Salute Madonna: defying the odds at 64. But what are the work choices for other women her age?

The most shocking thing Madonna has ever done, as she once said herself, is just to keep on publicly being Madonna. She won’t give up. She won’t fade away. She won’t be shamed, at the age of 64, into retirement; she is still jumping on every TikTok trend, still pumping out sexually suggestive clips to promote her upcoming world tour.

And if there’s something faintly spooky now about the tautness of her face, then she is arguably doing what she has to do to remain relevant and marketable inside an industry that holds women to impossible standards. Admittedly, it all looks faintly exhausting. But the pressure to keep on keeping on at whatever we do, in the teeth of ageist assumptions, is coming for us all soon enough.

Retirement age is rising across Europe. The French are revolting, once again, over plans to raise their pension age from 62 to 64. Germany is moving its own to 67, with talk of ultimately raising it to 70. The chancellor Jeremy Hunt wouldn’t be out of step if, as reported, he speeds up existing plans to raise the British state pension age to 68. The pattern of working life is changing everywhere, and yet attitudes to older people at work lag oddly behind. We’ll all have to wait longer to claim a pension, but what happens if we can’t hang on to our jobs for that long?

Related: Share your views on the UK’s rejected menopause law change

The average age to which Britons can expect to live without suffering disabling illness is a shockingly young 60.9 for women and a scarcely higher 62.4 for men, with the poorest being most at risk of getting sick. But even if you stay healthy, you may still have to navigate the kind of kneejerk assumptions about being over the hill that (according to research by the former government business champion for older workers, Ros Altmann) ensure women’s careers begin to stall at only 45, and men’s at 55. More and more of us will shortly be fighting a workplace culture that apparently can’t see 59-year-olds as vigorous or capable of learning new things, any more than some people can cope with a 64-year-old woman being sexual.

Few women would dream of going to Madonna-like lengths to hang on in there. But do we dye our greying hair, or keep a careful eye on what younger colleagues in the office are wearing and saying and thinking, so as not to stand out too much? Do we panic about what people will think if our menopausal minds go briefly blank in a meeting? Well, that’s another story.

We do what we have to do, which is what makes it so disappointing that this week ministers rejected one proposal from the all-party women and equalities committee that may have helped to keep thousands of older women at the top of their professional game for longer: namely, making it illegal to discriminate against workers on the specific grounds of being menopausal.

I completely understand the fear some older women have that over-pathologising menopause may just make some employers even more reluctant to hire them. If you spent your 20s working for men who wouldn’t promote women in case they (shock, horror) got pregnant, the prospect of battling assumptions about female biology all over again at 50 is enraging, especially as plenty of women do get through this time without breaking stride. But it’s now very clear some are being avoidably pushed out of work by temporary menopause-related illness.

The committee, chaired by the Tory MP Caroline Nokes, noted that women who experienced at least one problematic menopausal symptom were 43% more likely to have left their job by 55 than those who didn’t, concluding that the current law doesn’t “serve or protect” women. It recommended making menopause a protected characteristic like age or race – which could also help embolden women to ask for flexible working or other helpful adjustments – plus a pilot scheme testing the usefulness of offering “menopause leave” for related health reasons.

Related: Not just hot flushes: how menopause can destroy mental health

Over the past few months I’ve interviewed women for this newspaper who have suffered hormone-related symptoms from crippling anxiety, depression or brain fog to bleeding so heavy it left them scared to leave the house. Time and time again, they had either left jobs or adapted them to cope. Yet these were women who should have had a decade and more of working life ahead of them.

All the old arguments for hanging on to younger women through their childbearing years – that it’s a waste of their talents and the future taxes they would pay to let them fall by the wayside – apply to older women too, especially given the government is actively trying to reverse a rise in over-50s retiring early. But ministers’ response was that creating menopause rights could discriminate against older men with long-term health conditions. If so, isn’t the answer to offer targeted help to these men too, so they too have a shot at working as long as the Treasury apparently now expects?

Shifting the goalposts on retirement is relatively easy for chancellors, knowing they’ll probably be long gone before the impact is felt. But shifting assumptions about when and why employees are past their sell-by date is harder, and this week ministers missed a chance to do so. Tough as it is, we all need to get ready for a longer working life. But we can’t unless employers, in turn, are ready for us.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist