Whether or not she becomes the junior senator from New York, Caroline Kennedy has already become the poster-woman for those of us thriving, changing, and taking chances at an age when our mothers were encouraged to retire modestly to sitting by the phone, awaiting a call to baby-sit for their grandkids. Women in their fifties and sixties -- what I call our Second Adulthood -- are a new breed, liberated by better health, greater longevity, experience in the larger world, and self-confidence that is increasing every day. Many are, as Caroline appears to have been, galvanized by reduced emotional demands as their children move out into the world; they find that they can, as one woman told me, "go out of the emotional management business." And start taking care of their own business.
In my forthcoming book, Fifty Is the New Fifty, I describe what makes this new stage of life for women so exhilarating for us -- and often so confusing to those who have known us up until now. No one expected the "intensely private" Caroline Kennedy to start calling attention to herself and her accomplishments. But the first lesson of the experience she embodies is: You are not who you were, only older. At this point in life, we are stepping across a new frontier.
Women who for decades worked for candidates are now taking a deep breath, as Caroline surely did, and asserting themselves as candidates. No more woman-behind-the-man politics. Women who were quiet peace-makers, afraid to ruffle feathers, find themselves announcing with delicious discovery, "I don't care what people think any more." What they really mean is that they are finally beginning to stand up for what they think. I call that "The F**k You Fifties".
Caroline seems to have made up her own mind to take this risk; her work on the vice-presidential search team may have given her a close-up look at political power, a glimpse at the inner sanctum that so many of us have found demystifies the capabilities of all those who have been playing the game and writing the rules much longer than we have. Just because her credentials aren't theirs, she seems to be saying, hers are valid and she has the confidence to want to prove it. What's more, her new pushiness is revealing a persona that is hers, not the one that has been perceived and imposed by others. And most definitely not her mother's decidedly anti-publicity, anti-politics reserve.
If anything she is channeling her father. Back in the seventies, when the women's movement was building momentum, Gloria Steinem pointed out that "we are becoming the men we wanted to marry." When people try to understand how women our age are changing, they often say, "Oh, I get it. Fifty is the new thirty." Wrong. I have yet to meet a woman -- at least one of the millions who are having the time of their lives now -- who has any desire to go backwards and to be thirty again. We are right where we want to be.