How we all fell for an outdated vision of turning 30

Written by Daisy Jones

For a long time, turning 30 has come with a set of expectations about where you should be in your life – but these measures of ‘success’ no longer make sense, writes Daisy Jones.

I had an alarming realisation the other day while eating a double cheeseburger in bed and watching another episode of The White Lotus. And that realisation was this: I am a mere two years away from being the same age as Carrie Bradshaw was in the first season of Sex And The City. Carrie Bradshaw who, at 32, lived in her own spacious apartment on the Upper East Side and divided her time between having brunch, going to fashion events and writing what looked like one very short column per month.

Obviously Sex And The City, which first aired in 1998, isn’t necessarily a realistic portrayal of what it means to be in your 30s– after all, how did Carrie even afford that apartment? Still, turning 30 has, for a long time, come with a very specific set of expectations. Those aged 30 today were raised to believe that by now you’d have your own house (hahaha), have worked your way up the “career ladder” sufficiently, be on good money and thinking about kids if you haven’t had one already. And even if you didn’t want those things, you’d at least look like you have your shit together. No damp flats and house shares. No ill-advised stick-and-poke tattoos or weird nights out. 

Much has already been written about how it doesn’t matter if you haven’t reached certain milestones by 30 – we’re not robots, after all, and everyone comes from different circumstances. But it’s worth underlining here just how outdated those milestones really are. For some, the idea of owning a house isn’t just momentarily out of reach, it sounds genuinely absurd (between 1995 and 2016, house prices increased by nearly 1,000% in some parts of England). As does the idea of having children. When I look around the rented flat I share with my partner, I can’t even picture how a baby would possibly fit into that. Where would it go? Who would pay for it? Even if I had to quit my job to look after a baby, the UK government pays a mere £21.80 per week for child benefit. That’ll cover nappies but not a lot else. In what world could my 30s look like they’re “supposed” to?

For some, their idea of what turning 30 looks like comes from their parents’ generation. We’ve all seen the memes (“My parents at 30: let’s buy a house! Me at 30: I love Bulbasaur”). But much has changed in the decades since our parents were 30. Average UK rent prices are currently at a 13-year high. Meanwhile, soaring energy bills and a 20-year wage stagnation mean that plenty of people turning 30 are barely scraping by, even if they do manage to secure thriving careers. Simultaneously, inflation (what a vague, bleak word) has meant that everything has become quietly more expensive. But you don’t need me to tell you that – we are, after all, living it. 

Elsewhere, the pop culture of our youth very clearly sold us a lie. Even films like Bridget Jones’s Diary and 13 Going On 30 – notable visions of how being in your 30s isn’t all as it seems – fed us a specific idea of what turning 30 might look like. Bridget is told that a woman can’t afford to be picky about men after 30 (a wild thing to say; men age too). And the latter showed that you could have a successful career and solid partner, but still not be fully sorted. But we weren’t really shown what it looked like to not have those things to begin with. That would be unthinkable – unseemly!

So if the “classic” turning 30 milestones are outdated, how might we redefine what turning 30 looks like today? In the current climate, it would be a wise idea to throw out any material expectations whatsoever. But there are definitely some emotional milestones that are worth bringing to the table. When I turned 30 last year, there were plenty of things I hadn’t yet ticked off the list, but the growth I’ve experienced since my early 20s is tangible and important. I care less what others think. I’m able to think before I react (mostly). I am more aware that time is fleeting. I can exist in my body in a way that is way more comfortable and present than when I was 23, antsy and insecure. Turning 30 isn’t what I thought it would be, but it is significant.

That said, it’s been hard to rewire my thinking over what life “should” look like by now. There have been achievements for sure (I published my first book at 29, I’m in a happy long-term relationship, I get to write for a living.) But I didn’t think about any of this when I turned 30. I just became ultra aware of the fact I am hurtling towards death, still not totally sure how to file my taxes correctly, still with zero savings and zero chance of ever being able to afford a home, or look like what I imagined a “real adult” might look like (whatever that means; more tailored suits?). It can be hard to forget how much you’ve grown, and instead think of all the ways you haven’t. But emotional growth is, I think, way more important. 

In some ways, the emotional milestones of turning 30 are beginning to ease their way into pop culture. In a recent essay for Rolling Stone UK, journalist Hannah Ewens wrote about how we’re seeing more emotionally intelligent pop about what it means to get older and wiser thanks to artists like Adele, Mitski, Charli XCX and others. Even Demi Levato, once a teen idol, wrote a song about turning 29 and how they were suddenly able to see reality for what it was (“Finally 29, 17 would never cross my mind / Thought it was a teenage dream, a fantasy / But it was yours, it wasn’t mine.”)

When Stylist asked people on the brink of turning 30 how they felt about it last year, many also mentioned emotional milestones. They’d finally figured out their triggers and insecurities. They’d started to like themselves a little more. They’d learned that carving out time for yourself is more important than ticking off an arbitrary checklist. One aspect of turning 30, it seems, is not that you will automatically feel happier, but that you might feel more comfortable in the space in which discomfort exists. Yeah, you might feel like shit, but it’s not the end of the world – tomorrow might be better.

The thing is, everyone turns 30 eventually – if they’re lucky. And it serves absolutely nobody to feel like shit about this fact, based on ideas that have no grounding in reality. Instead, I’d like to propose that we collectively completely forget everything we were ever taught about turning 30. We need to start from scratch. It’s never been harder to be 30 in the sense that material milestones have never been more out of reach. Which is exactly why we need a rethink. What should 30 look like? That’s for you to decide.

Images: Getty 

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