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The 30 Crisis - Adulting When Adulthood’s Unattainable

Just as you’ve gotten through your quarter-life crisis, bam - that’s when the 30 crisis comes along. Recent on screen depictions like tick, tick…BOOM!, Inside, Starstruck and The Worst Person In The World are shining new light on this “tri-life crisis” and why it’s dominating so many people’s psyches today.

TRANSCRIPT

When you’ve got through the quarter-life crisis, and you’re not too worried about your mid-life crisis, bam—that’s when the 30-crisis comes along.

Turning 30 has always been a milestone, but recent on-screen depictions like Tick, Tick…BOOM!, Inside, Starstruck, and The Worst Person In The World are shining new light on this “tri-life crisis” and why it’s dominating so many people’s psyches today, as the settled “adulthood” of the past feels more and more unattainable.

Jonathan: “By the time my parents were 30, they already had two kids, they had careers with steady pay cheques, a mortgage!” - Tick, Tick…BOOM!

Turning 20 is a big deal, but even though you’re technically an adult, you can still put off adult responsibilities. 30 offers no such leeway—it’s the first fully adult decade, and so 30 becomes an age where you feel like you should have it figured out. But what’s expected by the time we turn 30 has changed drastically over the last decades.

Lincoln: “I want to get married.”

Ilana: “I’m only 27. What am I, a child bride?” - Broad City

Since 1998, the median average age of Americans at their first wedding has jumped from 26 to 30 for men, and 25 to 28 for women. Similarly, in the past 45 years, the mean age for first-time moms in the USA has gone up from 21 to 26, and between 1972 and 2015, the average age for a first-time father went from 27 to 30. These averages are being brought up by the rising number of people getting married and having kids in their 40s—meaning that it’s far from abnormal if you’re entering your 30s and these “milestones” are nowhere in sight. The other typical markers of adulthood—a stable job, a home of your own—are also getting more postponed or out of reach for many millennials and Gen Z’ers.

Alex Edelman: “Because every old person in a city like L.A. or New York or London is the same. They’re like, ‘My house is worth two million dollars! But when I bought it in 1981, I paid 11 raspberries for it!’” - Comedy Central Stand-Up

And yet we—and a society that loves honors like “30 Under 30” lists—still put pressure on people to have done something significant by 30. Thus, cultural representations of turning 30 are colored by anxiety and panic, and a feeling of running out of time. As Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst wrote less than a year before her tragic passing, “When I was crowned Miss USA 2019 at 28 years old, I was the oldest woman in history to win the title…turning 30 feels like a cold reminder that I’m running out of time to matter in society’s eyes—and it’s infuriating.” Here’s our take on The 30s Crisis, and why the end of youth feels all the more anxious when the carefree period of youth is taken away and the goalposts keep shifting.

Achievements by 30

We often measure the value of our lives by what we’ve done, but what if it feels like we haven’t done anything yet? In the Friends episode “The One Where They All Turn Thirty,” we see how the gang’s instinct as they approach their third decade is either to cling on to their youth, or get laser-focused on what they want to have achieved in this phase of life.

Rachel: “I’ll need a year and a half to plan the wedding, and I’d like to know the guy for like a year, year and a half before we get engaged…which means I need to meet the guy by the time I’m 30.” - Friends

These reactions reinforce the idea that 30 is a deadline by which we should all have our lives together. And that’s scary because, if we haven’t achieved our personal dreams by then, we fear we never will.

In Tick, Tick…BOOM!—based on Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical—Jonathan is completely preoccupied with two anxieties: turning 30, and staging the musical that he has been working on for the majority of his 20s. These two events are entirely intertwined in his head, as if, if he doesn’t get produced by the time he’s 30, he’ll never be a famous composer.

Jonathan: “I turn 30 in two days.”

Michael: “And?”

Jonathan: “And Stephen Sondheim was 27 when he had his first show on Broadway…I can’t keep waiting.” - Tick, Tick…BOOM!

Of course, these two things aren’t inherently connected and 30 is a rather arbitrary benchmark—which mainly takes on significance for us because we’re comparing ourselves to others (often, to the greatest ones of all time). Tick, Tick…BOOM! is all about failure, or rather, perceived failure. Jonathan does finish the musical, but at first, nobody wants it, and so he has to go back to the drawing board and start something else—something which, in real life, would become his musical, Tick, Tick…BOOM! And Jonathan had no way of knowing that his greatest success—his iconic rock-musical Rent, which would change the course of musical theater—was still further down the road. So ultimately, the movie reveals how manufactured the 30-crisis is. Jonathan doesn’t get any worse after turning 30, or any less likely to be successful—if anything, the opposite happens.

Part of the foundation of the 30-crisis comes from the value we place on youth in our society. “30 Under 30” lists are so prevalent in our society, not just as a way to celebrate good work people have done, but also how amazing it is they’ve done it at such a young age. But the result of that is that, if you are considered a youthful prodigy, once you get over that milestone, all that specialness is gone. Bo Burnham—whose comedy career started when he became a YouTube phenomenon in his teens—touches on this feeling in his special Inside, when he sings about his personal 30-Crisis.

Bo: “I used to be the young one.” - Inside

Julie Powell in Julie and Julia is a victim of that same societal pressure. Julie is on the cusp of 30 when she begins charting her attempt to cook all 536 recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she’s judged by her friends for what she’s not achieved in her career. The article her friend writes about her—with the headline “Portrait of a Lost Generation”—shames Julie for not being in the successful, put-together position of her and their other friends. Meanwhile, her actual job is a source of real pain, given she spends her day on the phone to the bereaved families of 9/11 who are trying to make insurance claims. So the project of the cooking blog—which comes not only out of Julie’s desire to do something creative, but also out of the deep, nostalgic joy she gets from cooking—seems, at first, almost divorced from any career aspirations. But ironically, it’s the blog that does launch her career. So the pressure we put on ourselves to accomplish things by the time we’re 30 isn’t conducive to producing good work. What is conducive to that? Re-focusing on things that bring us joy.

Julie: “I was cooking dinner for a legend, even though I’ve never really heard of her until a few months ago.”

Eric: “Maybe she’ll offer you a book contract?”

Julie: “What if she does?” - Julie and Julia

These narratives that challenge the pressure to achieve by 30 also undercut another pervasive myth: that when you’re young, you’re at your most creative, most inspired, and can do your best work. Here, instead, the value is not given to youth, but to experience—something that doesn’t run out once you hit a certain age.

Why You Haven’t Settled Down by 30?

The idea of the “biological clock” makes turning 30 a significant age in our personal lives. Weddings, families, buying houses, nesting: all these things become linked with your 30s, for better or worse. In Revolutionary Road, it’s on Frank Wheeler’s 30th birthday that he begins to fully take stock of his life, leading to him sleeping with his much younger secretary after realizing how deeply unhappy he is with his life, now that he’s followed the same path of settling down his father did.

Frank: “I used to sit there and think: ‘I hope to Christ I don’t end up like you.’...Now here I am, a 30-year-old Knox man.” - Revolutionary Road

My Best Friend’s Wedding hinges around Julianne’s anxiety about being single at 27, while her best friend is marrying a younger woman, and this leads her to completely spiral and momentarily forget that she is pretty happy with her life!

Starstruck’s late-20s Jessie seems fairly happy in her daily life when we meet her, but admits she’s unsatisfied with her lack of concrete achievements. When a chance encounter kicks off a romance with superstar Tom Kapoor, he’s drawn to this authenticity and down-to-earth fun in Jessie and her life. But thanks to his influence, she begins to envision a bigger life for herself and realize, perhaps, she’s been selling herself short. In the end, after considering going back to New Zealand, she stays because of the promise of her relationship. And in the second season, admitting to herself that she’s falling in love with him is more important to her in this moment of her life than “achievements.” This underlines that it’s okay to make big choices based on what feels right, and to “achieve” things in whatever order and timeframe feels natural to us.

In the iconic rom-com that’s often pointed to as a precursor for Starstruck, Notting Hill, the celebrity character Anna Scott is 29 years old—and rich and famous—but her 30-crisis is still a crisis of the self. She’s wondering whether her career as an actress will suffer as she ages into this new decade, and she’s tired of being movie star Anna Scott, whom the whole world thinks they know.

Anna: “Every time I get my heart broken, the newspapers s-splash it about as though it’s entertainment.” - Notting Hill

She wants to explore being the ordinary person Anna Scott, and hoping another ordinary person can see that.

Anna: “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” - Notting Hill

Ultimately, what 30-crisis stories have in common is that the 30th birthday triggers an opportunity for self-reflection and life evaluation. As we see in a number of examples, the 30-crisis reminds characters to check themselves—to ask if they’re happy with the direction they’re going in, or if they want to make a change. Promising Young Woman takes place when Cassie is 29, and the approaching 30th birthday seems linked to her undertaking this mission to make everyone involved in the assault of her best friend, Nina, revisit and reckon with their sins. In How I Met Your Father’s “Dirty Thirty” episode, the mature guy Sophie is dating makes her wonder whether the wild 30th birthday party she’s planning makes her immature. But in the end, he reminds her there’s upsides to being a little messy.

Drew: “This whole, like, being super mature thing, it’s, um…yeah, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. And sometimes, I feel like I missed out.” - How I Met Your Father

The 30-crisis can also come from taking stock of successes, and weighing up whether they’re enough to keep you happy. The Before trilogy plays with this in its first two films. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Céline are young, bohemian 20-somethings, happy for the romance of one magical night, but believing there will be plenty more experiences like this in their future. As slightly older and wiser people in Before Sunset, they now know that this kind of connection is rare and precious.

Céline: “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. And later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.” - Before Sunset

Both are successful by the time they reconnect—Céline an environmental activist, Jesse a best-selling novelist (married with a kid)—but as they walk around Paris together, they realize that these successes don’t necessarily mean they’re happy, and in rekindling their connection, they understand that it’s that that they’ve been missing. This is why the Nina Simone song “Just in Time” that plays in the final scene is significant, as it underlines that Céline and Jesse face the choice of seizing the moment and acting on their feelings or just letting it slip away. As the song’s lyrics say, “You found me just in time…So let’s live today, anyway.” In this movie, the valuable sense of perspective that comes from being in your 30s—the realization that time is limited—motivates the characters to change their lives for the better.

Turning 30 Today

Turning 30 has always been anxiety-inducing, but turning 30 now or in the near future—when the world feels like it’s been on pause for years during the COVID pandemic—feels almost unfair. Kate Lindsay writes how during the pandemic, “you look 30” became an online insult to throw at people who are using the internet in the wrong way, say, by trying too hard to keep up with trends. TikTok is obviously the first social media channel to be predominantly driven by Gen Z, so perhaps their using 30 as an insult speaks to this idea of TikTok as a young-person-only zone, and a fear of that youth (and resulting cultural capital) ebbing away.

Bo Burnham’s “30” from his comedy special Inside combines anxiety around turning 30 with pandemic-induced self-isolation. There’s a kind of manic, panicked tone to the comedy song which covers a lot of topics. Burnham’s character compares himself to his grandad who fought in Vietnam aged 27, suggesting he’s worried about not having done anything important. He talks about his “stupid” friends having “stupid” children, suggesting he’s worried about keeping up with those around him having families. He’s worried he’s out of touch; he expresses bitterness toward younger people. In other words, it’s a laundry list of pressures and problems that come with reaching this milestone at this particular moment in time.

30 may be the formal start of true adulthood, but more importantly, it’s coded as the end of youth—and for a generation whose twenties have been defined by economic instability, climate change, and a multiple-year global pandemic, adding an old-fashioned, societally-coded pressure on top of that feels unnecessary.

On the other end of the spectrum, singer-songwriter Mitski, who also turned 30 during the pandemic, saw the milestone as a chance for a cultural reset, and an opportunity to reconnect with herself—away from the idea of her that her fans had created in their heads. Speaking to Rolling Stone, she said, “I woke up and shed one single tear because I was so f***ing glad to be out of my twenties…The real me is not living some idealized life. I’m just on a couch, watching TV. My fans should not meet me because they would be disappointed.” Mitski’s perspective reminds us of the gains of aging—knowing oneself better, being comfortable with that self, and hopefully, living less for others and external validation.

Moreover, if you’re not reaching certain milestones you expected to by a certain age, you can take comfort from the trends evidencing that it’s not just you. It’s now the norm to marry, have children, and hit certain career and financial achievements later. Helen Coffey recently coined the idea of the 34-year-itch—so is 35 the new 30? Or is 40?

After all, in a number of these 30-crisis stories, for all that the characters get worked up, the actual birthday ends up not really mattering. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted realizes he’s misremembered his story and some of the events he’s been narrating actually took place on his 31st birthday.

Ted: “When did this happen? Oh, wait, the goat was there on my 31st birthday. Sorry, I totally got that wrong.” - How I Met Your Mother

In Friends, Phoebe has the same moment.

Ursula: “We’re not 30; we’re 31.”

Phoebe: “Oh, my God, we are 31!”

Ursula: “Yeah.”

Phoebe: “I just lost a whole year of my life.” - Friends

And Rachel’s 30-inspired “plan” for getting married and having kids by 35 doesn’t end up playing out at all how she envisioned. She gets pregnant less than a season later, thanks to a one-night stand that eventually leads her to the family of her dreams, just in its own messy, roundabout way.

While a mid-life crisis symbolizes an anxiety about mortality, and the quarter-life crisis is brought on by the end of adolescence and chemical changes in the brain, the 30-crisis is culturally ingrained—which means we have power over it, because that culture can be changed. In the wake of the pandemic, there have been calls to change a lot about how we live—how much we work, what we prioritize, the systems and structures that define our lives. Maybe if these conversations continue, turning 30 will start to feel like an exciting pit stop—but far from the end of the road.

SOURCES

Bichell, Rae Ellen. “Average Age Of First-Time Moms Keeps Climbing In The U.S.” NPR, 14 Jan. 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/01/14/462816458/average-age-of-first-time-moms-keeps-climbing-in-the-u-s?t=1646346803788.

Coffey, Helen. “The 34-year itch – what to do when you’re at a different life stage to your friends.” The Independent, 19 Feb. 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/life-stages-dating-marriage-families-b2018777.html.

Kryst, Chelsie. “A Pageant Queen Reflects on Turning 30.” Allure, 4 Mar. 2021, https://www.allure.com/story/cheslie-kryst-miss-usa-on-turning-30.

Lake, Rebecca. “What Is the Average Age of Marriage in the U.S.?.” Brides, 25 Feb. 2022, https://www.brides.com/what-is-the-average-age-of-marriage-in-the-u-s-4685727.

Lindsay, Kate. “Why is TikTok so scared of 30?” Embedded, 14 Feb. 2022, https://embedded.substack.com/p/why-is-tiktok-so-scared-of-30?utm_source=url&s=r.
Scutti, Susan. “The average American dad is getting older, study finds.” CNN, 30 Aug. 2017, https://edition.cnn.com/2017/08/30/health/older-dads-us-study/index.html#:~:text=The%20average%20age%20of%20a%20father%20of%20a%20newborn%20in,Michael%20Eisenberg.