A milestone or a millstone?

Aging: As they turn 30, Gen-X women report angst about youth lost and adulthood not established.

January 17, 1999|By Cecelia Goodnow | Cecelia Goodnow,Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Generation X -- that youthful, "slacker" generation -- is facing a quiet crisis. The leading edge of that group is turning 30. Time to grow up, get serious. Time for a major identity shake-up.

Time to panic.

"We think of ourselves as not really that together and not really very grown up," said Kristin Beck, a Bay-area writer who hit the big 3-0 last April.

After reading up on adult development, she and colleague Lauren Dockett interviewed more than 30 women about "lessons learned and dreams examined" as they reached their first scary "decade" birthday.

The responses are woven into their book, "Facing 30: Women Talk About Constructing a Real Life and Other Scary Rites of Passage" (New Harbinger Publications, 163 pages, $12.95).

Beck and Dockett uncovered rampant angst among their peers, who believed they had little to show for themselves as they entered serious adulthood.

Lingering in school, putting off marriage, flitting from job to job, they panicked as they saw their adolescence stretch like cheap pantyhose. Many worried they were living a kind of "adulthood lite."

"Women pretty uniformly said their identity was shaken at the end of their 20s," Beck said. "Love and career and babies: Those are the big things."

Many women felt a self- imposed deadline pressure to have their lives tidily arranged -- right now. When things didn't gel, they believed the problem lay with them, not their expectations.

"I think the biggest unrealistic expectation," Beck said, "is that you have to achieve everything by 30."

Graying baby boomers may snort at the thought of Gen-Xers wringing their smooth hands over the trauma of aging, but Beck says ix-nay on the condescension.

"Especially when you're facing 50, 30 looks pretty good," she concedes. "But like it or not, it is a significant developmental period in a woman's life. If you don't take a look at stuff in your 30s, you might end up with a big, fat midlife crisis."

Gen-Xers grew up in a different climate than their elders, so turning 30 feels slightly different for them. Baby boomers -- who coined the phrase, "Don't trust anyone over 30" -- may have suffered some chagrin when age pushed them into the enemy camp. But their choices in life were fairly straightforward, Beck said. They could either conform to traditional roles or rebel against them.

Generation X, on the other hand, is coming of age with no clear sense of identity. Everything is up for grabs. "Now, there aren't even rules to be broken," Beck said. "It's so free-form, it's stultifying."

She sees Gen-X as a cautious, media-saturated bunch who grew up without illusions. Stung by their parents' divorces, the women Beck met are nervous about commitment, even if they see marriage as a desirable goal. With far less job security than their parents had, they view career choice as something malleable, less defining.

"That's basically our generation in a nutshell -- many, many different kinds of jobs before settling into a career," Beck said. "The idea is grab what you can get. We have grown up in a pretty screwy economy, and nothing seems very secure."

Although women are having babies later in life, they still feel pressure to get moving on the issue -- at least make up their minds -- by age 30, Beck said. If they want children, their tendency is to dump lackluster relationships at around this age and start scouting for more promising, long-term partners.

Beck senses a backlash against the mantra that women can have it all -- high-octane career, marriage and family.

"We're really grateful to our mothers for paving the way for us," she said, "but I do think that having it all means you're sacrificing something."

Beck, who grew up as a latchkey kid, said she works full time out of economic necessity but would rather be home with her 2-month-old baby.

"I think a lot of women are trying to figure out a way to work half-time and keep themselves in the career loop and pay attention to their kids," she said.

The younger women Beck interviewed saw 30 as a great divide between the carefree, adventurous possibilities of youth and the drudgery of maturity.

In reality, turning 30 seldom lived down to their expectations. Women who had already passed that milestone said they felt more sure-footed and fully formed. They also felt less pressure to strive for impossible standards of beauty. Beck said their philosophy was, "No one's going to ever buy you as a young person anymore, so you might as well give it up."

Middle-age women said it's OK to hit 30 without all the answers. In hindsight, they saw it as a jumping-off point for adulthood -- a time to move forward with greater confidence and really start living.

"You just know yourself better when you turn 30," Beck said, adding that she learned to lighten up after talking to these women. "[It] seems like an exciting possibility instead of a big bummer."

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