Getting a life: the workers who went in search of a rainbow

A mid-life crisis can strike at any age, but what can you do about it, asks Sonia Purnell
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The Independent Online

We used to wait until well into our 40s or 50s and our mid-life crisis before we started to question our existence, our jobs, our lives, and - sometimes - our relationships.

We used to wait until well into our 40s or 50s and our mid-life crisis before we started to question our existence, our jobs, our lives, and - sometimes - our relationships.

But this week we learned that that gnawing sense of dissatisfaction is now visiting a much younger generation, just crossing the threshold of 30, who encounter what has been dubbed the "quarter-life" crisis.

A study by Common Purpose - a body that runs leadership development programmes - into the hopes, aspirations and frustrations of some of the country's most talented and high-flying graduates in their late 20s and early 30s, found widespread disillusion, disappointment, and in the most severe cases, despair.

Many felt bored, under-stretched, stuck in a rut, without purpose and often bogged down with debt and responsibilities. The majority wanted to find an escape route, and at 30 not a few were preparing to take one.

More than 80 per cent of them believed in the idea of a quarter-life crisis, and yet these comparative youngsters cannot claim a monopoly on the desire for a new life. It has been something that 40, 50 and 60-somethings have been familiar with for years.

"Any of the ages with a nought on the end seem to mean an awful lot to people, and really shake them up," says Julia Middleton, chief executive officer of Common Purpose, a leadership development organisation that commissioned the quarter-life survey.

"What we identified here is that at 30, people are beginning to set a pattern for life and then they are questioning whether they've chosen the right pattern," she says.

"In their late 20s, people are contemplating the chance that they will be bringing the next generation into the world and so they want to have some impact on that world and their communities.

"They also see their parents start to age and start needing various services from the community and this puts them in touch with lots of institutions like schools and hospitals for the first time. That gets them thinking.

"Frankly, those who stay in their jobs at 30 just for the money are by the age of40 often completely barking."

Indeed, Ms Middleton, herself 47, says the choices become starker the longer the decision is delayed to branch out into something really fulfilling.

"We find from our development programmes for leaders, that for people in their 40s that the best description of the decision they have to make is whether to lead a monochrome or multi-colour life. They can decide whether just to have one sort of life, one job and that would be pretty monochrome.

"Or whether to branch out, try something different for a more varied and enriching and colourful life, in which case they need to do it now."

Ms Middleton is of the opinion that the mid-life crisis may well provide the last opportunity to diversify and pursuer a full life. "I also act as an independent appointer to public organisations such as NHS trusts and so I see a lot of unbelievable CVs from people in their third age.

"These people sound very flashy but they have led an entirely monochrome life in just one sort of job. They may be hugely knowledgeable but only in one small bubble. They could have done extraordinary things if they'd spotted this ten years previously.

"But by this time, in their mid-60s say, they are, frankly, of limited use."

Of course, it is not easy to abandon a steady job for a passion or a project, particularly when there are children to care for. But here are three case studies of people who took the plunge and opted for a rainbow life at different ages. Not one of them regrets it, despite the financial sacrifices they may have had to make.


'Finally I was doing what I always wanted to do'

At 18, Brigitte Reinert-Verhamme's life ambition was to go into architectural design. But as the seventh of eight children raised in a large Catholic family in Belgium, she never thought to question her father's ambitions for her to study French instead.

"My father wanted me to learn the purest French there is, which is at Tours. So I did what was expected of me and went to the university in Tours, studied for my French degree and then met Richard, my half-English, half-German husband," says Ms Reinert-Verhamme.

She married at the tender age of 21, and for the next quarter of a century devoted herself to her family, raising three children, first in Paris and then for the past 15 years in London. At 24, she had two children within 11 months, with her third following a few years later.

Her husband, a highly successful businessman, has always travelled extensively, and so she was frequently alone dealing with the various crises of raising children, such as illnesses and accidents.

The family are clearly comfortably off, living in a prestigious part of London. Yet she still found the time and determination to work as a medical representative for a range of drugs companies, including Glaxo, extolling the virtues of their various pills and potions to doctors and hospitals despite having no medical or chemistry qualifications. "I was very good at it, winning prizes for the highest sales," she laughs.

But it was clearly not her real forte. A willowy blonde, who still speaks with a strong European accent, she has also played the odd, small part in various well-known movies such as Tomorrow Never Dies and Sliding Doors.

Acting was not for her either, however, and Brigitte, now 47 and with her children entering adulthood, applied for a range of other jobs but was consistently turned down for being either "too mature or not specialised enough". There followed a period of soul-searching and a trip abroad on her own, first to Fiji and later to New Zealand.

"My daughter gave me the green light to go away as I might always have thought I must stick around for my family," she says.

"So I went off backpacking, with no make-up or fancy clothes, just a pair of flip flops. I stayed away for seven weeks in the end, discovering myself.

"I loved the fact that away from home when I met people I was appreciated for what I was, not who I was."

When she came back, Brigitte decided that it was "now or never" and after discussing her plans with her family, enrolled at the Inchbald School of Design in London for a post-graduate course in interior design. The course is well-known for its demanding technical aspects and focus on architectural design and seemed perfect for Brigitte - if expensive at £17,500 for a year plus another £2,000 for equipment and printing costs.

"I had never held a pencil or done a drawing before in my life. But finally I was doing what I had always wanted to do, something I had suppressed for so long," she says.

"I even won a prize at our exhibition at the Commonwealth Centre and now I've completed it I'm just so happy. It was a highly gruelling, intensive year, and I've been literally working 24 hours a day, but I'm doing something I enjoy so I don't mind.

"I just hope that now it translates into a career, and I'm already talking to one well-known artist who wants me to help him with architectural drawings.

"But what I would really like to do is to become a project manager for overseas architectural projects.

"At my age, I have to be realistic. But I've always done everything for other people, now this is for me. My niece says I'm too old for this, but I still have lots of energy. I can show people if they will give me a chance.

"I want to be financially independent and to be judged on my work, not on who I am from now on.

"I wish I'd done it 20 years ago, but at least this way I have also been able to invest my life in my children first."


'We've never thought we did the wrong thing'

Until a couple of years ago, John and Sian Mears were young high-flyers living in a Georgian house in York, with cash to spend on holidays, TVR sports cars, expensive meals out and designer clothes.

John, now 34, was a manager of two Nestlé chocolate factories and was on the fast-track to a seat on the board. His wife, Sian, now 36, was a research scientist, also for Nestlé, who travelled the world for her job. Together, they earned well over £100,000.

They seemed to have it all, but the death at the age of 30 of a close friend prompted a review of their lives.

The couple started casting around for ideas, and struck gold on a holiday in France. "Sian had bought me a row of vines in Burgundy as a birthday present so we drove down there in my sports car for four days," John recalls.

"We ate in fantastic restaurants and toured round with the roof down on the car. It was the best ever holiday, and when we told people about it in the UK so many wondered how they could do that.

"So our idea for a gourmet touring holiday company - where clients hire a sports car to tour a customised programme of French vineyards and restaurants - eventually became reality. We started planning, and I resigned from my job in July 2002 to spend more time on researching."

Six months later, Sian resigned and they sold their house for £250,000, leaving £180,000 after paying the £70,000 mortgage. It has now all gone on setting up the business, buying a fleet of sports cars and somewhere to live.

They have bookings months in advance for tours, which start at £430 per person for three nights including the car and Michelin-starred meal.

"The business is going really well but we still have to live frugally. We had to live in a friend's camper van for a while, which was hell as we're really not camper van people.

"But eventually we bought a house, although it had no inside loo or shower and still has no heating apart from open fires. It's freezing in winter.

"We rarely eat out or buy new clothes. But we haven't suffered and it's a treat when we do go out to a bar, or to the opera in Bordeaux. Normally we plan one of these treats when we meet a sales target.

"We have thought at times that we cannot go on living like this," confesses John. "But we have never once thought we should not have done this."

Hitting their most recent sales target gave them the excuse to buy a dog - something they had always wanted but which their former busy lives in York had made impossible.

"We now have time to go for bike-rides and skiing day trips," says John. "We indulge our passion for wine and food, wear casual clothesand usually get up when we want.

"Now we look after people with the sort of high-stress jobs we used to have."

Gourmet Trading can be found on 0033 (0)63 280 0474


'We found VSO was so enriching, we want to do it again'

John and Ann Tennant had always planned to work in a developing country before they got married. "But it didn't work out that way, what with the professional rat-race, mortgages, family and so on," explains John. "So then we decided that we would do it when I reached the age of 60, whatever else was going on in our lives."

So, when John, now 64, retired from his position as deputy head of an inner-city comprehensive school in Birmingham in the summer of 1999 they applied to VSO for a job abroad and were sent to the Gambia.

"We'd always wanted to live and work in a developing country to find out more than we really could as a visitor.

"We hadn't been anywhere in Africa before, but the jobs sounded interesting. Mine was in a college of further education running a careers centre, helping with management and teacher-training.

"Ann, who has done many jobs including working for the BBC as a journalist and radio producer, ended up teaching basic literacy and business skills to local women.

"She found that particularly rewarding, as it gave these women, often second, third, or fourth wives in a traditional Muslim society, their first real chance of independence."

Ann, now 58 but then in her early 50s, gave up her job as educational manager at the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, to go on the trip. Having made that sacrifice, the couple had assumed that the normally adequate VSO living allowance would meet their costs. But because of rampant inflation in the Gambia at the time, they could not make ends meet and had to dip into John's teacher pension.

There were further financial repercussions when Ann discovered, that, despite her impressive CV and track record, she could not find work on her return in 2002.

"We had to face the fact that it was clearly because of her age. Her career just came to a sudden end."

Despite the financial setbacks, the couple certainly do not regret their trip. "We got such huge job satisfaction from it all, that feeling that we made a difference.

"We hope we gave the people something they will have for the rest of their lives. They gave us the ability to reappraise our values completely, to become less materialistic, to understand how other people live.

"We could never have done that just on a holiday. It was so enriching, we want to do it again. We have real wanderlust now."

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