Danielle wears a red top and smiles at the camera

Danielle's story

Danielle tells us how the ageism she experienced in her early 50s was a ‘punch in the stomach’ – but how it ultimately led her to a fulfilling new career.

Walking into the job centre for the first time in my life was a shock.

Danielle Barbereau was the UK’s first specialist divorce coach. Born in France, she has lived in the UK for 45 years and is currently based in Sheffield. Here Danielle tells us how the ageism she experienced in her early 50s was a ‘punch in the stomach’ – but how it ultimately led her to a fulfilling new career.

“When I was 51, I was made redundant from my senior management role at a Russell Group university. I really liked my job and I’m still extremely fond of the university. But what became evident at the time was that it was difficult – no, impossible – to find another job. 

"I applied for exactly the same senior role at another university and didn’t get an interview. When I rang the HR department and asked for feedback, they told me that my profile didn’t correspond with the role. I said, ‘That’s really interesting, because actually your job description has been lifted word for word from my old job description. I don’t wish to embarrass you, but saying that I don’t fit is extraordinary.’ 

"I couldn’t get a job at my previous senior level. And if I applied for more junior roles, I’d be asked, ‘Why you applying for this? [as she was overqualified]. What was I supposed to do? 

"Eventually, it became clear to me that I would not get an interview. I would not get a job; I had therefore become unemployable. It was a punch in the stomach. I felt obsolete. I had a teenage daughter at home and a mortgage. I was used to earning money. I thought, ‘What shall I do now?’ I felt I still had plenty of working years ahead of me and plenty to contribute. It was very, very hard and scary. I’d never been to a job centre before. And believe me, walking in there for the first time in my life was a shock. It felt like a parallel universe. The woman who looked after me there told me that she couldn’t say it officially, but after the age of 50, people find it very hard to find a job. 

"The only way forward was to start working for myself. I could not see another way. I’d always loved helping people in my department to achieve, so I retrained as a coach. My intention was to work with managers who had been made redundant. 

"One day, a client asked me to speak to her friend, whose husband of 35 years had left her without any explanation for ending the marriage. Well, that was it! I was hooked. I understood the desperation, guilt and bewilderment associated with a separation. I helped her gain clarity and perspective. From that moment on, I knew with absolute certainty that I had found my vocation, my destiny – ‘divorce coaching’- and wanted to do nothing else. That was 14 years ago. 

"I can’t believe that at the age of 50 plus, I found something that I am passionate about. The lawyers who refer their clients to me say I’m a miracle worker. I love that validation. It's the antidote to being invisible. 

"My age helps. My clients are mainly senior professionals in their fifties and sixties. They don’t want to speak to a 25-year-old about what it's like at the end of a 30-plus year relationship. Whereas I get it - and my clients know I get it because I'm asking the right questions, which help them get unstuck. 

"I don’t believe I could have done this job when I was younger. I suppose with age, you acquire some wisdom. I’m never judgemental, never shocked. I just follow my instincts to help my clients. What I do is never formulaic.

"I'm going to take my state pension soon, so I thought, ‘Should I stop the coaching?’ Of course not! It's not like I’m going down the mine. I mostly work on the phone in my office, and I come off the phone thinking, ‘Oh, I love this.’ I've never felt differently. Maybe one day I'll have had enough. But not yet. 

"However, I'm preparing myself a wee bit for later. I've started to write my first novel. It's about a woman who is outraged at being invisible, and her quest is to find her own way of aging well. My working title is The Undiminished Woman. My plan is that I’ll be churning out books in my 80s!” 

Additional comments from Danielle 

On pension inequality 

"There's one thing I want to say loud and clear: I am a Waspi woman [Women Against State Pension Inequality]. There has been an injustice committed against women born between 1950 and 1960. We were told with little or no notice that we would not be getting our state pension at 60 as we’d planned for – we would have to wait until 66. I didn’t even get a letter about it. 

"Waspi women are campaigning for compensation. Many of them have died before getting it. If it had been men who didn’t get their pension when they expected, I’m quite sure it would have been resolved by now. 

"But somehow, with age, women become invisible. We get fobbed off all the time. So many women have slipped through the net. It’s crazy that somebody like me and many other women have so much to offer - but we have no voice. 

"You cannot have the government saying people have to work until they are 68 and at the same time make it impossible for people to get a job after the age of 50. This imbalance - this inequality - needs to be addressed, not only by HR departments but from the legislative point of view. Besides, I think society and the economy miss out. 

"Recently, the government passed a law giving them the authority to go into people’s bank accounts if they are on benefits. In their thinking, the state pension is a benefit too. It is not: it is a hard-earned provision. But the new law means they can go into a pensioner's bank accounts without telling them they are going to do it. 

"I take state pension in April, I'm not on benefits. I've been working 45 years for it, and I'll keep paying NI while I’m working. In effect, every single person in the UK will one day be affected by this." 

On older people being vilified 

"Sadly, the political discourse often vilifies people. In the 80s when I was a single mother, Thatcher made out we were evils of society. Now it’s immigrants (I am one, by the way) and people on benefits. I think older people too are vilified. When I'm in my 80s I will probably not contribute very much to society. Well, I will deserve a rest by then. But why do we vilify these people who have contributed so much? Stop vilifying and value instead." 

On women’s health 

"Now there's much more being said about the perimenopause and menopause. But when I was going through it, it was completely taboo. I couldn’t mention it at work. Women go through all sorts of physical problems throughout their whole careers but they can’t show weakness, otherwise they are penalised for it. It’s important that this stops. It shouldn’t be shameful to be a woman. A woman’s contribution is just as a valid as a man’s. With a little support, this could be preserved and enhanced. 

"Of course, it is not easy to grow old, to be less strong, to have more wrinkles. Everything seems to sag. Well, that’s part of life. I would never consider plastic surgery, because I don’t see signs of ageing as something shameful. I try to look as good as I can for my age. I certainly don’t want to pretend that I am 25 years younger. It is time that real women should be used in the beauty industry." 

On feeling invisible 

"I remember clearly the first time I felt invisible. I was sitting in a café with my 18-year-old daughter and the waiter was flirting with her and ignoring me. I wasn’t jealous, but I thought, ‘Oh God, he sees me as someone who’s past it. And I am not! 

"It’s as if when your fertility ends, you've served your purpose. It's absolutely shocking. What about this wealth of experience and wisdom?"

On relationships 

"My clients often think if they get divorced at 45, 55, 65, it's the end of the road. I always tell them that it’s not. You don't go in a garage just because you're a certain age. You can fall in love at any time. Having been divorced for decades, I met a man at 57 and got married again at 60, and it’s lovely." 

On being a grandmother 

"I cannot tell you how much I love being a grandmother. It is off the scale. Children benefit from the input of older people; I am sure of it."