When I was growing up, the prospect of turning 30 seemed to loom over women as midnight did for Cinderella – when the carriage melted into a pumpkin and the fantasy of our twenties ended, we would have to embrace reality. I think particularly of the Friends episode “The One Where They All Turn 30”: Rachel bursts into tears at her own birthday party, bemoans how she hasn’t had three kids already, and dumps her boyfriend (it takes seeing him commandeer a scooter down their apartment block landing to see she has no future with a 24-year-old called Tag). In 1996 meanwhile, Bridget Jones saw life through the lens that “single women in their 30s” are “treated as freaks by society”.
But now, everything happens later, if at all. Julia Roberts’s pact to marry her best mate in My Best Friend’s Wedding happened at 28 – now it might not even happen at 38. As ONS statisticians bemoan, half of women at 30 remain childless. Even if you’re a woman who’s married by 30, there’s a good chance you’ll delay having kids until 35, for the sake of career progress. Our current economic precarity means that even those who want to “grow up” in their thirties often can’t. The starter kit for settling down: owning a home and affordable childcare, is so often out of reach – in 2007, the average age for a first-time buyer in the UK was 28, but now it’s 34.
The age of 30 has been the subject of a significant rebranding exercise. There has been a slew of predictable articles in women’s magazines over the years about why the milestone is actually, like, the best thing ever – while on social media, users insist that “turning 30 is like being in your twenties but with more money!”
With all this propaganda, I supposed that my friends and I would greet turning 30 with equanimity and passivity. And yet, when I turned 29 last month, my breathing suddenly became very shallow at the thought of being 30 in a year. I put this down to a throwaway comment from a man I went on a date with, who spoke (not unkindly) about “the panic women can get into about turning 30”. It pointed to the existence of something I’d hoped was extinct – and as though to prove him right, I started considering whether I should have “arrived” by 30 – with the love of my life and career-actualisation in tow.
I felt disappointed I was so basic as to not transcend the turning-30 panic – until I spoke to friends. Even those in relationships privately admitted to freak-outs precipitated by their 30ths – about whether they want kids (or more concerningly, whether they want their long-term boyfriends). One has seen women she knows wait until they were 30-and-three-months to break up with boyfriends they weren’t keen on so that they didn’t have to blow out 30 candles alone.
Of course, there’s no real difference between being 29 years, 11 months and 29 days old and being 30 – but it’s a convenient yardstick. There’s a reason people increasingly throw extravagant 30th birthday bashes instead of weddings; why there is a Forbes’ “30 Under 30”. My research into 30-something experiences generally involves one of the following: how hangovers hit differently, how you can’t just “warm up as you play” sport – and how skincare regimes are no longer felt to be a con.
Because biology is a thing – and unfortunately, the elephant in the room is that 30 seems a pivotal age to women because studies show that in our thirties, the number of eggs produced decreases by 80 per cent (“Off a cliff!” as they say). I used to be set against the idea of children, and felt little inclination to meet someone or achieve much by any age. But now I think I might want them, the thought of 30 as some sort of marker is creeping into my mind.
Women’s fertility is the thing we don’t talk about because it’s such an inconvenient fact, responsible for all kinds of hysteria, bad decisions and sexist imaginings about sell-by dates. But, for the same reasons, we do talk about it in private. The “40 is the new 30” discourse (provoked in turn by the “but we’ll live ‘til 100” discourse) works until you clock you’re probably not going to get pregnant at 40.
Which is why the literature declaring “30 doesn’t actually mean anything” jars slightly – especially outside of progressive circles. Yes, wealthier, well-educated women might not feel the need to couple up and have kids – but even they have to withstand societal pressure to conclude that. Meanwhile, being a 30-something on dating apps is, as numerous women attest to, a different game: I have spoken to men who configure their apps to exclude women in their thirties for fear their sperm would be harvested for a baby. Yes, I feel glad that in a year’s time men with such ageist sensibilities will self-filter themselves out of my Hinge – but it would be awfully nice if their prejudice didn’t exist in the first place.
Mostly, I know that once I turn 30 I will feel relieved. Everyone says it’s the anticipation of 30 that is so significant – once there you realise that little has materially changed. I do not miss the striving and confusion that characterised so much of my twenties, and imagine it will be a relief to have “arrived”, in whatever dishevelled state that may be. But I don’t think it’s hysterical for women to feel anxious about the milestone. I can’t help but think that if we spoke more openly around those anxieties – and perhaps had nuanced conversations around fertility – women wouldn’t feel so panicked about turning 30. And men might not be so ignorant.
[See also: How do you destroy a brand?]