Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Can 30 just be 30?

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist in Virginia, gave a TED talk back in May, giving all of us struggling 20-somethings one more thing to worry about. You know that comforting saying "30 is the new 20?" Not true, she says. 

It was October, just one hour after learning a new position I was planning on getting fell through, when I stumbled across her comments. I wanted to throw myself my computer out the window. She did have some valid points, so maybe 30 isn't the new 20, but if we're going to try to label it - it's not the 30 it used to be either.

We hear labels like this all the time: 50 is the new 30! No, 50 is the new 65! 60 is the new 40! 70 is the new 60!  Why can't age just be what it is - a number? Why the expectations at certain increments? Why, when we live in a society so adamant that it values differences and individuality, are we expected to have completed the exact same checklist as everyone else just because we had a birthday?

Now, I admit I totally fell for 30 as the new 20 because it made me feel better about where I'm sitting halfway there. "Sure, I'm not where I hoped to be at 25, but hey, it's okay because 25 isn't really 25, and I'm at least on the right path." Then I read Meg's reasons for why this mindset is wrong:  
  • 80 percent of life’s most defining moments take place by   age 35.
  • The first 10 years of your career have an exponential impact on how much you’ll earn.
  • Over half of Americans are with their future partner by 30.
  • The brain has its second and last growth spurt in your 20s.

I'm not sure what I can do about my brain spurting, so I'll leave that alone, but now it feels like I have to view my life through a point system. So how am I doing? Career? Nope. Minus 25 points. Married? Yes! Add 30 points! Kids? Um...hopefully when I'm - you guessed it - 30. Minus 25 points.

Does this mean people without those negative points are winning at life and I'm not? And why is this measuring life on such a narrow scale? Is there nothing but a career and creating offspring with a partner? What about people who spend these years traveling? What about creating great friendships? What about finding a religion or something bigger to believe in? What about adopting by yourself at 35 or 40? 

This checklist constantly looming at the back of my mind is what has me tossing and turning every night, paranoid about being a failure. 

Further confusing the situation, I'm always hearing from older people, after they find out I'm 25 (and get over the shock that I'm not a teenager, despite my appearance), that I need to relax, that my whole life is ahead of me - the exact attitude people like Meg warn against.

 Now, I do understand where she's coming from. Avoiding procrastination, whether related to school or a job or 50 bad dates with the same type of loser guy, is always excellent advice - for anyone at any age in any era. This whole lecture on not wasting your life away could just as easily apply to people in their 20s (or 30s or even 40s or 50s) decades ago or in decades to come.

 So back off a little, please, because although there are plenty of people carelessly letting their lives go to waste, there are also plenty of us fighting an uphill battle with all our might. Higher education is increasingly and outrageously expensive, the job market is incredibly unstable and becoming a wife or mother is not the ultimate goal for women anymore, so we're not all fitting into the expected perfect mold.

My 25 obviously doesn't fit into Meg's ideal model, and it doesn't look like that of thousands of other 25-year-olds. My 30 won't either. It will just look like... me at 30. And if your 30 is a solo trip overseas or you as a student, a coffee shop manager, teacher, stay-at-home-dad or CEO, as long as we're all learning and growing and able to go to sleep smiling, I say we can all check off success. 


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