Let’s Unpack That

Thirty, flirty and declining: How 30 became a terrifying milestone for an anxious generation

If all the signifiers of adulthood – a well-paid job, a house, the opportunity to start a family – seem so far out of reach for today’s twentysomethings, why does turning 30 still stoke so much fear, asks Eloise Hendy

Wednesday 14 June 2023 15:00 BST
Joey turns 30 on ‘Friends’
Joey turns 30 on ‘Friends’ (Warner Bros Television)

Recently, I went away for a joint birthday weekend with 10 friends I’ve known since childhood. All of us had either just turned, or were about to turn 30. Hungover in a Dorset Airbnb, we loaded up the classic time travel romcom 13 Going on 30. What other film could we choose? Together, we laughed at the fantasy depiction of a 30-year-old life: a luxurious Manhattan apartment, a high-flying editorial job at a magazine, a walk-in wardrobe, no student debt in sight. But we also felt unsettled by the fact that the last time we all watched the film together was on its release in 2004. Back then we were all 11 and – much like the film’s teenage protagonist who magically conjures herself into the future, wishing to be “thirty, flirty and thriving” – we were eager to skip over the messiness of adolescence and get to adulthood, where we imagined life would really start. But now we were finally there, why did it feel, not like life was over exactly, but that a significant part of it was ending?

As I approach 30, it’s been impossible not to notice how this particular “age milestone” still has the capacity to make people lose their minds. Suddenly, everyone around me was talking about babies and mortgages. But mainly in tones that ranged from ironic and nihilistic (“I can’t have a baby, I am a baby”) to pure panic (“I’ll be renting forever”). With a Big Life Stage on the horizon, people made Big Life Decisions – but ones that also seemed designed to put off “the trappings of adulthood” a little longer. People in stable jobs suddenly quit them; others sold their belongings and went travelling; at least two people I know moved to Australia. “How do you feel about turning 30,” everyone asked everyone. “Totally fine,” everyone replied, with a crazed look in their eyes.

Research suggests that panicking about an impending age goes far beyond the anecdotal – according to a 2022 survey for the relationship support charity Relate, 77 per cent of 25- to 39-year-olds and 83 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds feel pressure to reach traditional life milestones. The charity also revealed “milestone anxiety” is a topic that is increasingly coming up in therapy sessions. The big question is why? Why do certain age milestones hold such weight, such emotional power? What is it about turning 30 in particular that causes so much angst and anxiety?

“We focus on the loss and not the gain when getting older,” Amy*, who is now 33, tells me. “I think the freak-out part comes from the expectation that after 30 you need to be more settled – know what job you want to do, be doing that job, live somewhere that feels like your home, have kids or start to have kids if you want them.” This expectation to be settled – to have “sorted things out” – can make the lead-up to 30 feel like a pressure cooker. “No one’s hyped for 30 like the 21 milestone,” Amy says. “Twenty-one marks the start of an era and 30 kind of marks the end of one”. Eleanor, who turned 30 in December, echoes this sentiment. “We’ve grown up with the idea that life ends at 30,” she says. Although she admits everyone knows this is “a total lie”, she says it still contributes to the sense “you’ve done the good bit and the rest is getting old”.

Part of the issue here seems to lie in how much contemporary culture eulogises being in your twenties. Within the creative industries especially, numerous prizes and opportunities are offered for “emerging” practitioners – which sometimes means under 25, and almost always means under 30. “Thirty under 30” lists have become a media staple, feeding a sense that 30 is a cut-off point of sorts, after which achievements matter less, as you “should” have not only “emerged” but become established. There is a pervasive social narrative that your twenties are for exploration, adventure and fun, but also for figuring things out and setting yourself up in the world. Instability and uncertainty is written off in your twenties – or even lauded as part and parcel of “being young” – but if you then find yourself at the end of the decade without a stable partner, a “proper” job, and a healthy savings account, a nagging feeling of failure can creep in. “We’ve grown up with the idea that by 30 we’ll be married with kids and a house,” Eleanor suggests. This “very traditional, heteronormative version of life” is changing, she stresses, but adds that on a personal level “letting go of those subconscious success markers is quite tough”.

For the last six years, Hannah has been working as an English teacher in north London. By all accounts, she seemed to have made a success of her twenties, and found not just a job, but a career she both enjoyed and excelled in. She’d recently been promoted. Yet, in the run-up to turning 30 last month, she also found herself gripped by self-doubt – a feeling of “I have failed my life”, she says. She felt drained and chronically stressed. She kept getting sick. Other teachers were quitting around her, and Hannah steadily realised that, like them, she was experiencing an extreme form of burnout – but her internal narrative that she “wasn’t where she should be”, that she was failing, “meant that my job was the thing I was clinging on to, even though it wasn’t making me very happy”. Finally, just weeks before her 30th birthday, Hannah quit. “I got to a stage where I was like, ‘if I live my life like it’s over then it will be’.”

People always told me ‘you don’t need to worry about your age because your twenties are for yourself, and then life begins to track you down after that’

Dan, 30

Much has been made of how “the millennial generation” has been experiencing a “prolonged adolescence”: “settling down” later than previous generations; changing jobs more often; living with parents or in shared housing for longer. Some people might assume that all this anxiety around turning 30 stems from a desire to prolong the adolescent stage even further – that it comes from a reluctance to accept the realities of adulthood, that “the millennial generation” is also “the snowflake generation”. Yet to me, it seems clear that the opposite is true. For today’s twentysomethings, adulthood is held perpetually out of reach, and, actually, we haven’t really been having much fun anyway.

Dominant cultural scripts about “success markers” bump up against a world in which wages have stagnated, rents and house prices have skyrocketed, and the expansion of university education followed by the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees has left a vast swathe of young people loaded with debts upwards of £50,000. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that three-quarters of graduates will never pay it all back. Meanwhile, the “ASHE table” on age group earnings published by the Office of National Statistics reports that the average salary for 22-29 year olds in the UK is £25,178. With average monthly rents outside London soaring to a record high of £1,190 in the first quarter of this year, is it any wonder traditional life milestones are being met later? When you’re just trying to make rent, having children before 35 can feel like the last thing on anyone’s minds (especially as childcare costs also soar and precarious employment becomes more commonplace for under-thirties).

This political backdrop is also why I believe “30 anxiety” goes beyond questions of gender. I’ve heard from numerous people – from twentysomethings to sixtysomethings – that women freak out about turning 30, and men freak out about turning 40. Certainly, women face a different set of social expectations when it comes to ageing; the sexist, ageist voice of the patriarchy sounding a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio’s subconscious. Yet, most of the discussion I’ve seen about this age milestone seems to work from the assumption that it’s all biological, and the issue comes down to the ticking timebomb of women’s body clocks. Speaking to women on either side of the 30 threshold, however, the dominant feeling wasn’t anxiety at the idea of “time running out”, but frustration that conversations about “family planning” are pinned to them and not men their age. Thirty-three-year-old Holly, for example, says she’s “noticed a change since turning 30 in how frequently older generations feel it’s OK to ask when you’re finally gonna have kids”.

Lies, all lies: Jennifer Garner in the 2004 comedy ‘13 Going on 30’
Lies, all lies: Jennifer Garner in the 2004 comedy ‘13 Going on 30’ (Shutterstock)

Any belief that milestone anxiety only affects women, or only concerns fertility, seems misguided at best, and at worst, a perpetuation of harmful stereotypes about women’s role in society. Certainly, all the conversations I’ve had with men and women alike reveal something much starker about turning 30, and how the age is loaded with deeper, underlying fears – about how to navigate the contemporary world, what success and failure look like, and how stability, happiness and hope seem so fleeting and fragile.

Dan, a senior programme officer for an international scholarships and fellowships programme, turned 30 last autumn. His twenties were a struggle, he tells me. “It took a long time to build up and get to somewhere I was comfortable with, and there was a lot of unhappiness along the way.” Yet, at the same time, he also felt a degree of freedom. “People always told me ‘you don’t need to worry about your age because your twenties are for yourself, and then life begins to track you down after that’,” he explains. “So, in my head I’ve always fixated on the idea that there’s no difference between being 24 and 29, because I’m just doing what I want to right now.” At 29, he “got to a point where [he] was really happy.” But, with the prospect of turning 30 looming, he was dogged by the thought life was about to start “tracking him down”, and kept thinking, “I’m in a good place now and I absolutely do not want to let it go”. On the day of his 30th itself, Dan says he felt “completely overwhelmed that all of my chickens were coming home to roost, and everything that I’d spent my twenties looking for in terms of happiness and comfort were up in the air because I’d have to start cashing in the cheques of being 30”. Essentially, he believes it was “the spectre of responsibility” that caused this emotional whirlwind. To me, though, it also seems to signal how hostile contemporary society can feel for young people today – how hard-won and temporary happiness seems, while the pressure to conform to social expectations feels bullish.

I turn 30 in a month and, at times, the prospect of it has felt like a spotlight has been thrown on every part of my life, illuminating all the scrappy, messy bits; all the things I’d like to change. “I got really envious,” Hannah admits, “and devalued the things I did have, while really overvaluing the things I didn’t have.” Since quitting her job, though, this feeling has started to dissipate. Now, she says the main question she keeps asking herself is: “If this is my life, what could it look like – not in terms of what could it [contain], but how could I feel about living it?” To begin to figure this out, though, she’s had to put aside what society constitutes as success. “I find it difficult to disentangle my ageing from the world I’m doing it in,” she adds.

In a state of perma-crisis, under successive anti-youth Tory-led governments, this is a difficult task. Yet, on a personal level, perhaps the only answer is to try and see models of “successful adulthood” as what they are: a fantasy. Since turning 30, Dan has realised “nothing has changed”. He says he’s even “regressed”. “I’m playing Crash Bandicoot and I bought Pokemon cards off Ebay recently, and I enjoy Star Wars lego, and I’ve just quit my job.” He laughs. “I don’t know if that counts as a mid-life crisis but perhaps it might be!”

*Names have been changed

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