In Defense of Turning 30 and Living to Tell About It

by Colin McGuire

28 April 2014

Turning 30 means you still might be able to achieve some sort of greatness, but your definition of greatness changes more often than your pant-size.

What’s the difference between one’s expectations of life and what reality actually delivers by one’s 30th birthday?

“Y’all young’ns chase, I’m Patron and it’s straight.”

“Y’all go to parties to ice grill, I go to parties to party with nice girls.”

“I’m young enough to know the right car to buy yet grown enough not to put rims on it.”

“I don’t got the bright watch, I got the right watch/I don’t buy out the bar, I bought the night spot.”

“Y’all respect the one who got shot, I respect the shooter.”

These are all passages that appear in Jay-Z‘s “30-Something”, a lost gem of a track that popped up on his widely derided 2006 comeback set, Kingdom Come. He was about to turn 37 at the time of its release, a sign that perhaps his way of justifying eventually turning 40 was rethinking the act of turning 30. Hey—always a step or five ahead of the game, there’s reason to think as much is true. If 30 was indeed the new 20, he might have concluded, then his journey to the other side of The Hill could be delayed by at least a decade, in the eyes of the ever-manipulated popular culture zeitgeist.

Besides, what’s the secret to never growing old? Redefining young. 

Or, then again, maybe I’m just being cynical. Maybe the rapper was taking an honest moment to reflect on how much he matured through the years. Maybe he had an epiphany or a come-to-Jesus circumstance sometime in his mid-30s, during which he looked around and said, “You know what? I thought I knew everything, and I knew nothing. Growing does have its perks, and here are the ones I’m going to highlight.” Maybe he was figuring out how to be the first hip-hop star to grow old successfully. Maybe he was just rewriting the genre’s subliminal obsession with ageism. 

Or, for that matter, maybe I’m just an idiot. 

Anyway, I just turned 30 (note: Please send all gifts to PopMatters’ headquarters. Yes. I accept money orders). It’s a wild thing to consider for approximately 49,147 reasons. When you’re ten years old, you can’t imagine being 20 years old because of your inherent naivety. Though once you get to 20, you don’t even think you’ll be alive by the time 30 rolls around because of your now-learned naivety. “I won’t think about that because I don’t even know how to think about that” becomes “I won’t think about that because… well, I don’t even want to think about that.”

I mean, shoot. By the time my parents reached this plateau, I was already born, my younger sister was in the works and my mother had lived through a divorce. With me now on the cusp of being there, I can confidently say that I, well, I own a car? Actually, no. Check that. I’m making payments on a car I probably own about 70 percent of at this point. So, I own the body, a few turn signals, two front seats, one back seat, some oil, hardly any gas and, let’s say three-and-a-half tires. Oh, and the thought of having a child someday scares the shit out of me.

“30 sounds significant,” some guy named Justin Buzzard wrote in 2008. “When you say it, 30 sounds a lot different than 29. And when you write it, 30 looks different—larger, more established, than the slim 29. There’s a gravity to 30 that you don’t have with 27, 28, or 29. There’s something about 30. At least for men. And not just this man. I’ve talked with several guy friends who’ve recently turned 30 and they all report the 30 threshold was a significant landmark for them. Based on these conversations and based on what I’ve been going through these last few months, my original theory was that 30 is the new 40—30 is the new mid-life crisis for men. But then I talked with my dad who turned 30 nearly 30 years ago and he also reported that something happened to him as he approached 30. He told me that something about turning 30 forced him towards deep reflection, reformation even—a time of reflecting deeply on the man he had become and the man he still wanted to become ... and then taking action accordingly.” (“Something Happens to a Man When He Turns 30”)

Yeah, but then Buzzard goes on to talk about religion and faith and self-worth and all that kind of introspective stuff that we aren’t going to get into here. Why? Because life’s too short! 


Instead, how about we opt for Thing Number 9 that Deadspin’s A.J. Daulerio once received within a list titled, “Here are 10 things to expect after you turn 30”...

“9. Hangovers: they’re more than just myth.”

More my speed. (“Here Are 10 Things To Expect After You Turn 30”, by A.J. Daulerio, Deadspin, 18 March 2010)

To me, 30 means conflict. It means you still might be young enough to achieve specific greatness while also being old enough to realize that your definition of as much changes more often than you change pant-sizes (which, if you’re like me, is often—that whole grown-up thing never doesn’t come along with a few extra pounds here and there, am I right?). It’s like a constant battle between reality and expectation. People do their best work in their 20s (Einstein, Dylan, etc.), I’ve heard some say, though if this means that whatever modicum of talent I might have at something—anything—has heretofore been maxed out for the rest of eternity ... well, yikes. It’s best you stop reading now.

Actually, it’s the fascination with the unknown that kind of/sort of makes being alive for three full decades a tad bit curious. The thrill of growing older doesn’t come devoid of perks, of course. There’s so much more to find, see, learn, experience, endure, hear, taste, criticize and celebrate. At the risk of sounding even more obnoxiously optimistic, wisdom is a precept dictated by no other measurement than time. The more you grow, the more you realize, and the more you live, as Alanis once famously intoned, the more you learn. At this point, in fact, the single idiom I’m certain of with 30 years behind me is that I’m certain of nothing. 

How humble age can make us, both aesthetically and spiritually. Spending a few getaway minutes Googling the phrase “turning 30” for the betterment of my own sanity, I came across far more posts from women than I did men. From Hollywood to girlhood, the amount of reassuring essays about turning the big 3-0 from a female standpoint was staggering and even a little oddly (for a man) inspiring. Vice’s Molly Crabapple meditated on this moment in a piece for Vice that ran in January:

“Age is a weapon society uses against women. Each year that you gain comfort in your own flesh, your flesh is seen as worth less. Thirty, like 40 or 50, is a demarcation line, but a particularly loaded one. Cross it, says the world, and you leave the trifling-but-addictive privileges of girlhood behind. Invisibility this way, ma’am.” (“On Turning 30”, Vice, 17 January 2014)

Actress Olivia Wilde, meanwhile, took to Glamour to offer up this piece of advice, among many others:

“You’re 30: You know stuff now. Your twenties were for ‘ducking up,’ as my auto-correct would say, and learning from those mistakes. (For instance, never again will I convince myself that sleep is for sissies and go straight from a party to the airport. You will not ‘sleep on the plane’; you’ll vomit in the security line. Go to bed.) Now you get to live with that knowledge under your belt. Also, make it a nice belt. You’re 30. Stop dressing like a hobo.” (“Olivia Wilde Tells Us Her Dos and Don’ts of Turning 30”, Glamour)

Be it belts or boyhood (in my case, at least), the addition of one and loss of the other now feels more liberating than scary. No more do I particularly care about which jeans I’m wearing or how thin my hair has become. If growing up is supposed to ensure a stronger sense of self, consider me a senior citizen. Oh, you don’t think this shirt is tight enough? I’m 30—the only jerks who still want their biceps to rip through a button-down at this age need to chug a Monster and return to man-scaping.

The only real source of anxiety this all brings is that unique version of hopelessness that comes along only when things like mortality and legacy are considered. Have I really made a difference? Have I accomplished even half of what I set out to do? How much time do I really have left? At what point does contentment finally appear? Am I doing what I should be doing with my life? Are we getting closer to the point where the fun begins? What exactly is the ratio of good decisions to bad decisions my existence has seen? Am I honestly getting closer to understanding the appeal of Law & Order as another year passes?

It’s a weird thing, switching decades. So much of our perception is colored with shades of ten-year increments. Anymore, I begin to feel guilty whenever I ask interviewees their age. “I’m old enough to know better,” is a popular response, though an oddly placed, “Do you really have to know?” is starting to creep its way to the top, as well. The freaky thing for me is that as Age 30 drags me into its orbit, I find myself not nearly as enthusiastic about revealing my own age when someone asks me the same thing. Before, I was annoyed that a silly number meant so much to people. These days, all I can do is sigh with understanding.

Which leads me to the only real thing I have to offer to younger people as I, for one, am about to reach this plateau: Hey, remember those moments when you were 15 or 16, and because of how frustrating the high school life could be, you used to tell your friends about how much you couldn’t wait to get “old”? Or, how about those times in your early 20s, when you were convinced a little college exposure and some crazy nights meant you knew all you needed to know about maturing or growing up?

Yeah, that was stupid. Because the one thing you never consider during gym class is the presence of bills you have to work to pay off, once you obtain that “old” status. And even though educated adults finally begin to treat you like contemporaries in college—and the number on your Who I Slept With List finally starts moving in the right direction—none of that means you actually know what it’s like to deal with having to increase your credit score. 

Because you want to buy a house someday. Because the neighbors downstairs won’t stop complaining about the way you watch movies late at night. Because the sound is too loud and it keeps them up. Because they go to bed at 11PM, like normal people, but you don’t even get home from work until midnight. Because that’s the only shift you can land in the profession you studied during college and if you didn’t take that job, you’d be cleaning toilets at a junior high, and you can’t afford to live off a salary earned from cleaning toilets at a junior high. Because you have student loans. Because you went to college. 

Because you wanted to grow old. 

See what I mean? Age is but a number, yes, but it’s also a reminder—a reminder of that clash between expectation and reality. The former fluctuates with the presence of time, sure, but the latter doesn’t know how to be anything else. Reality, be it imposed, sincere, exciting or harsh, will forever be reality. Expectation, on the other hand, is subject to change with the sheer presence of evolution. And turning 30, as far as I can tell, seems to be the most imperative time in one’s life to examine that precise dichotomy with as much introspect and enlightenment as humanly possible. 

Or, if that sounds too pretentious, there’s always Daulerio’s fifth item on that list:

“5. You’re only 5 years away from your first prostrate exam. Let’s get fired up!”

All right. Two questions. 

1. How sure are we that the new 30 can’t go any lower than 20? 

And 2. Is it too late for a remix?

Splash image: Time passing concept image from

//Mixed media

Authenticity Issues and the New Intimacies

// Marginal Utility

"The social-media companies have largely succeeded in persuading users of their platforms' neutrality. What we fail to see is that these new identities are no less contingent and dictated to us then the ones circumscribed by tradition; only now the constraints are imposed by for-profit companies in explicit service of gain.

READ the article