In a few months, I will be 30.
Before you role your eyes and mutter congratulationswhocares, this is not the life lessons of a 30-year-old. Because, quelle surprise, I don’t have any. Up to this point, life has been a mad scramble to make rent, get a job, wash enough clothes for the week and masquerade as someone who can be trusted. In fact, the older older I get, the more I realise that I know absolute bugger all. The only bits of advice I can offer (after considerable thought) are the following: don’t cycle on the inside of a double decker bus and don’t keep jewellery in your knicker drawer – it’s the first place burglars look. And don’t write off south London. It’s better than you think.
Which, perhaps, explains why I’m looking to my mum for some idea of what I should, or should not, be doing at 30. As I anxiously wait for my turn to receive white-haired old-lady emojis from friends this October, I keep thinking about who, and where, she was when she was my age. And how much has changed since then.
When my mum was 30, it was the early 1980s. Thatcher was in power. In the eyes of the law, a man couldn’t rape his wife. The UK was yet to have its first openly gay MP. Motorola had just created the first mobile phone and it weighed *two pounds*. People faxed one another. And smoked wherever they liked.
And, by 30, she was married, had a jointly owned house with a big garden in Surrey, a baby, a nanny and worked full-time. What she had achieved by turning 30 is as incredulous to me as using a fax machine or smoking on a plane or an anti-feminist first female PM. At the age of (almost) 30, I’m single, I rent a room for half my salary, I work a lot and I can’t commit to looking after a house plant.
My mum is a baby boomer. Now statistically the richest, happiest and fittest of all demographics, baby boomers were born into a post-war world of hope, possibility and regeneration. They protested on newly built university campuses, driving women’s lib and civil rights movements. They didn’t pay tuition fees, they bought their own houses and they saved money.
While it’s still hard to know we’ll never have what our parents had (a house, savings, a pension), it’s also reassuring to know we won’t have to do things they did – things they might not have wanted to because they didn’t feel they had a choice
I am what is classified as a millennial and live in a very different world. I’m paying off tuition fees, I will never own a house (unless I start playing the lottery) and I have no savings. My peers are politically interested, but not actively politically engaged. Times have changed. (Aside from the similar Conservative government offering right-to-buy schemes and tax privileges for the wealthy, and disseminating communities.)
Yet today’s climate doesn’t necessarily mean the sob story it might sound like (a self-indulgent millennial trait, as countless baby boomers would say, no doubt). Because, as societal attitudes change, as markets boom and bust, as politicians rise and fall, and as mobiles get thinner and lighter, what being a 30-year-old woman means also changes.
Thirty is younger than ever – we can’t afford to buy houses, so we carry on commitment-free, feeling untied and temporary. We don’t get paid enough, so we freelance and have three jobs at once. We don’t feel so much pressure to marry, so few of us are. We might want a career more than a baby, and that’s more OK than ever. We can fight discrimination in a way that was harder to do in the 1980s – with the help of new laws around equal pay, sexual harassment, domestic violence and stalking. We can demand more opportunity. We are much more in control. And maybe that’s why we’re younger for longer – living a life we want to. While it’s still hard to know we’ll never have what our parents had (a house, savings, a pension), it’s also reassuring to know we won’t have to do things they did – things they might not have wanted to because they didn’t feel they had a choice.
When I ask my mum about being 30, she mentions that she was the first generation of working mothers, which caused family arguments and raised eyebrows. Along with the shoulder pads, short fringes and a new sense of female independence, came – in her words – “pressures and expectations”. It seems that every time women push at a boundary or rock a boat or are just simply are good at something, pressures and expectations come flooding in.
My mum also mentioned my grandmother, her mother, Margaret. For her Harold Wilson “never had it so good” generation, 30 was mid-life and the name of the game was marriage. She was winning it. By 30, she had married a man in the army and was living in Paris – rare for a working-class girl from Essex. I find it funny that one of my dreams is to live in Paris, and my grandmother was living it, all those years ago.
So, on the eve of turning 30, I look to my grandmother, who was living in Paris in the 1950s, my mum who was was forging a career and a family in Surrey in the 1980s, and I consider how I’m in London, marriage-averse and digitally addicted. It would seem that, whatever the world throws at us, whatever boundaries we crush, whatever struggles we persevere through, being a 30-year-old woman is always actually quite similar. For three generations of women, being 30 has meant being on the eve of an adventure, the feeling that the best is yet to come, and buoyant with newly found confidence to leap into the unknown.