Sheryl Sandberg isn’t the first woman to realise that work in your 50s is no walk in the park | Gaby Hinsliff

Sheryl Sandberg is leaning out. The queen of “can do” American feminism is quitting Meta (formerly Facebook) after 14 years at the top of one of the world’s most powerful companies, for a future that sounds suspiciously vague. Apparently she wants to focus on feminist philanthropy, plus “parenting our extended family of five children”. (Having been widowed seven years ago, Sandberg will remarry this summer and will help raise her fiance Tom Bernthal’s children plus her own two teenagers.) What happened, some wonder, to the woman who in her bestselling book Lean In urged other working mothers to just push themselves harder?

Perhaps she simply wants out of an increasingly toxic industry, accused of inadvertently fuelling hate speech, conspiracy theories and poisonous populist movements around the globe. For months Silicon Valley has buzzed with rumours that Sandberg, a committed Hillary Clinton supporter, was more troubled than other executives by social media’s seeming role in the rise of Donald Trump, and that she was simultaneously losing internal arguments about its future. She stressed her closeness to founder Mark Zuckerberg in her resignation statement. But that won’t stop speculation that she has had enough, and would rather spend the billions earned defending this morally sticky wicket on more uplifting causes. Her Lean In charitable foundation had, she said, never mattered more to her, “given how critical this moment is for women”, a nod perhaps to the gut feeling many American women have of hard-won female progress sliding into reverse.

Perhaps we’ll have to wait for her next book to find out. But Sandberg isn’t the first 52-year-old woman to take stock of her life and decide it’s not too late to change, or even to discover that this is a messier and more unforgiving decade than it looks.

So many of us imagine we’ll have life sorted by 50: children on the road to independence, more time for yourself, and the professional confidence born of years of experience. Stick at it through the early childbearing years, we tell ourselves, and things can only get easier. For some, midlife really is about reaping the rewards of leaning in. But it can also be a time of drama and surprises, as women who have hauled themselves over all the early hurdles fall at a second set of fences they simply hadn’t been expecting.

Illness takes its toll for some. So do the sleepless nights and fog of anxiety that menopause can bring. And while teenage children don’t wake you up in the middle of the night like babies do, they can’t be as easily handed over to someone else. Interviewing parents of children with mental health problems recently, I was struck by how many had quietly adapted their working lives to cope. Trotting off to the office every day isn’t easy when your child is self-harming or refusing to go to school.

Britain hasn’t experienced the much-hyped Great Resignation supposedly seen in the US, as the pandemic prompted some to reconsider what really matters to them and chuck in corporate jobs. Instead, we’ve seen something more like the Great Early Retirement, with an unexpected rise in over-50s giving up work that piqued statisticians’ curiosity.

In March a report from the Office for National Statistics concluded that almost half were just retiring, often earlier than expected having saved money in lockdown. But one in five Britons of both sexes gave their reasons for stopping work as stress and mental health problems, or simply “I did not want to work any more”. Here are burnt-out and exhausted people, a feeling perhaps exacerbated for some by two stressful years on the Covid-19 frontline. Another 8{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} of women cited caring responsibilities. But there wasn’t a box to tick for finally coming up for air at 50, and concluding that you’d rather chew your own arm off than do this for another two decades; or for the gloomy realisation that seniority hasn’t brought the returns your younger self imagined.

Polling conducted last year by Sandberg’s Lean In foundation with the British midlife women’s platform Noon found 71{44affb6c5789133b77de981cb308c1480316fee51f5fd5f1575b130f48379a33} of women expected being older to count against them at work, and half had experienced sexism and ageism around the menopause. Women have always been held to a different standard than that applied to men, Sandberg declared, but “as we get older those challenges are exacerbated”.

Working life is long now, which is fine if you love what you do – but if you don’t then 52 shouldn’t be too old to change, or it wouldn’t if midlife retraining was funded generously enough to make it an option for those who can’t afford a career break. The bigger challenge for many older women, however, is getting work to love you back.

The gloss has worn off Sandberg’s original brand of middle-class professional feminism, with its emphasis on individual women redoubling their efforts rather than on structural reforms. Too many women have concluded that, as Michelle Obama memorably put it, “sometimes that shit doesn’t work”, and some will see Sandberg’s departure now as proof of that.

Yet like many women who give up seemingly glittering careers, I wonder if she isn’t attempting to exchange a power that isn’t all it was cracked up to be for influence, and a different definition of success. An older, wiser Sandberg has the financial and cultural clout to become an interesting advocate for older women if she chooses. How ironic it would be if in leaning out she finally found her way in.