Why 30 Is The New 18
Youth has been extended by an entire decade.
Remember the excitement of your 18th birthday?
Me neither. All I have is the blurry memory of my mates giving me a red bucket as a gift, based on my propensity to yak after too many Wild Turkeys. And an even blurrier memory of having to use said bucket after the poor decision to do tequila shots right after scarfing a beef and gravy roll.
What I do remember about turning 18 was the significance: I was finally an adult.
But though I could now legally drink, smoke, vote and gamble, I didn’t really feel grown up. I felt like an overgrown teenager still learning the ropes, not a capital-m Man.
The other day, however, I turned 30. Being a youth-obsessed millennial, I was freaking out about getting old, but when the day came, I didn’t feel decrepit. Actually, I felt like I’d arrived; that I was a fully-grown man.
Although we’re legally adults at 18, society has shifted drastically in past decades. In fact, there are several social and cultural markers of adulthood many of us don’t reach until 30.
At 18, I was still amused by drinking, roughhousing, mooning people in passing cars and laughing when my mates farted.
Around the same time, an adult told me men’s brains don’t fully develop until our mid-20s. I got defensive about this, but it turns out they weren’t wrong.
Scientists now know a man’s prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until 25. The prefrontal cortex controls cognitive analysis, abstract thought and social behaviour. This explains why young guys take more risks, and can be bowled over in an argument: our emotional maturity and ability to communicate haven’t fully developed, and this growth may even continue into our 30s.
Women’s prefrontal cortexes develop at 21 -- so at 18, neither sex has a full grip on maturity and communication. What can be a Category Five argument as teenagers can be barely a cross word at 30. No wonder we get better at managing relationships with age.
Farewell to Youth
Turning 18, I was told my youth was over, which sounded sweet. I was done with being a teen, with the acne and the peer pressure and the trolley boy job. Growing up sounded way more fun.
And my twenties were more fun: partying, backpacking through Europe, experimentation, new relationships, going to uni, first jobs, first apartments and self-discovery. So, turning 30 felt like the actual farewell to youth. Plus, I had enough distance from my childhood to appreciate that, despite the acne, those were good times.
Culturally, our twenties are no longer the ‘settling down’ years. In 1975, the median marriage age in Australia was 23 for men and 21 for women; by 2016, that had changed to 32 and 30 respectively.
Turning 18 used to be the beginning of adulthood, but 30 is our new marker for settling down -- meaning ‘youth’ has been extended by an entire decade.
In my late teens, landlords might as well have been the Dark Lord given how fearful I was of them. Rent increases weren’t requests: they were orders from adults, and I was the kid who had to agree.
At 29, I sat down with my landlord and negotiated my rental agreement like the fate of Middle Eastern peace hinged on it. And it worked: I looked my landlord in the eye, set my terms and got what I wanted.
We grow assertive with experience. We learn to tell toxic friends to take a hike, rather than cling onto meaningless husks of withered friendships. We learn to live with our siblings’ quirks, rather than fight them. And we defy our parents in more adult ways than listening to punk music and piercing our flesh; we define ourselves by our own values, rather than those we were raised with.
I always wanted to be a writer, but never saw it as a realistic option. At 18, I saw a career adviser, who offered options like teacher and journalist. I was furious she couldn’t whip up a career that satisfied both my creativity and my need to not die of starvation. I left her office dejected.
I spent the next decade working odd jobs: labourer, nightfiller, excavator operator, banker, call-centre operator and tutor. I felt something was missing, and not following my dream made me depressed.
That is, until something shifted in the cosmos.
This phenomenon is known as the Saturn Return – an astrological concept describing the return of the planet Saturn to the same celestial location as when a person was born. For the record, no, I don’t believe in astrology, but despite that, I’m fascinated by the Saturn Return as a cultural form of storying our existence.
The idea is that a Saturn Return takes about 29.5 years and signifies a transition into the next life stage: adulthood. Allegedly, the Saturn Return is felt from the ages of about 27-31 – and that’s certainly when life pushed me in a new direction.
At 28, I lost my job in a restructure and was left unemployed. I gave up my corporate career and gave myself permission to pursue writing, and that was when everything fell in place.
At 29, I wrote a novel, won some awards, and landed an agent.
It wasn’t until 30 that I started living the life I wanted to lead, rather than the life I thought I had to settle for at 18. When I reflect both on my own experience and what I see happening across our society, it seems more and more that we reach cultural adulthood a decade after legal adulthood.
So, if you’ve just turned 18, you’ve still got your whole youth ahead of you. And if you’re pushing 30 and feel like you haven’t found your way yet, don’t freak out. You’re right where you’re supposed to be: 30 is the new 18.