What I know now at nearly 30 would rock my teenage self’s world – Alex Watson

Despite some outward appearances to the contrary, no one had got life all figured out by 30, writes Alex Watson

If Muriel Spark, seen in 1960, did not see her first novel published until she was 39, then Alex Watson still has time to write a novel, record an album and move to New York (Picture: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The way my mum tells it, when she turned 30 she stayed in bed for three days and cried. As a teenager, I would snort scornfully every time this story was told. I had my sights set on 18. Thirty felt like a lifetime away.

But, suddenly, I am staring down the barrel of it. Some days, it’s more like I can feel someone resting the barrel on the back of my neck, making the hairs there stand up. Why is it that, more often than not, 30 is a milestone that feels more like a millstone around our necks?

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Thanks to some handy National Records of Scotland (NRS) statistics, I’ve got a good idea of how long I’ve got left on this Earth, and (obviously) 30 isn’t close to the end. It’s not even anywhere near middle age. Although it’s lower here than across the rest of the UK, life expectancy in Scotland has remained roughly the same for close to the last decade – around 77 for males and 81 for females.

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Maybe back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when the life expectancy of a Scottish baby was closer to 60, or even 50, you could understand why a person might start to get nervous when 30 reared its head. Especially if they weren’t married, a parent or a homeowner yet – the cliched trifecta of success.

These days, we’ve got more time to play with, and social expectations have shifted. Or, perhaps more accurately, we’ve shifted social expectations in line with the hand we’ve been dealt.

The dreaded – and, yes, you can bet I’m rolling my eyes as I type this – ticking of the biological clock has been muffled, if not silenced. Women are safely having babies older. In 2018, women aged 30 years and over accounted for over half (55 per cent) of all births in Scotland, and four per cent of them were actually 40 or older. IVF, the freezing of eggs and embryos, surrogacy and adoption are all viable and socially acceptable routes to having children older.

Fewer of us are getting married, and the average age at which those of us who do has increased by more than 10 years since the mid-1970s – from roughly 24 to 34 for men, and from about 22 to 33 for women.

Home ownership isn’t as common pre-30 for my generation. And it’s got very little to do with avocados and flat whites, believe me. Since 2003-04, the average residential property price in Scotland has increased by 81 per cent, according to Registers of Scotland data. In 2019-20, that average price was £182,357.

The volume of property sales remains 32 per cent below the pre-financial crisis level peak in 2006-07. We aren’t buying houses when our parents did, and the reason is simple. We can’t afford them. We may never be able to.

The goalposts have moved. We no longer consider houses and weddings and babies as prerequisites for joining Club 30. But there is still a unique nagging feeling that builds in the lead-up to reaching that particular age – and I think, on my walk to the gallows, I’ve realised why.

Back to my newly 30-year-old, weeping mother, just briefly. I always used to give the same dismissive response to her recounting of this tale: “But you were married by then.”

What I actually meant was: “But you had your s*** together by then.”

To me, she had already ticked the big, important life boxes. She had achieved everything she needed to in those 30 years. I didn’t stop to consider that she might have wanted to do more.

I feel the irrational pressure to complete my bucket list by 30. In fact, as my birthday has crept up, I’ve been heaping even more pressure onto myself. Surely I should have finished a novel and recorded an album and be living in New York by now? All the dreams I didn’t focus on in my twenties because I had plenty of time to make them a reality are now plaguing me.

But, to borrow from Chicago Tribune columnist, Mary Schmich, “The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

Many people I look up to didn’t have it all done by 30. Muriel Spark’s first novel was published when she was 39. Nora Ephron made her directorial debut at 51. Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn was 32 when the band formed.

It must be the longest perpetuated urban legend – that being 30 equates to being grown up. If at 21 you’re an adult in training, by 30 the stabilisers should, in theory, be well and truly off. But here’s the rub. I am very nearly 30, and nobody has handed me the How To Be An Adult manual. I’m not going to wake up magically matured on my birthday this year. It’s dawning on me that I am as grown up as I’m getting on the inside, and I still have to count on my fingers sometimes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m looking forward to my thirties. But, by all accounts, the truth that would have rocked my 15-year-old world is that, no matter how together someone’s life might seem from the outside, nobody has it all figured out by 30 – and that’s okay.

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