Like most people at a British university in the late noughties, I rang in my twentieth birthday in a foggy haze of too many alcopops in badly thought out fancy dress. And despite the fact that I was put to bed around midnight, one detail about the evening does stand out: one of my guy mates shouting ‘half-way to 40!’ while joking about how he had meant to buy me incontinence pants but had chickened out in the shop, and me almost immediately bursting into uncontrollably, totally unjustifiable, tears. Next week I’ll ring in a new decade - my thirties - and in complete contrast to that neurotic just-turned 20-year-old, I’m really not bothered by it at all.
You see, despite the ingrained rhetoric that I should be scared of turning 30 (and there really has been no shortage of people telling me so, or grimacing at the mere mention of my impending ‘old’ age) I feel as though I did all of that navel-gazing existential panicking in my mid-twenties, when I did the very clichéd thing of having a ‘quarter life crisis’. My concerns ranged from the shallow (Why am I not earning as much money as my friends? Why don’t I have a boyfriend?) to the existential (Am I doing ‘life’ right? Am I a good person?) but I’m pretty certain I covered most of the bases that I’m supposed to be worrying about aged 30 at age 26. (Maybe I’m an overachiever after all…)
Because that’s what the whole fear of 30 is about, isn’t it? How much you’ve ‘achieved’. It’s as if when the clock strikes midnight on your birthday that you’re supposed to suddenly own a house, be married and be pregnant (or at least be thinking bloody hard about it). Throw into the mix the added 21st century pressures of also having a fulfilling career both emotionally and financially, a passport with more stamps than a stamp collector, a flourishing social life constantly being shared with the world on social media, oh, and a bloody brilliant totally Instagrammable birthday party - and you’ve got a recipe for a factor 10 panic attack on the anxiety Richter scale.
Historically, two of the biggest touchstones around the fear of turning 30 were marriage and children. While the former, with its connotations of being a Jane Austen-style old maid, are largely redundant today (although I do have a colleague who advised me to go on dating apps pre-30, because ‘no one wants a single 30-year-old,’ and a male friend confessed he often goes for younger girls because ‘there must be something wrong with the ones his age’), the latter is a very real worry thanks to our biological sell-by date – something we’re constantly being reminded of. Even if you’re in a long-term relationship, the fertility panic is still very real, as you may feel no closer to starting a family than your single friends – particularly because it’s so interconnected with where we’re at with work, money and home ownership.
‘I think turning 30 is much more of a milestone for women than men as there is more of a link to having children for them,’ explains Dr Kirsten Godfrey. ‘It is well documented that a woman's fertility begins to decline in their 30s, especially from mid-30s onwards, and so it may be that women work back from this point in time in terms of key milestones/life events. For most women this may include having a stable relationship and job - often at a mid-senior level so when they go off on maternity they can come back without falling behind others. These milestones can take time to achieve so for some women it may feel like if you haven't achieved them by 30 you may miss out and with the current trend around women 'having it all' - work, family and a social life - this can create a lot of pressure.’
So, if this alarm over hitting 30 isn’t a new phenomenon, why has it become so prevalent now? There’s even a new term for it – the ‘midi life crisis’ – which just goes to show how ingrained the fear has become amongst the millennial generation. Part of it is down to our increased anxiety, something which is often reported on.
‘I think that this generation is increasingly anxious, and that this is due to increased perceived expectation and more limited resources to reach them,’ explains psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew. ‘The more this gap widens, the more anxious and depressed people are likely to become. Turning 30, as a watershed age, may bring this into focus. It will cause you to feel anxious if you see your choices as limited and think that you have limited power and control to change your life. I think that anxiety certainly makes us all feel more powerless and small, but it can feel invalidating if others presume that anxiety alone is skewing what can be a very difficult life stage.’
The other major difference between 30-year-olds today and those of say, ten years ago, is that they have also come of age surrounded by social media. With so much being written about the negative psychological effects of constantly comparing yourself to the seemingly perfect narratives we see shared online, is this another factor increasing our likelihood of a midi life crisis?
‘Prior to social media we might only have been able to compare our life to those in the immediate vicinity and their achievements may have seemed more realistic and achieveable,’ explains Dr Andrew. ‘Through social media, we will always find someone doing it all much better - and mostly unrealistically - causing us to set ourselves even more unrealistic goals, which are totally unachievable (for anyone because they aren't real.)’
On the flip side, it could be that many of the unique circumstances surrounding how millennials live – from having ‘slashie’ careers to a plethora of dating options to being locked out of the housing market – actually mean it is more socially acceptable to ‘not’ achieve things. In part, I think this is why I’m not afraid of turning 30, because it just doesn’t seem as realistic in our current climate to have ticked all the boxes. There’s even a term for this – suspended adulthood – which in my Peter Pan-mind, is actually a very comforting term.
It’s become a bit of a stereotype that your 30s are supposed to be ‘the best decade of your life’, when you apparently have your shit together in a way that you didn’t in your 20s, but maybe that’s not the point. Success is a matter of perspective and an arbitrary cut-off point based on the day you were born seems a silly way to measure it. I’ve got friends who were seemingly on track to hit all their life goals, who have since seen them come crumbling down around them after a called off wedding or a divorce – I’ve got others still who have accidentally ticked them off, whether they meant to or not. The crucial thing for my own happiness, and other people’s, is to just not compare yourself to others. As Dr Andrew advises: ‘If you can, try to measure your success against realistic goals that you have set for yourself and that you have some control over, rather than other people’s.’
And finally, I like to hold on to this one thing, as 30 looms ever nearer: No one ever ‘feels like an adult’ do they – so why stress it? There's plenty of time.