30 is the New 20
By Ben Selznick, Staff Columnist
Published on Monday, January 8, 2007
I am a senior and, as such, a marked man. From any dinner table I happen upon with the over-40 crowd to every conversation with family near and far, the moment I mention my senior status, I am immediately asked about my post-graduation plans. You see, when prompted with this question, I don't respond with a definitive answer nor with a sheepish admission of indecision. Instead, I offer up: "I'm not quite sure," and follow with the phrase "but hey, 30 is the new 20, right?" This often draws amused glances and the questioner seems to be more or less satisfied with this partial answer. But a new question does arise: What does this phrase mean?
To begin, I'd like to clarify my term. By the utterance "30 is the new 20," I am referring to the idea that what characterized a person's life status at roughly 20, say, a generation or two ago -- finishing school, engaged if not already married, needing to find a steady job to start building that nest egg -- is now beginning to take place at roughly 30. This trend is occurring for a variety of reasons.
The life expectancy of the average American has increased into the late 1970s thanks to rapid advances in health care technology and a growing awareness of health consciousness amongst parts of the population. Life expectancy, in no small way, dictates the course of human affairs. Look at America circa 1606: marriage at roughly 15, death in the 30s for the healthy. As this is the case, 30 can be claimed to be the new 20 if only on biological grounds.
More compelling are the social and educational reasons for this phenomenon. Shaping this trend is the idea that today's college degree is yesterday's high school diploma and that soon, if not already, a graduate degree is needed to even think about starting a career. Obtaining all this education takes time, and lots of it. Further in the education realm are our friends, student loans. These puppies are growing by the day and, as we are constantly reminded, they ought to be paid off before other sets of expenses -- mortgage, new car, raising children -- set in. Paying off these debts takes time too and, coupled with the need for more education, lots of it.
Another social reason is the changing nature of what it means to have a career. In our parents' and grandparents' generation, an individual held three or four jobs and usually received health care and retirement benefits from his employer. This strong security net encouraged recent high school and college graduates to find steady employment and hold it. Now, with retirement pensions more or less a thing of the past and the health care situation in this country unclear, the drive to make a commitment to an employer simply is not there. Some 50 years ago, one's first job may have been his or her only; today, initial employment is just a stepping-stone to something else.
Together, these two social forces have started to create a new world for "twentysomethings." In this world, a culture of experimentation has been encouraged, as long as this auditioning is somewhat profitable. Here, it is not uncommon for an individual to start down several different paths before, by their late 20s or early 30s, they've found one to stay on. Don't take my word. Ask your senior friends how many of them are entering a job that they plan to hold for more than five years.
So is 30 the new 20? Maybe not. Even if it is just an illusion, it's one that helps me and other seniors sleep at night. It's one that has helped me dodge that inevitable dinner table question. And it is one that allows me to take comfort in the fact that I don't have to decide what I want to be when I grow up the moment I finish school.