These phrases exactly capture the beautiful struggle of life in your 30s
In a new interview with Vogue, Emma Watson talks about her decision to “self-partner” herself in her 30s.
“I was like, ‘Why does everyone make such a big fuss about turning 30? This is not a big deal […] Cut to 29, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so stressed and anxious,'” says the Harry Potter star, who turned 30 this April.
“And I realise it’s because there is suddenly this bloody influx of subliminal messaging around. If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you’re still figuring things out… There’s just this incredible amount of anxiety.
“It took me a long time, but I’m very happy [being single],” she adds. “I call it being self-partnered.”
Watson is not the only one to reflect on the tumultuous forces at play in your 30s – and to coin a term for it. Here are six other words that capture a turbo-charged sensation of change, along with other realities churned up in life’s most dynamic decade:
With the world’s single population at a point of unprecedented growth, being single is moving from a life stage to a state of being. But (as Watson suggests) it’s only when you hit your 30s – with higher disposable income and a greater sense of self-awareness – that you can really appreciate this shift.
Pre-30s, you’re too busy struggling to pay rent/prove yourself/climb the ladder to question any culturally conditioned ideals. You simply assume that one day, you’ll probably “settle down” and this will be A Good Thing.
In your 30s, however, you become more discerning and sure of yourself: and this transformation gives you a renewed appreciation of the joys of being alone; a freedom that, ironically, makes you very “un-alone”.
In a 2017 thought piece for Vogue, journalist Bella Mackie recalls how she spent her 20s frantically looking for a partner, regardless of whether “this was the relationship I wanted, or if I was merely seeking any relationship”.
However, Mackie’s 30s signalled a dramatic sea-change in how she viewed herself and her life. “When Stevie Nicks was asked about being on her own, she gave one of the best answers I’ve ever heard,” Mackie recalls: “People say, ‘But you’re alone.’ But I don’t feel alone. I feel very un-alone. I feel very sparkly and excited about everything.”
This quote chimed exactly with Mackie’s own experience, who continues: “Without the societal pressure that previous generations were under to couple up, us single people no longer have to worry about having children out of wedlock or having sex without a ring on our finger […] we are increasingly given the space to make true friends and to choose a path without having to compromise with a partner.
“That could feel daunting, but for me, the joy of choosing my own routine feels like a luxury to be savoured. I can stay up writing late into the night. I can book a holiday where I only lie by the pool. I can run all morning, if I choose. And I do.”
That’s not to say your 30s are all sweetness and light, though. This is a period when you start to question your choices across all areas of life – which can spark off some pretty dramatic changes.
A newfound sense of clarity, coupled with force of “real life” pressures (you know, the kind where you’re not downing vodka at 3am) means you may well start to unpick the life choices you previously had down as dead-certs.
For example, you might decide that the shiny accounting career you vaulted into straight out of college is not that satisfying after all; and what you really want to do is retrain as a freelance illustrator. Or you break up with your partner of 10 years and move into a flatshare (figures show that the number of housesharers aged 35-44 has risen more than 186% in the past decade). Fuelled by tales of digital nomads, you may choose to quit your job and go travelling for a year; checking in at the hotel of mum and dad in order to save cash.
Whether it’s a career break, a country move or a relationship break-up, these changes can feel regressive. They also conjure up the exact kind of tumult and uncertainty that adolescence once brought about.
“I feel like I have experienced a regression,” Jude Peppis-Clay, a 30-something mum who split up with her son’s father and moved back to hometown in Hampshire, tells Stylist magazine.
“In our 20s, it was OK to not have everything figured out. It was OK to be in an entry-level job, a house share, dating several people and struggling with finances. But by the time we reach our 30s, we’re expected to have sorted that stuff out.
“I know I haven’t. I took a step back in many aspects of my life when my relationship fell apart and, although there’s no regrets there, I do sometimes feel like I have slipped back down the ladder of life.”
The fact is, just like adolescence the first time round, these changes represent real and lasting growth. But that doesn’t stop the stomach-lurching sensation that they trigger.
This process of figuring out how to be a “proper grown-up” – equating where you thought you would be in your 30s with where you actually are, and making big decisions – is something New York writer Rachel Syme captured exactly in a viral tweet earlier this year.
“I feel like 33-38 is a really tough age for a lot of women I know,” Syme wrote, in a stream of consciousness that expressed how she felt as she woke up on her 36th birthday. “Feels like so many big decisions and future plans have to be squeezed into this lil window; just me?
“It’s not just a baby decision which, yes, is huge in those years and looms over everything. It just feels like all my friends this year are doing this huge reevaluation of everything. It’s a time of lurches and swerves.”
“Like I don’t know who needs to hear this but this morning even though everything in my life is really good, I woke up and realised it was my birthday and started to cry,” Symes continued. “I mean, could be hormones or heat! Or the world. But! It’s a weird time.
“Anyways, if anyone is either floating in this strange miasma, or has emerged from it and wants to share your advice from the other side, I would love to hear it. A birthday gift to me!!”
Syme’s description of “the swerve” struck an immediate chord with other 30-somethings on Twitter, and the writer was bombarded with people sharing their own stories of big decisions at an unspoken time of change.
“I feel like nobody talks to you about what it’s like to be this age,” Syme later said. “We have the youth; spunk, energy, beauty, and there’s so many things people feel like they must do – but where are the conversations about all of the big decisions we need to make?”
Hanxiety and JOMO
However, anyone hoping to drown their decision anxiety in tequila will be disappointed, since drinking comes with a major price in your 30s. This isn’t just hearsay, either: science shows that hangovers do actually get worse in your 30s, though a combination of physiological and lifestyle factors.
Levels of alcohol concentration and dehydration increase but also, “as people approach 30, lifestyles often become more stressful,” GP Clare Morrison, of the pharmacy MedExpress explains. “Pressure from careers, mortgages and young children can affect sleeping and eating patterns, making one less resilient to the effects of alcohol.”
As producer Michael November Name points out in this brilliant tweet, drinking goes from “hell yeah let’s go out all night and go straight to work” in your 20s, to “dear diary, I had a beer last month. I’ve had a hangover for two fortnight. I fear this is the end” in your 30s.
This brutal U-turn means you may well find yourself curled up on the sofa in sweat pants at 8pm on a Saturday night; and loving every minute of it. “I love being in my 30s,” Jacqui Collins, an LA-based PR director shares in another on-point tweet on the topic. “I get messages from my friends like ‘oh god I’m in a club’ and I’m like ‘oh god no’ while I’m home eating string cheese.”
The frenetic fear of missing out that propelled you between parties and club nights in your 20s is replaced by a blissful acceptance of “Netflix and chill” minus any innuendo. And the transition brings about a staggering levels of relief.
As writer Carolyn Kuang-chen Stanley explains in a column for PureWow, dating in your 20s is often governed by a sense of “so-so” partners and prospects. “A good chunk of my 20s was ruled by on-again, off-again situations that weren’t healthy or fulfilling, but that I was nonetheless afraid to let go of,” she says.
“[…] I’d been honest with myself, it was pretty clear that those relationships didn’t have a future from the get-go,” she adds. “Now that I have more perspective, I’m better at seeing if something’s worth sticking out—or if I’m better off abandoning ship early.”
In your 30s, you have the inner security to call time on things that aren’t working out; and this skill is especially useful in the ephemeral world of dating. If someone continually keeps you hanging, or a relationship just isn’t working out, you’re more assertive at cutting loose. You’re willing to say no to a genre of “so-so” dating that’s ultimately fuelled by self-doubt.
This change also represents a move towards “intuitive dating”, whereby you really think about the intentions of what you’re doing, while also limiting the time you spend on it. This means you converse energy and keep the focus on yourself, handily swerving the all-too-common experience of dating fatigue.
“No matter what your ultimate dating goal is—finding one or more primary partners, looking for casual connections—it’s vital to set and hold that intention,” NYC-based therapist Julia Bartz writes in Psychology Today. “[…] his is not to say that you can’t change your mind. But if you do, check in with yourself and make sure you’re excited about the prospect instead of settling—and therefore taking time and energy away from your ultimate goal.”
Self-care is also important, she says: “Many people unconsciously see dating as an excuse to treat both their partners and themselves well: nice meals, nights out, gifts, and more. But being single is an excellent opportunity to learn about how best to care for yourself, by treating yourself as kindly as your ideal partner would.”