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Why Are We So Scared Of Turning 30?

Photographed by Kate Anglestein
I remember being 15 and flicking through magazines; every time I came across an interview with a pop singer or TV star, I’d frantically skim-read – not to find out their ideal boy or girlfriend, or their skincare routine, but to check their age. Then, I’d mentally calculate the years between us, working out how long I had left to ‘make it’.

For almost all of my life, I’ve felt an intense, suffocating pressure to achieve everything I want before my youth slips away. 35 has always been my deadline date, looming large in my mind. And over the years, I’ve noticed friends expressing similar worries. Landmark birthdays – 21, 25 and now, the mammoth 30 – are greeted with sighs rather than celebration. We’re all getting older, we haven’t done enough with our lives – we’re running out of time.

Where do these feelings come from? And why do they intensify so acutely as we approach 30 – which is still, realistically, only about a third of the way through most of our lives?

The rise of anxiety among millennials is no secret – one in six young people will now experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives. And, according to psychotherapist Hilda Burke, milestone birthdays such as 30 can turn even the most chilled among us into quivering wrecks thanks to the significance our culture has placed on them.

“We have deeply ingrained cultural norms surrounding ages,” she tells me. “Milestones such as 30 are significant because we have collectively endowed them with certain meanings and achievements. It’s good to check in with ourselves and ask if we’re on the right path, but often when people have this [pre-30] crisis it’s because they’re measuring themselves up to what they perceive as ‘the norm’.”

I think the media focus on young, shiny role models has warped my sense of a normal level of success to achieve in your 20s. Reading about Lena Dunham recently turning 30 left me wondering what the hell I’ve been doing for the last decade. YouTubers are building multi-million-dollar empires at the same age I was getting smashed on alcopops and snogging boys whose names I can’t remember. And don't even get me started on Tavi Gevinson.

Journalism and other creative careers can be particularly painful if you’re susceptible to this type of thinking. Unlike fields such as medicine or law, which involve a slow, steady climb to positions of prestige, it’s not impossible for canny 21-year-olds to land a national paper byline or hook a seemingly out-of-their-league job. Seeing your peers achieving dizzying heights on a daily basis (or so it may seem) can spark all kinds of crazy comparison. More than once, I’ve gone to apply for a magazine job only to find myself stalking the staff’s LinkedIn profiles a couple of hours later, obsessively calculating their ages via their graduation years.

But, I suspect, these people grab our attention precisely because they’re remarkable, rather than average. Dig a little deeper into many public figures’ career paths and you start to see a different story. Comedian of the moment, Amy Schumer, only really started achieving big success in her 30s. Julianne Moore, one of the most celebrated actresses working today, has arguably produced her best work since turning 40 – and is still killing it at age 55. And the woman who just might land the biggest job in the world later this year – Hillary Clinton – is 68. At the same age many people retire, she’s at the peak of her career. The older you get, the more skills and experience you have to bring to the table, and the more confidence and knowledge you (hopefully) possess.

One of the most famous latecomer-to-success stories is Harry Potter author JK Rowling. A 30-something unemployed single parent when she finally got a book deal, she admits to suffering 12 rejections before finding a publisher. In her 2008 Ted talk, she said that seeing herself as a failure was in fact liberating, as it allowed her to focus on her main love: writing. It’s a very different image of success in your 30s compared to the glossy, polished Sex and the City-style success stories that our generation grew up with.

In reality, there are over twice as many successful entrepreneurs in the [tech] field over 50 than there are under 25.

Although most of us probably won’t launch world-famous brands or make multi-millions, JK Rowling’s story is probably much closer to most people’s lives than the Tavi Gevinsons of the world: many failed attempts and fresh starts, years of unnoticed hard work – perhaps even a full-on career change or two. We have a warped perspective of what success actually looks like: for example, with the attention given to Mark Zuckerberg, you’d think all tech CEOs were freshly graduated. In reality, there are over twice as many successful entrepreneurs in the field over 50 than there are under 25.

Thinking about women like Rowling, I’m reminded of one of those annoying Pinterest quotes: ‘Don’t compare your behind-the-scenes to someone else’s highlights reel.’ We live in a world where everyone is portraying the best possible version of themselves via social media, promoting their high points and successes without giving any airtime to the struggles. Much has been written about how this encourages us to unhealthily compare ourselves to others. Could social media be feeding into our age-related anxiety?

Hilda is unconvinced that we can lay the blame solely at the door of Instagram. “It’s more than that; age as a marker for certain things is very deeply ingrained into our culture,” she explains. In fact, she suggests that social media may help our collective focus on age to ease up, rather than intensifying it, as it gives us the opportunity to see different examples of how we can live our lives. “People are leaving it much longer to settle down or decide on career paths, especially in big cities. It’s no longer seen as such a personal failing to not have achieved certain markers.”

It makes sense that social media has the potential to radically change our views on growing older. When mainstream media takes such a cookie cutter view on what it means to be an older woman (if it even depicts it at all), the online world gives us space to tell alternative stories. Think of the Advanced Style blog, which was almost revolutionary in how it presented women over 60. And as our generation ages, we’re sure to carry on documenting our achievements and adventures online in the same way we do now, creating a different narrative around ageing, away from a media that barely showcases successful women over 40.

But back to my friends and I, currently wrestling with the big pre-30 crisis. I wonder if we’ll carry on feeling this way as we grow ever-older. Will we experience similar anxieties at the turn of every decade?

“40 is another big age for these types of thoughts. However, after that, people do start to accept themselves more,” Hilda reassures me. “There’s less comparison once you get to 50 or 60. People tend to be more like: ‘I’m doing what I’m doing’, even if it isn’t necessarily what they envisioned.”

And what of those rare and special creatures who manage to achieve all the goals and targets they set for themselves – do they get to lead a life blissfully-free from neuroses?

“For some people [achieving set markers] brings happiness but for others it doesn’t, and that’s where a lot of disappointment can arise,” warns Hilda. “People can get all their boxes ticked, and their lives are exactly as they pictured them, but it doesn’t make them feel happy. That’s the danger in taking on these culturally-accepted routes to happiness.”

Of course, this can lead to that other great age-related crisis: the mid-life one. “This occurs when people feel trapped – perhaps by a well-paying job that they hate, a house or a partner. They don’t know how to deal with it, so they distract themselves with activities like partying, buying a sports car or having an affair.” Or, as writer Joseph Campbell once put it: “Mid-life crisis is what happens when you climb to the top of the ladder and discover it’s against the wrong wall.”

To help ourselves, we need to make sure that we’re focusing on what genuinely makes us happy, rather than simply soaking up different messages about where we ‘should’ be. Earning six figures when all you really want to do is express your creativity is the classic one, but it works the other way too – rejecting the corporate world, then realising you’d actually prefer a bit of financial stability and the chance to buy wine that’s not on offer. It’s important to really listen to yourself and work it out.

Secondly, stop being so damn hard on yourself. Not having finished (ok, not even started) that novel or founded that start-up by the age of 30 most certainly does not make you a failure. “Take a step back and look at [your life] in the round,” encourages Hilda. “If we appreciate the blessings we do have – health, strong family relationships – it can help dissolve our feelings of inadequacy, or at least put them into the context of a bigger picture that shows a very accomplished person.”

Remember that merely having the opportunity to pursue your dreams is a huge privilege. And many people around the world will never even get to experience growing old.

Lastly, although it’s always good to be ambitious, setting yourself strict goals about what to achieve by certain ages means you risk putting yourself in a box and missing different opportunities along the way. After all, life’s a journey – as I think I saw another Pinterest quote say – so settle down and enjoy the ride.