9 Lives for Women Blog

No Age Limit on Learning | September 25th, 2012

I’ve spoken to women in their 40s who say they are too old to work.  I’ve spoken to out of work women in their 50s who say no one would hire them in a different industry.  And I’ve spoken to Joan Kaskell, a woman who has never stopped finding intellectually stimulating work…well past the traditional retirement year.

When Joan was a student at Wellesley College, she wasn’t thinking about a big career.  Her father had told her that “a little typing skill” would get her through any simple pre-marriage job.  Typing was not her forte, and following graduation Joan opted for something a bit more complex—travelling around the country  doing market research for Procter & Gamble.

Then, as expected at the time, Joan married and had children—thinking that was it for the career.  But in time she divorced and necessity drew her back to work.  This time she ran her own show:  she developed and managed a market research firm of 200 interviewers who gathered consumer opinions in the New York area.

When Joan remarried and moved to Connecticut, her New York City-based firm posed logistical challenges for her family.  With her husband’s encouragement she ran the local newcomers club, but that was only a lukewarm challenge.  She was drawn back to New York for more stimulating work as a Metropolitan Museum of Art volunteer.

In college Joan had majored in English, and taken a just a few courses in Art History.  As a tour guide at the Met, she began to educate herself about many different art forms, periods and cultures and walked many steps toward a new career.

After a number of years as a tour guide, Joan knew she had found her true career passion.  She decided to enhance her qualifications—and at age 50 she went back to school to get a Masters in Art History.  She then landed a paid position as a staff lecturer, and she was later asked to head the “Behind the Scenes Wednesday Workshop” offered by the museum 10 times a year to upper-level members.  She develops her own lecture for each program, brings in complementary experts and persuades curators to give her groups access to painting conservation studios or storage areas the general public never sees.

Joan considers herself an art history generalist who can learn what she needs to know about any country or culture.  The Met lecture series has included her keen insights on Aegean pottery, Islamic carpets, Northern European paintings and everything from baseball cards to Quattrocento portraits.  Outside of the museum she has written for various art-historical publications and curated many exhibitions–including one on the American impressionist J. Alden Weir.

The early market research job gave Joan a chance to travel throughout the U.S., and many years later another job is bringing her around the world.  She now lectures for the Met on overseas cruises as well—most recently by riverboat on Germany’s Elbe River from Dresden to Berlin.

Joan definitely subscribes to the “keep your mind busy and stay young” theory—maintaining a work schedule that defies retirement.  She stretches her brain every day, shares her knowledge and saves time to read books outside the art history field.  Right now she’s reading The Know It All, a book about “one man’s humble quest to be the smartest person in the world”.  The author chronicles his post-Ivy League educational journey—reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z.  Joan laughs, saying she won’t attempt such a feat—but she, too, knows there is no age limit on learning and exploration.  —KAS

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