Self-improvement: Life in your 30s

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Just beyond 30, self-improvement expert Gemma Rose asks herself whether it’s about time she grows up.

Millenials (those born between the early 80s and early noughties) have been getting a lot of flak lately. They have been described as narcissistic, self-indulgent and selfish, forming the #GenerationMe. They are graciously called boomerang kids or failure to launch. This phenomenon is not just apparent in Europe and North America. In Japan, those failing to launch by 30 are labelled parasite singles. GenerationMe just can’t seem to grow up.

In the 2010 article ‘What is it about 20–somethings?’, the New York Times asked why 20-somethings are slow to become adults. The reasons: the acceptance of pre-marital sex and cohabitation have meant that couples do not need to formally commit to one another; birth control has allowed women to delay having children; higher qualifications as a prerequisite for junior positions has increased the time spent in education; rising cost of living has left many young people with no option but to return home. Another suggestion by the author is that parents may not want their children to grow up too soon, perhaps to avoid repeating their mistakes or regrets. Plus, longer life expectancy gives 20-somethings more time to experiment, to have fun and to go off track.

But there is a danger in taking one’s time. In her 2013 Ted Talk, Why 30 is not the new 20 (which has had over 7.5 million views to date), clinical psychologist Meg Jay warns against 20-somethings idly living out their twenties, naively believing that the serious stuff only starts at 30. She says that those who do so are more likely to end up making poorer choices in love and career since they are under immediate pressure to settle down.

Is Meg Jay at odds with the psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett (of Clark University, Massachusetts), who dedicated the last 15 years researching and promoting the life stage of ’emerging adulthood’? This life stage starts at 18 and usually ends at 25. People in this age group are no longer adolescents, nor have they reached adulthood. Arnett finds that at this stage they are more self-focused than any other time in their lives. They feel uncertain about the future yet they remain optimistic. In emerging adulthood, young people explore work possibilities, romantic liaisons and themselves. They can do so relatively safely since they are free from parental surveillance and the pressure of having to make long-term commitments. In Arnett’s view “emerging adults develop skills for daily living, gain a better understanding of who they are and what they want from life and begin to build a foundation for their adult lives”.

Furthermore, it could be smarter to delay adulthood until one is in their late twenties because the brain is not fully mature until one is about 25 years old. The New York Times article refers to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health, where scientists found that “the limbic system (where our emotion originates) explodes during puberty, but the prefrontal cortex (which manages our emotions) keeps on maturing for another 10 years”. In fact, scientists suppose that there is continued growth beyond 25. The older we are the more developed our brain is to ask the important questions and to make more rational decisions.

When do we become adults? For the emerging adults surveyed by Arnett, becoming an adult was not achieved by reaching the traditional milestones: finishing education, settling into a career, getting married and having kids. Rather, it was attained by developing certain qualities of character: accepting responsibility for one’s self, making independent decisions and becoming financially independent.

Arnett notes that emerging adults do not want to stay emerging forever, and very few will remain so beyond 30: “Once they have established that they have learned to stand alone – and only then – they will be ready to commit themselves to enduring roles and long-term commitment to others in love and work.”

There are many differences between my position and that of my Mum’s at my age. But the most remarkable difference is that I went through emerging adulthood whereas she didn’t and most likely, couldn’t. I spent a good part of my twenties exploring careers, living abroad, questioning my beliefs and meeting the right and wrong people. I was full of uncertainty and fear. Yet, I took more risks and I determinedly muddled through, developing character and resilience in the process.

I have learnt to stand alone. Now I’m ready to commit.

Feature image: Harrison Jones