Thirty is a magic number for the new generation — a time when people want their career path and their family life in place. This is a difficult convergence to pull off, but more and more people are aiming for it.
Jessica Marshall Forbes summarizes these feelings as she describes getting married: “We always knew we wanted to get married before we were thirty. When you’re younger, in college, thirty seems like a turning point. And as I’m nearing that age, the significance hasn’t changed. Thirty is when you’re really grown up. At thirty you should know what you’re doing.”
For both men and women this is a key age to have their career goals in place. Lia Macko is co-author of the book, Midlife Crisis at 30: How the Stakes Have Changed for a New Generation — And What to Do about It Macko writes, “It may be socially acceptable to spend time searching for a professional calling during your twenties, but after 30, that grace period ends fast. Adjectives begin to change — ‘aspiring’ actors/filmmakers/musicians/writers are recast as ‘wannabes’ or ‘dilettantes’.”
However women have a more loaded marker of age thirty: Their biological clock. “Women take into account their reproductive potential is diminishing,” says Jeffrey Arnett, professor at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood. “Women think if they marry at thirty they can have two years with their husband and have a kid and then wait to years and have another kid. But if this doesn’t happen then they worry about the impact on their reproductive life.”
The worries are well founded: The chance of birth complications skyrockets after the age of 35. It used to be fashionable to tell women, “Don’t worry about babies. You have time. Concentrate on your career.” But now that the statistics on late motherhood are clearer, fears have set in. For Forbes, the self-imposed deadline for having children has everything to do with medical risk. She says age is not a concern “as long as I’m not getting to the point where complications start.”
So today many women find themselves in a position where they are struggling to line up a grand convergence of career, marriage and motherhood within a couple of years of age thirty. Lia Macko says, “In the past, women had kids when they were lower in the masthead. Now women are making decisions about kids and earning potential and marriage all at the same time and this is specific to their generation.”
This convergence means that it’s the first time in history that a large proportion of women have a big career and small children, and it appears that the combination is almost impossible. For example, sixty percent of women with MBAs are working at home, and an epidemic number of women are leaving corporate life when their children come. Women approaching age thirty face these statistics.
How can women alleviate some of the pressures of turning thirty? For one thing, Macko advises that you “Tune out the cultural white noise” and figure out a plan that will meet your own needs, regardless of the expectations people place on you.
Starting your own business is a great way to ensure that you can control your time as your thirty-year-mark approaches. Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin, author of How to Run Your Business Like a Girl, says that most entrepreneurs she interviewed for her book, “tried to do kids and corporate life and they couldn’t.” But Baskin encourages entrepreneurship at a relatively young age. She says “younger women are smarter about these issues from the get go” and realize before trying that corporate life is not compatible with family life.
Linda Babcock, professor of economics at Carnegie-Mellon University and author of the book, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide encourages women to manage the convergence of fertility and finances by negotiating up front with their partner. “Ask questions like who will find the nanny and who will change jobs. You might change your mind, but you will set the tone for both parties making an adjustment when the baby comes.” Managing the changes one faces at age thirty is much easier if both partners are committed to absorbing some of the shock.
For those of you who are not in a position of convergence – for example, fielding the annoying question: “So you’re already 30. Where is your husband?” – recognize that all women face crisis issues at 30, it’s just that some issues focus on finding a partner or career and some focus on coping with having found them.
And while everyone has a different opinion about how to make women’s decision points easier, there is unanimous clamor that women must talk. The women who are most successful at navigating these issues are those who help each other, and talk about it with their significant others and their community. Dialogue is the first step toward finding a solution that works: Talk to your friends, and even your enemies – the wider the discussion the better.