Baroness Lola Young: “There’s potentially more freedom at 50, but there’s the potential for great responsibility too”

At nearly 70, Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey has had an interesting and varied career, underpinned by her passions for social and environmental justice. Lola’s early work, coupled with her experiences of growing up in children’s homes and foster care, created a strong desire to give back to the community.

Social work, acting, university lecturing, and professorship, are just a few examples of the many roles that Lola has added to her repertoire of skills and experience over the years – and her work is far from over!

Today, Baroness Young is an activist, author, Independent Cross Bench peer, Chancellor of University of Nottingham, and all-round champion for equality, diversity, and human rights.

Lola has always had an interest in football and fashion, and since joining the House of Lords in 2004, she has become co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, and on Sport, Modern Slavery and Human Rights.

We recently caught up with Lola to find out more about her views on ageing and retirement, and to get tips on navigating a career change later in life.

Credit: Janie Airey

Where do your passions for social and environmental justice stem from?

Childhood! My difficult experiences as a child, my curiosity, and the breadth of my reading choices all led me to where I am today. I couldn’t bear to hear or read about people being treated unfairly, and I was acutely aware of the destructive ethos of apartheid in South Africa, Jim Crow in the USA, and racism in the UK.

Your career path has been quite varied and demonstrates an interest in acting, writing, teaching, human rights, football, and fashion. Was the transition between each new role in your career natural? Did you ever have moments where you experienced a lack of purpose, and wondered where you were headed next? If so, how did you deal with this?

The roles I’ve had so far all overlap and relate to my interests. For example, I always wanted to work in the creative sector, and I wanted to be a writer and a fashion designer as a kid! I followed fashion in magazines, made my own clothes, and wrote stories and plays. But there was no way teachers supported those aspirations. I was also quite sporty, so eventually I decided that I’d train as a PE teacher. But in the end I didn’t do that, and influenced by my experience of the care system, I became a social worker. My A-Level grades were too poor to go to university, so I took another route into social work.

Later on, I decided I wanted to go into acting, and everything fell into place from there. As an actor, I got involved in committees set up by Equity (the actors’ trade union), and that was when I discovered the world of policy and activism.

All the different kinds of work I’d done fed into my sense of how I could contribute to positive societal changes. But something was still lacking, and that was when I finally decided to study for a degree – eventually becoming an academic.

Lots of things clicked when I started studying, and inhabiting the world of ideas and theories about culture, media, and so on. I was fortunate that my previous work had always kept me grounded, so I never felt that I was in an ivory tower.

What tips would you give for navigating a career change later in life?

I’m not so good at giving tips! Everyone is different and manages their life in different ways, so their life experience will have been nothing like mine. But since you’ve asked… My approach to life is that I need to know what I’m doing and why – not just at work, but in life generally. Sometimes that means I overthink and look for the complex and difficult things to do. It’s a bit of a cliche, but age is just a number. It’s also only one aspect of ourselves.

There’s potentially more freedom at 50, but there’s the potential for great responsibility too. We often place limitations on ourselves, and impose them on others – so it’s important to have confidence in your skills, and in your capacity to work at whatever level you’re aiming for. Having a sense of purpose is important too. This can involve thinking about what you want to achieve in a general sense, and considering the various ways you might fulfill your ambitions. I’m not sure if any of that is useful – I did warn you!

Credit: Robert Taylor

As an advocate for diversity and human rights, how do you see age fitting into the equation when it comes to Diversity and Inclusion policies? How much of a focus has it been in some of the companies that you’ve worked for?

Age tends to get left off the list, doesn’t it? The House of Lords is interesting in terms of age, as I think the average age is over 70 years old. It’s very unbalanced, and although it’s an easy target in many ways, there are a number of elderly Peers whose brains are as sharp as pins.

At the other end of the age spectrum, I work with a lot of people in the creative industries, especially fashion, and with NGOs. The people who work in those jobs tend to be a lot younger on average. I see young people being discriminated against for certain roles, and the talents of older people being underused too.

I don’t like to think of the aspects of our identities as some kind of deficiency model where we compete to see who’s having the most difficult time. Discrimination and diversity are both multifaceted. I’m waiting for us as a society to work out which differences are important and at what moment – then we’ll be making progress.

What do you think the benefits of a diverse workforce are?

It’s always so much more interesting and creative to have people around with different backgrounds and perspectives. If you’re tackling, for example, housing or transport, you can imagine that someone who has direct experience of being a wheelchair user may be able to offer different insights to someone who has no connection to that experience. If you’re organising road crossings, those who are slower walkers or who have young children might make a different contribution.

If you’re a health provider and you’re either not black or you haven’t dark-skinned friends, you may not have thought about what the symptoms of meningitis would look like on non-white patients.

On the creative side, creativity and innovation thrive when people with different cultural experiences and perspectives come together.

As someone who is about to turn 70 - what are your views on retirement?

I’ve been threatening to retire for years! Most of my friends seem to have stopped working or work part-time, but I can’t seem to manage it! Someone approaches me and asks me if I would do this or that, and I think, “Oh, yes please, thank you for asking me. When can I start?”

Our ideas about retirement have shifted over time. It’s such an individual thing. If you feel you have something to offer – either in a paid role or as a volunteer, or by taking on a project of some kind – then what does it matter what you call it? Of course, there are systemic issues – for example, people with a decent pension and/or savings will have more choices. It’s also complicated by the fact that generally speaking, we’re living longer, healthier, more active lives in this country. But at the same time, there’s a lack of opportunities for young people.

Politicians have exploited this in a shameful way, pitting young people against older people, and blaming one group for the ills of the other. It’s much more complex than the proponents of ‘intergenerational conflict’ suggest.

What tips do you have for people who are continuing to work into their 70s?

I’m very fortunate to have the platform that I do and to feel that I am still contributing to society. The way I look at it, I want to keep as healthy and fit as possible in mind and body – though sometimes that’s easier said than done.

If you are able to work at something you really enjoy, then the experience will help to keep you going. Again, my feeling is that it’s about what you have the capacity to do, rather thinking of it as being exclusively about age.

Credit: Georgia Metaxas

What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career so far, and why?

Isn’t pride supposed to be a sin?! I really like working as part of a team to deliver something that will have a positive impact on people’s lives. Collaborating with Anti-Slavery International (of which I am now a patron) and the campaigning organisation Liberty, I worked on an amendment to the law, which criminalised forced labour and domestic servitude.

I also take great pleasure in introducing people to others who have similar values and who go on to establish a mutually beneficial relationship, which also supports an important cause or campaign.

You’ve had a lot of influence over students and young people throughout your career; working as a Lecturer, Professor, and now as Chancellor of the University of Nottingham. What have you enjoyed most about these roles?

Working with young people is so wonderful and challenging at the same time. I get a buzz when a school or college student comes up with a question that stumps you or one that you can’t sit on the fence about. When I’ve attended graduation ceremonies, I’ve had a lump in my throat when I see that sea of faces, preparing to enter another world and face whatever life will throw at them.

Our job as educators is to work with them and support them to develop their curiosity, their intellect, their creativity, and so on – and also to grow as human beings who will make positive contributions to the world.

We understand that you became interested in ethical fashion, partly due to your lack of knowledge about the fashion industry. How do you think that others can apply a similar thought process to their own lives to encourage positive societal change (even in small ways)?

When I was about 12 years old, I wanted to be a writer and a fashion designer, but back then those kinds of careers weren’t really on offer to someone like me. I’ve always loved clothes, however, when the abusive labour systems and the environmental damage associated with fashion were drawn to my attention, I felt I had to help those individuals and organisations working to change this scenario. At the time, fashion wasn’t really recognised as being a major cause of these problems.

Since then, there’s a whole bunch of us who’ve been working to strengthen the section on supply chain transparency in the Modern Slavery Act. Much of my work in this area has been through establishing and co-chairing the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion.

There are many different ways that we can effect change in our habits, whether that’s no longer buying things that we really don’t need; selling or donating items, rather than throwing stuff away, and so on. You can get tips on ethical and sustainable fashion from Fashion Revolution, the Clean Clothes Campaign, Oxfam etc.

Perhaps even more important is urging businesses to take action and change the way they work, and asking the Government to intervene if companies don’t shape up.

What's coming up for you in the next five to ten years in terms of work and life?

Life is work, in the most pleasurable sense! I can’t imagine not working in some way, and as I’ve said, I’m fortunate in that I’m often asked to take on really interesting roles. I’m just learning to say a polite “no” to some things though.

I want to write more – though I really must do something with the 40 or so essays I wrote some years ago, as many of the subjects are relevant to today’s debates. I’ve just embarked on a memoir of my childhood days, and I also want to write more on cultural politics as well as fiction.

I’ve been a football season ticket holder for over a decade, and a couple of years ago I started playing football, so I want to keep that up for as long as I can. Inevitably I got involved in the politics of equality, human rights, and modern slavery in sport…

Are you navigating a career change later in life? What are your own views on retirement? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.

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