There’s no time limit to self reinvention

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I thought, ‘Wow, I want to have that spark in my eye when I’m her age’

Arlene Wanetick, co-founder of Life Working®, a Chicago-based career coaching and resume-writing company

While the hero-based mystique makes us believe that the start-upper is a young white male garage owner, the reality is - luckily - far more diverse. As Pierre Azoulay et al. from MIT have pointed out in their 2018 paper “Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship”, for the most successful firms, the average founder age is 45. 

I was therefore delighted to have a chance to talk with Arlene Wanetick, co-founder with Wilma Nachsin of Life Working® , a Chicago-based career coaching and resume writing company that helps jobseekers present themselves confidently and strategically. Arlene doesn’t simply represent one of those entrepreneurs who launched a company at the age of 60, she is also a brilliant example of continuous learning. In our chat, she explains what happens when we seize the opportunity to imagine the future by taking some steps back. 

Our society is built on fixed stages. How did you manage to get around this socially induced obstacle and go to grad school at the age of 56?

I’ve lived my life a bit unconventionally all along, so it wasn’t a big problem for me. It felt less like an obstacle than a pathway to something new. 

Why did you decide to study gerontological counseling?

As someone with a background in art and writing and an interest in aging issues, I was interested in both the Masters degree in Art Therapy and the Masters degree in Gerontological Counseling. At end of the first semester, I realized that the first one was not a good fit for me, so I switched into the Gerontological program. 

Because of my career in advertising, my creative background was already strong and I wanted to step into something new, increase my academic and psychosocial knowledge about aging, and learn things I could draw upon for the rest of my life. It was also a new program, and very forward-thinking in terms of social responsibility. That interested me, too.

What are the unexpected facts you learned during your study?

Age discrimination does exist yet is the hardest to prove. We need to take it into consideration when it manifests outside ourselves, but also on the inside. For instance, there are four generations currently working side by side in the American workplace and soon it will be five, not to mention that by 2030, there will be more adults over 65 than children for the first time in history. Also what we think about ourselves matters: a study from Yale University revealed that older individuals with positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those without.

Can we hit pause and talk about your interest in aging? I think it has a lot to do with the choices you made. 

When I was 30, I attended a conference in New York titled “Conscious Aging,” sponsored by the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, a respected non-profit center for wellness and personal growth. I was looking for role models, wise teachers, examples of strong, inspiring, energetic individuals making a difference in the world and shifting the perception of age in our culture. 

I had a chance to learn in person from presenters such as Ram Dass, spiritual teacher, former academic and clinical psychologist, author of the seminal book Be Here Now, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, founder of the global Jewish Renewal Movement, and Maggie Kuhn, the activist known for founding the Gray Panther Movement after she was forced to retire at the age of 65. I remember her as a small, mighty, older woman who invited all of us to join her advocacy for social change and justice regardless of age.

Why did you feel the need to participate?

There are several reasons why I was looking for inspiring older adults. First, here in the US, we are not so good about treating older adults with the respect and decency they deserve. The young, the new, the shiny is what’s valued far more than the old, the injured, the worn, the forgotten. Then, my parents were older than almost all of my friends’ parents and very traditional. I was adventurous and wanted to live differently, do more things when I got older. So I started reading and looking for role models.  

Finally, there’s also the fact that three of my grandparents died before I was born, so my maternal grandmother was my only grandparent, and I loved her dearly. She often babysat for me as a child, and I have happy memories of our Saturday nights spent watching TV and happily dancing the polka together in our tiny living room. When I was around ten years old she moved from her apartment into a nearby nursing home. One day my mother decided not to take me to see her anymore because of her deteriorating health. I know my mother thought she was doing the right thing by being so protective, but in retrospect, it robbed me of an important opportunity to learn first-hand about what happens as we age and how we live as we get closer to death. So perhaps it makes sense that I continue to study and learn about this. 

How has participation in this conference impacted the following years of your life?

I continued to “have my antennae up” in search of exciting and inspiring older people. Not long after, I read an amazing book called If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. Besides the wonderful content, one of the many things that struck me was a black and white photo of the author on the inside front flap of the book jacket, taken the year it was written. The strength, confidence, and spark in her spirit were obvious. Then I looked on the inside flap of the back cover, and I was surprised to find another black and white photo of her, this one taken the year the book was republished 45 years later. I saw an old woman with long grey hair, and immense vitality still in her eyes and spirit. I thought, ‘Wow, I want to have that spark in my eye when I’m her age.’

With a career in advertising, you are well aware of the media-generated pressure for a youthful look. Are you perceiving small changes in the process of normalizing aging or we’re still a long way to go?

I think we still have a long way to go. The advertising industry is one of the worst in this regard. It always frustrated me, and I tried to do what I could to positively impact the many ways advertising can shape and affect public opinions. But cultures that worship youth don’t bend easily, not even in light of the buying power of older decision makers.

Coming back to your business, how did you arrive at the decision to launch your own company?

My whole reason for going back to school after advertising was because it was time to do something more meaningful. After completing grad school, I joined a team providing career coaching, job search strategies, and resume writing at a social services agency. I worked there for 4½ years, practicing and refining the skills of my new career, working with wonderful colleagues and clients. 

That’s where I met Wilma Nachsin, an amazing career strategist, coach, and resume writer who taught me so much and became my friend. We both wanted more autonomy to take our strengths, skills, and strategies and go out on our own. We became business partners and created Life Working® to help clients nationwide look as good on paper, online, and in person as they really are.

We tend to think that start-uppers are young by definition, what are the advantages and challenges of being an entrepreneur past the age of 60?

Decades of life and business experience to draw upon, understanding strategy, execution, and having perseverance; still plenty of energy to work hard, put in the time, do what it takes. Doing this with Wilma, a wise, caring and dedicated business partner whose background and skills complement mine, makes all the difference. I am extremely grateful to be doing this with her. 

As for the disadvantages, with only 24 hours in the day, time becomes more precious as you get older. I find myself working as hard as I always have, and usually enjoying it; but sometimes I wish there were 36-hour days, or 8-day weeks, or 5 more healthy decades ahead, so I could do this and have more time to do all the other things that matter to me. Life is short and I always want more time.

With the launch of Life Working, you’re in the position of helping people with their careers, but in order to do so, you help them to see their strengths. What are the abilities/qualities you generally notice in mature talents?

The ability to build and maintain strong relationships, dependability, flexibility, determination, and clarity of purpose, values, and priorities.

On the other hand, what are the qualities that mature people fail to notice in themselves?

Bravery, resilience, willingness to consider multiple points of view, knowing how much they are capable of. 

Finally, can you tell us something about your philosophy of aging?
Protect your health, explore new things, keep learning, appreciate what is, and seek laughter.