Happy 50th birthday! Julia Hobsbawm on the power of turning 50… and handbags

Julia is a businesswoman, networking expert, author and commentator. Did we mention she's 50? If you're going to listen to anyone about the empowering nature of turning 50, it should be Julia 

When I was a little girl of five there were two things I thought would make me a grown-up. The first was having a proper handbag, like my mummy.

There is a grainy picture of me on Clapham Common circa 1969 wearing every one of my mother’s handbags slung over me like rows of bullets, beaming optimistically.

The second thing I coveted was being allowed to do the washing-up all by myself.

There is another black and white photo of me standing on a chair, gloves on, grinning like a cat at the bowl of dishes, as if the tap were a magic fountain.

Today as I turn 50, I avoid washing up it if at all possible and congratulate myself on having chosen a husband who is not only a domestic God but who bans me from loading the dishwasher on the grounds that the kitchen is solely his domain.

But I do have a handbag habit. Once a year I allow myself to buy a Smythson or an Anya Hindmarch and I associate the glamour of it with something I yearned for as a child: being able to swing a handbag on your arm and be busy with it, doing things, going places.

Look forward to 50

I now realise that I have been looking forward to this day most of my life. I always longed to be older. To have autonomy, independence, and to live like an adult.

Huigh50 Life Julia Hobsbawm childhood
Julia as a child washing up and feeling grown-up

I never felt fully comfortable or at ease being a child, because the grown-ups clearly had so much more fun and control.

They could wear what they liked.

They could stay up late. And they could get in a car and go anywhere.

They knew what to think and they didn’t care what anyone else thought.

At school in the 1970s I remember looking out through the huge plate glass windows across the playing field to a very unromantic arterial road in north London and longing, absolutely longing, to be ‘out there’ and not ‘in here’. 

Perhaps this is why I unconsciously dropped out academically, making my own luck in a series of admin jobs after leaving school with bad A levels and dropping out of my degree after a year at Polytechnic.

I preferred working. My technology back then was a telex machine and now, at 50, it is Twitter.

Enjoy the boost in confidence

Turning 50 is, I realise, like having the biggest, best handbag of all. I know where I am going and I can get myself there, all by myself. I am in charge and I’m smiling.

I look back on my teens, my 20s, my 30s, and at least half of my 40s as decades dominated by inner anxiety, low self-esteem, and a crushing sense that I was failing more often than not.

One day the fog of uncertainty began to lift. I could attribute all sorts of things to this, but the most important of these is, I believe, is age.

Worried about turning 50?

Being 50 is definitely a being-in-the-world feeling. In fact, I feel as if, for the first time in my life, the world is my oyster.

What took me so long? Certainly I had a bit of a wobble earlier this year when the actual 50-thing struck home and I realised the cultural enormity of this particular birthday.

From around Easter, my worries began to escalate. Everything I tried on in the shops was weighed less for price than for whether “it looks too young for me”.

My husband turned 60, and we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. Suddenly everything seemed refracted through the lens of age.

My decision to celebrate at all followed a period of uncertainty and anxiety. Should I not just quietly buy some Creme de la Mer eye serum and slope off to a corner to research Progesterone cream online, planning for that inevitable evidence of age for a woman, the menopause? 

start quote

I know where I am going and I can get myself there, all by myself. I am in charge and I'm smiling

final quote

In my office I looked at my team at work and realised with a shock that they are literally, all of them, half my age. Then I looked at our children and did a double-take. They are not babies anymore, in fact, shock, they are growing up!

Self-pity levels were at a high in my house for quite a while. 

On one level who can blame me? The popular narrative is that popular culture favours the young. But ageism is, well, an ‘ism’ and women like us, the 50-somethings, have never actually had it so good.

50 and fashionable

My favourite magazine feature for years has been the Fashion for all ages photospread in the Guardian’s Weekend Magazine, showing a woman called Pam who is, I think, 70 wearing the latest designs from Top Shop and Zara alongside younger models.

New research shows that ‘blooming boomers’ are having a whale of a time. Or, as the writer India Knight, whose new novel Mutton, is all about middle age, put it: I’m in an age group of “utter prime”. 

I did not have a choice about turning fifty but I had a choice about how to handle it. Be low key or go big. I have chosen the latter, shouting it from the rooftops, having a large birthday party and installing pink glittery number 50s hanging in a pretty cascade down the kitchen wall for a full month.

Today is the day. I’m no longer 49. 50. Finally. Today I’m all grown-up.

Related articles

Should you change your life in middle age

Happy 50th Courteney Cox

See all Life stories