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The 30-something life crisis

The pressure to hit adult milestones is out of sync for many of today’s 30-somethings.

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A woman sits in front of her laptop with her head down on her forearm on the table.
Thirty-somethings today are less happy than their predecessors, possibly because adulthood milestones are converging in a unique-to-this-cohort way.

“I know I’m getting older because my Kindle is turning into a self-help library,” says comedian Ali Wong in her Netflix special Baby Cobra.

My own early-30s self-help library was brimming with advice: on how to get my finances in order, make relationships work, and get comfortable with uncertainty. When I was 33, a divorce and an up-and-down writing career had left me wondering what my personal and professional future held.

My friends and I all seemed to be taking stock — considering having kids or feeling exhausted by new parenthood, searching for meaning in careers or seeking balance after working nonstop in our 20s — and speculating all the while thanks to social media if others were enjoying happier relationships, better jobs, and fitter bodies.

This is expected, of course. You make a plan for your life, and then life gets in the way. What is new is that we’re less happy than our 30-something predecessors, possibly because this taking-stock moment is happening during a decade when adulthood milestones — and lack of milestones — are converging in a unique-to-this-cohort way.

It’s true we already have the quarter-life crisis — I’d had that post-college “what now?” moment after quitting music school and backpacking abroad on a shoestring budget. But at 33, I was past the average age of this “real world” rude awakening. In my 30s, I knew who I was and what I wanted, but that didn’t mean everything had gone according to plan. Not by a long shot. And I wasn’t quite old enough for a midlife crisis (if it even exists). Maybe I was having a bit of both kinds of crises, another convergence of sorts.

“Adult” milestones in your 30s seem far more consequential

In our 20s, living in New York City, my friends and I were focused on our careers. We thought we had plenty of time to marry and pop out a kid or two. In our 30s, though, something shifted. Suddenly we were discussing parental leave policies and the cost of preschools over brunch with the same horrified enthusiasm once reserved for retelling bad dates.

I was 25 when I married, an outlier given the age at first marriage has “accelerated sharply, reaching a peak age of 29.1 for men and 27.8 for women in 2013,” according to historical demographer Steven Ruggles. However, the average age for a first divorce is 30, so at least I was right on track there.

While the age at which someone has their first kid varies based on geography and education, in cities like New York and San Francisco, that age is 31 and 32 for women, respectively. For American men, it’s 30.9. So, it’s safe to say that more 30-somethings than ever before are newlyweds and new parents in their 30s.

There are upsides to waiting to marry and have kids, of course. In my early 30s, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have children. Even at 34, when I had my son, I was on the younger side of my soon-to-be-procreating NYC friends.

But for some, there can be complications to waiting. Clinical psychologist Caroline Fleck says she sees many patients who are dealing with fertility issues. “The resources for supporting families through these physically, emotionally, and financially demanding treatments” are lacking and she often sees “men, women, and marriages hanging on by a thread.”

Then add economic pressures to relationship and biology ones. The median age of a first-time home buyer is 32. (It was 29 in the 1970s and ’80s.) That is, if you can afford to buy a home given student debt, the gig economy, and rising house prices. Tara Genovese, a counselor in Chicago, notes that for 30-somethings who came out of college during the recession, “economic milestones have been pushed back.”

And then there are the more nebulous anxieties of our 30s. Nearly every therapist I spoke with over email or phone talked about unmet expectations.

“One of the main words I listen for in a session is ‘should,’” said Megan Bearce, who sees many 30-somethings. “I should have a child, I should be married by now, I should love my job.”

If people are “hoping to get married and start a family, or be at a particular place in their career, their 30s is usually when they imagine they will do so,” says Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Saba Harouni Lurie. “For those who achieved certain goals or benchmarks, they can be surprised if they are not as happy as they had anticipated.”

Lurie gently framed this gap between expectations and reality as coming as a surprise. But I and many of my friends were often struggling with something more akin to failure when it came to feeling like we weren’t living up to our potential.

The pressure to search for happiness in your 30s

Happiness peaks at different ages, depending on the study. For instance, psychologists look at raw data, University of California, Riverside professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, who studies happiness, told me. “Those studies show people get happier with age,” she said. “Economists would say it’s a U-shaped curve, with the lowest dip around 45-50. They are controlling for lots of variables, like wealth, for example.”

Happiness itself is a slippery concept. In one of my favorite studies, people in their 30s and 70s were asked what age group was happier. Both groups answered the 30-somethings, but when the researchers asked each group about their own subjective well-being, the 70-somethings scored higher.

“I find people to err systematically in predicting their life satisfaction over the life cycle,” says economist Hannes Schwandt. “They expect — incorrectly — increases in young adulthood and decreases during old age.”

For Americans, happiness has become the ultimate self-help project, which only adds to the pressure of our 30s. Thanks to a wise therapist friend who suggested it, I spent a lot of introspective time in my early 30s focused on deconstructing various abstract happiness clichés (pursue your passion! never give up! fail forward!) and replacing them with more concrete and specific definitions of personal and professional fulfillment.

There are positives when it comes to being in your 30s. It’s a more “empowered age” than your 20s, says psychotherapist Alyson Cohen. We’re clearer about what we want and more “equipped for the struggle,” as Lurie eloquently put it.

I like how therapist and coach Shoshanna Hecht sums up being in your 30s: “Whereas in the 20s, the cynicism for what’s possible hasn’t yet set in, and the ‘I know who I am and so don’t give a ____’ of the 40s hasn’t yet arrived.”

So what to do? In our 30s, we are perhaps finally old enough to heed some good life advice. Don’t compare yourself to others. Practice gratitude. Embrace the beautifully messy, ordinary adult lives most of us lead. Don’t adhere too rigidly to any one vision for your life. Be flexible and adaptable. Figure out what you want versus what you think you want and adjust accordingly.

But we need to go beyond self-actualization solutions for this overwhelming decade. We are living in an era of what journalist Barbara Ehrenreich calls “relentless optimism.” Ehrenreich dismantles the self-help premise that “The real problems in our lives are never discrimination or poverty, bad relationships or unfair bosses ... but our own failure to ... think positive or practice mindfulness, to ‘take personal responsibility’ or ‘count our blessings.’” She argues instead that many of the problems we face require policy solutions, not positive psychology.

We also need to intervene earlier to teach our kids that failure is a necessary and valuable part of growing up, because by our 30s we will inevitably have faced some setbacks. I’ve realized that how we handle those moments — whether we choose to see failure as evidence that we are screw-ups rather than as natural, or even admirable, consequences of taking risks — makes all the difference in being mostly dissatisfied versus mostly fulfilled. I admit I have no idea how we tackle the social media nonstop comparison problem, but we all know we’ve got one.

I’m 38 now, and there have been more plot twists in the last five years than I could have ever imagined: both significant failures and substantive successes. Maybe it’s because my (hopefully) “don’t give a shit” 40s are looming, but I take it more in stride now than I did in the earlier part of this decade.

“Welcome to middle age!” a friend recently emailed me in response to some of these 30-something musings. “Isn’t it nice to realize that the stakes aren’t quite as high as they once seemed?”

Nice, indeed.

This essay is inspired by the author’s new book, And Then We Grew Up: On Creativity, Potential, and the Imperfect Art of Adulthood.

Rachel Friedman is also the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure. Find her on Twitter @RachelFriedman.