04 Oct 2023
Turning 30: The ageism, the sexism and the historical legacies
Written by Yani King
In 2023, 1993 babies, like me, are turning 30. Throughout the year, I have been entertained by the reactions of people when I mention that I am turning 30.
Often, the reaction is marked by an “oh no, I’m sorry”, a groan or a whimper - condolence. At first, I found these absurd reactions brought joy to me, but soon the joy turned to annoyance. 30 is a number to me and doesn’t take away from the person I am – and will continue to be - but it annoyed me that people were in some way pitying me because of this number. So, I wondered, why is 30 a big deal? Let’s unpack it.
History and Symbolism of the Big Three-Oh
History provides a contextual pathway to understanding the norms of today. So, what does history say about the symbolic status of turning 30?
30 is a milestone age symbolising, for many, the end of youth, and the start of being an adult. But is this actually accurate? Historically it symbolised the midpoint of one's life, as the average life expectancy pre-1960 was below 60 (ONS, 2015). Our life expectancy has increased since, but the legacy and tradition remain. This creates a mentality where 30 is seen as “over the hill.”
30 is a period of life where it is socially accepted that you can make important decisions, as you are equipped with the wisdom and experience from three decades of living. This expectation derives from an unexpected place, the Bible. 30 is of great significance in the Bible as this is when many of its figures, including Jesus, achieved positions of leadership and spiritual sacrifice. For instance, John the Baptist started his ministry at 30, the first kings of Israel started their reigns at 30 and Jesus shed blood for our sins at 30.
So, 30 was set as the average. In the eyes of the law, you become an adult at 18, but socially, it’s life events which verify your adulthood, and there is an expectation that by 30 you should have reached, or are well on your way to reaching, many of these major milestones – career, home, stable partner.
Like life expectancy, the statistical average of life events that signify adulthood has increased. Factors that contribute to this increase are the cost of living and changes in education law, where the age to leave education is higher. Although these factors have increased, the social expectations and measurements of adulthood remain.
History, the Bible, and society meld together to create a powerful expectation that you should have your life in order by the time you are 30 to succeed, or as the Bible puts it, have the wisdom to make big decisions. Expectations, such as in the above list, have influenced infamous lists, like 30 Before 30, 30 Things to Do by 30 and 30 Countries Before 30. If these expectations or achievements are not met by the time you are 30, there is a sense of failure as an adult, making many under 30s anxious about the big three-oh. The outdated and unrealistic baggage attached to the age sets us up for failure.
Ageism and the Workplace
Usually, ageism is discussed in terms of its impact on older people. However, the millennial and Gen Z generations also experience ageism in the workplace, and the age of 30 can have big implications here too. Ageism, we must remember, is the widest form of discrimination, no matter the age.
A study by Fast Company found that 36% of under 30s have faced ageism (Fast Company, 2021). This is due to younger people being perceived as inexperienced and lacking the knowledge, or as the above section finds “lacks the wisdom” (IBID) of older employees. This results in younger workers being overlooked for positions because they have their capabilities doubted due to a lack of experience (years) and are perceived as ‘job-hoppers’ to get experiences that they lack, or that they are still trying to “figure out life.” (Epstein, 2022). This treatment of being expendable was clear during the pandemic when junior work schemes and internships were halted or cut (New Digital Age).
Younger workers can feel anxious when coming up to 30 as there is societal pressure to, in addition to your personal life, have your professional life neatly arranged with a clear career trajectory, good salary and stable employment. We see this expectation again through lists such as 30 Before 30, which celebrates the exceptional individuals who have achieved greatness in their careers before their 30th birthday. These are great achievements by those individuals but can leave those below 30 feeling inadequate and anxious about their careers. This also impacts their sense of worth and achievement outside of work, as they have not made accomplishments like those who made the 30 Before 30 list.
In addition to ageism, women are struck with the double-edged sword of not just turning 30 but turning 30 as a woman. This weapon is used against women in almost every aspect of their lives. Pop culture has always been oversaturated with negative associations of women ageing.
Being youthful or appearing youthful is always seen as desirable for women and a basis for a compliment, such as “Oh you can’t be 30, you look 21” or a tongue-in-cheek, “Can I see your ID please?” We’ve been taught by society to feel pleasure when we receive these ‘compliments’, however, they are loaded statements.
When we rejoice about being asked for our ID, we also reveal the sense of dread and anxiety about ageing, the impulse to cling to youth and the fear of getting older or being viewed as the age we actually are.
For women, ageing is explicitly a bad thing, something we should avoid and slow down at all costs. Women’s media is plastered with tips on how to stop ageing and look younger. Lists in magazines can include tips/lessons on turning 30 and how to ‘fight the signs of ageing’. Meanwhile, men are permitted to age ‘like a fine wine’. A male celebrity who shows signs of greying hair is celebrated and deemed a ‘silver fox’, but a female celebrity will make headlines for showing grey hair and be told that they are ‘brave’. Note, that ageing products are plugged into men too, but they acutely target women.
Although in society ageing is seen as bad for women, it is flipped within the world of work. Women who are, or appear younger are faced with ageism, where their looks are evaluated more than their abilities. This results in women being treated as juniors, having their credibility questioned, being called pet names and being thought of as too young to handle responsibility. Research has shown that this continues into the late-thirties and then morphs suddenly into being seen as too old for the roles which they were too young for previously (Harvard Business Review, 2023). This does not follow for men; they are seen as more suitable to be leaders, even if a female counterpart is the same age.
When women reach 30, their value seems to decline, and they are seen as ‘over the hill’ or ‘passed it’. For instance, a 2015 analysis by TIME highlights the peak career of female actors is 30 while for male actors it’s 46 (TIME, 2015). This is echoed in work where women considered for leadership roles are too old, because of ‘menopause concerns’ and societal judgements to care for a family (Harvard Business Review, 2023). In dating, this is reflected in women being less desirable when they hit 30 because it is feared that they want to settle down (Medium, 2019).
The ‘settling down’ idea is derived from the social expectations of adulthood but is also influenced by the biological clock. The biological clock refers to the peak time of fertility for a woman. It is never used to discuss the reproductive health of a man despite these having equal weighting when trying to conceive and both the quality of eggs and sperm decline over time. However, women’s biological health is much more openly and widely discussed, meaning more responsibility regarding fertility is put onto women. Therefore, women over 30 are generally viewed as either too preoccupied with their biological clock and looking to settle down (undesirable), or in some way past their prime due to a decline in fertility (also undesirable). There is also often a suspicion associated with single women in their 30s: why have they not settled down yet, society asks. Men in their 30s do not face this same suspicion.
Reflecting on the above the pitying reactions and sense of instinctive dread derive from a potent mix of history, ageism and sexism.
These work together to make 30 symbolise a step closer to death, a loss of youth, a threshold to making big decisions (with wisdom), and a cut off point for expected success.
Within those, sorry reactions are ones of excitement and joy. The sorry reactions are followed by thought and reflection where people have said “They say your 30s are better than your 20’s”. I can see why. You hit 30 and many of those social expectations and lists fade away. You can move away from norms and averages, allowing yourself to be authentically you.
So where do I stand? I say bring on the champagne! It’s time to celebrate another decade of life. I feel more confident in who I am as a person and in my skills than in any other decade of my life so far. I can’t wait to take on the challenges the next decade throws at me and smash down those walls. Bring it on!
Written by Yani King