So thinking of that Time Of Your Life travel bucket list but the pension pot doesn’t have the budget or actually you want some purpose and still have the passion to provide good service to the paying public but on your terms? Well how about that round Europe trip, visiting every major US city or continent on the planet? Not possible? Well how about being paid to travel (and likely get flight discounts when not working too!) and seeing the wonders of the world? It’s not a crazy as it sounds and nowadays companies are more open to taking on older employees with life experience and an ability to interact well with the general public, take Suzzane for example….
Photograph: Laura Buckman/The Guardian
Sometimes, when she reaches the sanctuary of her hotel room after 24 hours on duty, Suzanne Watkins finds herself laughing uncontrollably. This has happened in South Korea, Guam, Japan and Ireland – all since last November when, on her 60th birthday, she passed her flight attendant training.
“I knew the only way I could explore the world economically was to get paid to fly,” she says. “And I knew I had to do it at 60, because I didn’t want to do it at 70.”
Watkins works long-haul at short notice, with an ad hoc schedule. The lifestyle would horrify some, but she says she feels “most at peace with myself when I am a stranger in a strange land and I am wandering”.
So she has given up her rented apartment, downsized and squeezed everything she owns into a 5ft by 10ft storage unit. “And that’s all I have,” she says. “It’s exciting, not knowing where I’m going, what I’m going to do.” She stays with friends and family when she is not travelling.
After Watkins and her husband divorced in 2008, she always knew where she was going. She raised their daughter, then 14, and son, eight, as a single parent in Sebastopol, California. “Economically, I scrambled. I had three minimum-wage jobs.” These included working in a toy shop and planning travel for non-profit school organisations.
Life settled into a necessary pattern. “You drive to the office, you sit at a computer all day, you go home, sleep, and do it all over again.”
Watkins was still in this mode in 2018, when she was taken to ER with a life-threatening sepsis infection. “They had to remove half my intestines. It made me realise that I’m mortal,” she says. “Sometimes that’s what it takes.”
After the surgery, Watkins recovered at home, and for the first time in a decade her relentless working rhythm was put on pause. “I saw things I had never even seen in my own home before – noticing the lamp on the ceiling, or the birds outside. I had never taken the time.”
One day, in this frame of mind, she was listening to the radio. Entrepreneur Chip Conley was talking about his new project: Modern Elder Academy, which is billed as a “midlife wisdom school”, in Baja California, Mexico. Watkins applied for a scholarship. “As a single mom, it was the only way I could do it.”
She was still wearing her post-surgery colostomy bag when she went to the MEA campus in February 2018 for a week of “transformational workshops and active listening … I felt like I was taking a big deep breath in for the first time, and then just letting it out,” Watkins says.
She had had an unsettled, anxious childhood. She loved looking through National Geographic magazine, which was always on the coffee table, but her parents “were not travellers in any way, shape or form”, though the family moved a dozen times. Watkins sent off for brochures about places but never went, and drew pictures of aeroplanes. At university, she studied geography. Once she got to Modern Elder Academy, she realised she needed to find a job that involved travel.
When the pandemic shut the skies in 2020, Watkins read of flight attendants being laid off. Counterintuitively, her own plans grew wings. She applied to be a flight attendant, and graduated after five weeks of training.
“I don’t want to have any regrets on my deathbed. So I wake up every morning and I say, ‘If today was my last day, would I be OK?’, and I say ‘Yes’.”
Her children, too, appreciate her differently. “I think they saw me as afraid, not a risk-taker, when they were younger. Now they’ve seen me go through a lot of transformation. I can finally be a role model for them to show that it’s OK to follow your heart.”