I spent my twenties drinking beer. I spent my thirtieth birthday drinking beer and eating oysters. And I remember thinking how far I’d come.
Thirty. That number can blaze with dread in the young adult imagination. For years, it loomed ahead of me like some kind of buzzkill apocalypse, the exact moment when everything I loved would come to a screeching halt. The carousing would stop, the long nights would turn to early mornings, the glittering friends would metamorphose into glowering Dursleys. Thirty meant adulting, as our pathetically adolescence-obsessed culture calls it, and adulting meant not freedom but obligation.
Admittedly some of that has come to pass. I’m currently trying to cram this column in between a haircut and picking up my son from school, which should tell you all you need to know about the pace of adult life. But while you are busier in your thirties, you also don’t dread the quotidian the way you used to. Getting the groceries is no longer a distraction from the fun you might be having; it’s worthwhile for its own reasons, stocking your home and feeding your family. Once, an open Friday night gleamed with opportunity. Now, you find greater fulfillment in the mundane.
In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway describes his thirties as a decade of thinning, “a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.” He got it backward. In fact, it’s an enriching time, and not only because you’re literally richer. The little things seem to mean more. You have greater wisdom to draw upon. You have more experience, too, and without that twentysomething impulse to keep accumulating experiences like bric-a-brac on a shelf.
There are things about your twenties that you miss, of course. You can no longer gulp down seven beers and then wake up the next morning not hooked up to a dialysis machine. And occasionally you do pine for that liberty, when every weekend was an open frontier. Remember that one impromptu trip you took to the beach with only fourteen of your closest friends? When you smoked all that pot and decided to stay an extra week just because you could? The resulting bill from the dog kennel might have nearly bankrupted you, but at least you got to live!
It isn’t that you don’t treasure those memories. It’s just that they seem shallower than they once did, more defined by their irresponsibility. The comedian Taylor Tomlinson says your twenties are the time when no one expects anything from you because you suck. She’s right, and the problem is most of us don’t realize it until we’re into our thirties.
The only downside to being a tricenarian so far as I can tell is if you’re political. Because in your twenties, you think you’ve got the whole world figured out. You’ve discovered some philosophical skeleton key that explains everything — Marxism or Objectivism or Catholic integralism — and, oh, how stupid and corrupt are your elders for not seeing it too! Then, in your thirties, you abruptly discover all this is bullshit. There is no theory of everything. The world is complicated. That intergalactic Randian utopia or underwater papal state you’ve been dreaming about is never going to happen.
Instead there’s just the more piecemeal political reality of trying to claim as many TurboTax exemptions as possible without getting arrested for fraud. This loss of an easy worldview can, for some, feel like a loss of faith. Many socialists have written eloquently about the moment when they realized there was never going to be a global working-class revolution; Christopher Hitchens compared it to an amputation. And while their ages no doubt varied — plenty of socialists kept the faith long into decrepitude — I’d wager a good number of them were in their thirties.
Hitchens is an example of a thinker who swapped out one faith for another, socialism for a kind of militant secular liberalism. Yet for those who don’t do this, who lose their worldview without replacing it, it can be a disorienting time. Thankfully, the rest of your thirties are there to compensate. The best thing about them, at least so far as I can tell, is that you care less what others think of you. And not just the shrieking purists on Twitter. Chances are you won’t have a roommate to worry about anymore, or Tinder randos to swipe left on your picture.
Instead those who matter are those who should: family, close friends (the word “friend” takes on a whole new definition). And it’s not like the good times are gone forever. My wife recently turned thirty and out on the town we went. The oysters were especially good.