- Your 20s are hard, but being in your 30s presents a whole new set of challenges.
- People in their 30s are expected to achieve more and find themselves going down different life paths than their friends.
- But your 30s bring a greater level of self-awareness, too.
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You’re 23, fresh out of college.
Maybe you’re in debt from student loans or blowing an entire paycheck on rent. Perhaps you are struggling to find a career that’s meaningful (or you’ve come to the crushing realization that a vocation can provide only so much meaning).
And, in all likelihood, your love life — a soup of devastating heartbreak, fleeting magic and careless disasters — is best characterized as a "mess."
Yes, your 20s are hard. Popular culture and popular opinion tell us this, as does research. And for many 20-somethings (myself included, at the time) knowing that this decade is made for mistakes and misfires is a welcome palliative: The confusion, disappointment and ego-bruising all part of the formative process of becoming an adult.
Eventually, things will get easier. Right?
I’m now in 30s — and, by all accounts, firmly in the "adult" camp — and realize that the answer to this question is both yes and no.
There are major differences between the two eras, and the transition from 20-something to 30-something contains both major learning pains and liberating realizations.
Here are the four biggest differences I’ve witnessed between my 20s and my 30s.
Everyone is no longer going through the same thing at the same time
Smith Collection/Getty Images
When I was a 20-something, I was pretty bonded with my contemporaries. In many cases, we were all recent college graduates, new entrants in the workforce, single (or at least unmarried) and desperately striving to become adults.
United by gaffes at work, embarrassingly bad dates and mice infestations in our shoebox-size apartments, my 20-something friends and I laughed—and cried—our way through it all.
Now that I’m in my 30s, my peers and I are less obviously intertwined through common identifiers. I’m a married mom that works part-time and lives in the suburbs; a best friend of mine is single, works 60 hours a week and lives in downtown Manhattan. In fact, the 30-something of 2019 has multiple personalities, and I’ve known them all: The career-focused city-dweller, the jet-setting bachelor, the glamorous serial dater and the shell-shocked divorcée.
On the surface, all of them are pretty different from me — except that they’re my age.
Coming to terms with the fact that I’m no longer in lockstep with my peers was initially disorienting. But now I’m at peace knowing my fellow 30-somethings can and often will be in different stages of their lives than I am. I’ve learned that real bonds are forged through emotional, moral, and intellectual alignment; they’re not made because someone is or isn’t a parent.
There’s a lot more pressure to achieve — and compete
Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/Flickr
If your 20s are considered to be a dress rehearsal for adulthood, your 30s are the real performance.
The permission to flail and fail in well-meaning youth is stripped away. Now is the time to achieve traditionally "adult" milestones. This includes — but is not limited to — procuring the following: an impressive title to update your LinkedIn page with; a good-looking life partner; an Instagram-worthy wedding; one or more cute, undemanding children; and a house with multiple bedrooms for said children.
Those who fail to meet these ambitious milestones may feel inadequate. Those who are striving to achieve them may feel pressure to compete with their peers. And, man, is this a bummer. Once upon a time, us 20-somethings shared our mistakes with ease and humor; as a 30-something, this type of breezy, endearing vulnerability is increasingly absent.
I don’t miss the messiness of and uncertainty I felt in my 20s, but I do miss the camaraderie I shared with my contemporaries over said messiness and uncertainty. Which, incidentally, doesn’t go away once you have attained a big house, a killer job or a one-year-old that knows the alphabet.
For women, age is suddenly a ‘thing’
As a 20-something woman, you are essentially untouchable — society loves youth, and so does your metabolism! Your hangovers are cured by a greasy breakfast sandwich, your neck isn’t sore after working 12-hour days, and jean shorts look cute on you.
But once you hit your 30s, things begin to change. You’re not exactly "old," but you do have some faint lines on your forehead (Botox?!). Hangovers are 24-hour affairs. Jean shorts look less cute. And if you’re single and over 35, the clock is ticking. Consider freezing your eggs immediately!
There’s no denying that when women hit their 30s, age starts to becomes a factor. I’ve noticed subtle and not-so-subtle cultural reminders that I am, indeed, aging. Which is fine — I am! What I find distressing, however, is that women in their 30s are expected to "fight" the signs of aging with everything in their arsenal — as if there exists an indisputable truth that somehow younger equals better.
The irony is, many of the 30-something women I know are the most beautiful, authentic, and dynamic versions of themselves right now. They don’t want to go back to being their 22-year-old self — except, maybe, when they have a hangover.
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