach the age of 50. They enter a new phase. If they dare to accept the challenge, they often start to grow once more.

Just at a time when some of their male colleagues start to feel a need for conservation, for a bit of rest. These men seem – at least to me – to pay the toll for working intensely and unambiguously for so many years. They grow tired.

Women take advantage of the fact that they were also needed at home, with the kids, in their social surroundings. They were forced to draw from different sources. It’s not that it’s less demanding, we all know that. But it takes flexibility, inventiveness, putting things in perspective. Exactly this experience pays off later in life.

You would expect that this progress I was part of would have continued. But, it doesn’t feel that way. To many women their world is not opening up with possibilities for them to seize. They experience a burden. Strange as it may seem, in some ways it may have been easier for me to build a career in the nineties than it is for some of you now.

Let me try to explain. When I had my first child, I was 32 years old. Rotterdam boasted only two nurseries. So we had to find creative solutions for childcare. We found a wonderful babysitter who would stay with us for twelve years. And on Saturday my husband and I would shop for groceries for a whole week in advance: we planned exactly what we would eat and when: meat, vegetables, fish, fruits. Just imagine the relief of a microwave!

Career women were scarce at the time, especially career mothers. I had to fight to reach my goals, I had to challenge people’s perceptions. There was resistance, of course. When I was appointed deputy editor of de Volkskrant, at least ten male colleagues silently accused me of pinching the job that was obviously meant for them, instead of this politically correct hire that was me. But at least I knew whom to convince, how to prove myself. I knew which competition I was up to.

We had to set our own rules regarding the combination of having children and having demanding jobs. We had to improvise and to accept that some things, like going to the cinema as husband and wife, simply were not possible for many years. We had to make do with Walt Disney-video’s.

Now, there seems to be less resistance. Working mothers seem to enjoy more freedom than I did. But it’s a mixed blessing. Freedom takes a toll. I’m sure you experience this yourselves. All these choices you have to make every day. Take the meals we were just discussing. In the nineties we set out our weekly menu according to the durability of vegetables: salad would only stay fresh for one or two days, but cabbage or chicory would last forever. Nothing to chose, that’s how it was.

Nowadays our choices are tenfold. And we act accordingly. We may go for the ecological options, the vegan options, the vegetarian one. We can have quinoa instead of pizza, or we opt for Deliveroo. It’s something to decide on everyday. Which is nice, but also demanding, when there are so many other things at stake.

Freedom of choice can actually be a curse instead of a convenience. Listen to Dutch psychiatrist Frank Koerselman. He made some interesting remarks in his recent book Wie wij zijn (Who we are). He argues that the children who were born in the seventies and eighties have experienced insufficient boundaries. That’s because of their baby boomer parents, who themselves had to fight many restrictions in their youth. As a consequence, they became quite dismissive of their own children, wanting to spare them the frustrations from their own youth. As a result, these children experienced little, often too little frustration and lots of freedom. Not just at home, but everywhere in society. Koerselman uses the word ‘understimulation’. Its what we all know instinctively: you need borders to grow your identity.

All those well-meant, loving intentions have left these children ill-prepared for the stress life puts on them. Even more so when you have to make all your choices yourself. It sounds like a double whammy: on the one hand there is more stress of choice (‘keuzestress’ in Dutch) and on the other hand there is less ability to actually cope with it. That’s when it shows that too much freedom can be a disadvantage.

We can all see the toll this takes on some of our female colleagues, don’t we? I have talented friends, strong and witty, who find it difficult to resist their perfectionist urge. Think Linda de Mol. They want to look good, to feel good, to have a good marriage and good children, but to also have a good career, an important network, a flashy cv, all-in one. They always want to be in charge. Personal control is their answer to this abundance of freedom.

Just imagine you are granted all of this – then you are very lucky. But even then there is an downside. Don’t count on a second career like Diane Tavoian. When you have all these good fortunes, you will miss out on the preparation required, like learning to cope with sudden events, with taking life as it comes… with its difficulties and disappointments.

To be honest, I happen to know several young women, in their twenties, who are numbed by all this freedom. They feel that every choice they make is an exclusion of possibilities in itself. They fear the consequences. Who is to say which possibility will turn out to be best? Choices paralyze them. So instead of stronger, they become ever more vulnerable. They try to delay their choices. But that’s no way to live your life when you’re 27 – in fear.

Koerselman is right: people need boundaries and adversaries to develop themselves, to grow, to fulfill their possibilities. Who is going to provide these? How many more young, talented women will fall prey to burnouts, unable to cope with the difficulties life irrevocably contains? Here’s a baby boomer legacy we definitely need to discuss. Too much freedom, too little challenge, paralyzing fear.

You may have heard of the Russian-British philosopher Isaiah Berlin. If not, google him. He was a romantic, he loved poetry, and he was a convinced liberal. Being the son of a jewish entrepreneur, he had to flee from Russia just in time before the communist revolution. Liberty became his main topic, dear to his heart. It led him to formulate a famous division between two concepts of liberty: freedom from and freedom to. Freedom from is about negativity, about freedom from hunger, from suppression, from evil. Freedom to is about positivity, about freedom to speak, to believe, to develop, to engage.

We need both forms of freedom, of course. But somehow negative freedom has become the dominant idea in western society. Exactly like the baby boomers who freed themselves from the restrictions in their youth. You may know these 68-songs: the Hair musical, Freedom. They meant: freedom from obligations. In this view, Freedom is a lone cowboy on an endless, boundless prairie. It’s is associated with cutting loose, doing your own thing, going your own way, being an individual. Up to the point it has almost become a negative influence in itself, making people desperate for having too many choices and not being challenged enough.

I would say, it’s about time to put some emphasis on the other freedom: the freedom to. The positive freedom. Suppose you join a community and decide to relate to other people. That’s most certainly a free, individual choice. Freedom is not just about being alone, it’s about connecting with purpose, on purpose. I think many young people are already perceiving this. They are not obsessed with individuality. They use their individual smartphone to connect intermittently with their friends, for instance. They feel part of a group, by their own choice. And when they are part of that group, they act accordingly, socially. They are part of something, not just individuals; they are both.

It’s a good example of what positive freedom can bring. So we should acknowledge it more often. It can help us clear the obstacles that stand in our way to a long and healthy career.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the concept of positive freedom would gain relevance in the coming years. It’s what our Netherlands Institute for Social Research tells us. They took a deep look into the future. And although many things may happen we cannot even imagine, one trend is quite clear. To be successful in the coming era will be less about what you have, and more about what you can do. We used to have divisions between haves and have-nots. Between wealthy people with a higher education who pass on their wealth to their children, and people of modest means who sent their children to a VMBO school, who would hardly ever climb up the social ladder. But slowly and gradually this pattern is changing. That’s because we are entering this new era of networks, of permanently changing technology, of fluidity.

Very soon it will be more about being able to adapt, being able to grab your chances. Probably, a child who was raised in a poor but caring environment with set boundaries and clear values, may grow up to be more successful than a child who was raised in wealthy surroundings without pressure or frustration.

We need the challenge, we need the commitment, we need the values that positive freedom brings. The good news is that traditionally women have been associated with this social approach. Women are famous for improvising, for being practical, for adapting. It’s another sign that we are up for success. As long as we acknowledge it’s not about being an individual chasing your individual goals. Taking part in society, being part of a community, acknowledging boundaries, accepting challenge. Engaging.

I can hear you think: but I’m so busy already, I don’t need more tasks. And I say: great. Make sure you busy yourself with important things. Take time for your children, your parents, your neighbours, your friends. Allow yourself to be challenged. And see what life may have in store for you. A satisfying career deep into your seventies.

Whenever you feel tired, stressed, exhausted, empty, just think of Diane Tovaian. She started a new career as a barista at 64. She is happy to be challenged by her younger colleagues, and she is having way too much fun to retire. Let’s make her our role model on this International Women’s Day.

Thank you.


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