Since the moment I stopped being 19, I have latched on to the phrase “thirty is the new twenty” as if the proliferation of the phrase depended entirely on me. A precocious teenager, I decided to start having a quarter-life crisis at the start of my sweet 16 and have been clinging to it white-knuckled ever since. As I got older, saying “thirty is the new twenty” was a great psychological trick to dissuade the mounting tension about how to transfer myself from adolescence (which I wasn’t terribly superb at) to adulthood (a word which has become more meaningless with each passing year). This amazing phrase bought me a ten year time out of caring. If thirty was the new twenty, then my twenties were allowed to be the aimless mess I had steered it into. This free decade could be a cocoon to hide me from reality. I would hibernate in the obscurity of this lost decade, sure that when it ended I would be probably mostly kind of ready to give that whole “adult” shit a try. Emerge a beautiful butterfly of maturity.
Recently it has been brought to my attention that these ten years of existence might not be as throwaway as I had hoped.
But first, why might I have thought I was getting a freebie decade? Well I’m not the only one. I doubt this blog was the first time you heard the proclamation of your 30s of yesteryear being the equivalent of your 20s today. Part of the problem is simple comparisons between your life and the life of your elders, of the “typical” American family. The average age of marriage has jumped about seven years since the 1950s and the average age of first time mothers has jumped 3.6 years since the 70s.
Sociologists have traditionally defined the “transition to adulthood” by the milestones of: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. In the western world, it seems that we’re slowing down a bit. According to a study done in Canada back in 2001, the average 30 year old had completed the same number of life milestones then as a 25 year old had in the 70s. So what the hell is going on here? Grampa had three kids and two wars under his belt by my age! Why can’t twenty-somethings just grow up already!?
Are we stuck? Are kids these days just lazy? Is society itself beginning to unravel creating an endless army of adolescents with no parental figures to scream “CUT YOUR HAIR, HIPPIE!”?
Meh. Yes. Probably. Nah. It’s complicated. For whatever reasons, good or bad, people are starting to take their time and feel out their choices more. And maybe it’s the paradox of choice itself knocking us back a bit. Many of us have been told since childhood we can “do whatever we set our mind to” and that we should “do what makes us happy” so many times and reminded of all the magical opportunities that we have in the present that never existed for previous generations that it might be short circuiting our brains.
But I don’t know. I have a degree in pretend.
The point is that it’s easy for our generation to latch onto a phrase like “30 is the new 20” with such rigor, because it absolves us of stress. Why am I desperately trying to live off barista tips when mom was climbing the corporate ladder?… uh… er… BECAUSE 30 is the new 20! I have a decade to find direction in life! Whew, back to drinking.
To be fair, most of the twenty-somethings I know aren’t acting like the remaining decade after college is just for hookers and blow. The vast majority of my peers are trying quite hard in their varied fields, but often the problem is one of certainty. Our generation lacks certainty because we have the luxury to. In the words of Meg Jay, the author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–And How To Make The Most Of Them Now:
“For hundreds of years, twentysomethings moved directly from being sons and daughters to being husbands and wives, but within just a few decades a new developmental period opened up. Waking up every day somewhere between their childhood homes and their own mortgages, twentysomethings [. . .] [aren’t] sure what to make of the time.”
“Blessed” with the certainty of a mortgage and children to provide for, the twenty somethings of that bygone era didn’t get to take the time to ask question “Is this really what I want to be doing with my life?” because they generally were too busy trying to provide and care for a family. Our generation can wait. But without “having” to do anything, what should we do?
No. Damnit. Just no.
Spend the time wisely. The great thing that a decade where you aren’t encumbered by endless responsibility is flexibility. Take risks. Stop working the safe and easy jobs just because you can, unless that’s where you really want to see yourself in twenty years. If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, welcome to humanity. But working at Starbucks or Walmart or Bob’s Tavern or temping or whatever “for now” job you have that you do because it’s easy and gives you time to pursue other things isn’t the way to spend your time.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand people want money and a low-stress job to finance their passions, but if that’s your excuse you better make damn sure that when you aren’t at your hateful job you’re actually working on those passions. If not, maybe you’re just spinning your wheels. Go take a risk on something else.
That’s the real benefit to living in a lost generation. We can take risks. Try out a few careers! See what things are like out there. Do it now, while you have time to take the wrong turn and go for a few miles than turn back to the fork when you realize that the road you’re on is taking you someplace crappy. There’s no shame in being wrong about your career/life choices. But there should be shame if you stick with your mediocre path simply because, “Meh.”
Don’t feel uneasy because you feel undefined. It just means you can define yourself however you want. Just remember that you are the one that has to do the defining. And you do that by “doing something”. Take a job in a new field, try something outside your comfort zone, pick a goal and run at it full force (even if you aren’t sure it’s what you want long term), or.. hell… join the Peace Corps. But do something.
Be joyful that you can postpone the responsibilities the older generations couldn’t. Use the time wisely, though… being 30 with only keggers and coffee shops on your resume is not the same as when you’re 20.