The Unshakeable Optimism of the Modern Thirtysomething

thirtysomething - AD GALLERY 1987 Patricia Wettig, Timothy Busfield, Peter Horton, Polly Draper, Mel Harris, Melanie Mayron, Ken Olin
Photo: ABC

Unsettled or aimless youth have been the object of their elders’ worry and scorn for some time now. It’s almost a rite of passage for the middle-aged, it seems, to invent generational stereotypes for dumping on the young. You’d almost think complaining about “kids today” is one of the few perks of getting old.

In a way, it is. Psychologists know that the quickest way to make a fiftysomething feel better about herself is to tell her stories about wayward twentysomethings. In 2011, scientists at Ohio State and Zeppelin University (in Germany) told a group of 50- to 65-year-olds to browse a group of articles from a supposedly new online magazine. They were told they had time to read only a few articles, and were given a choice of ten, evenly split between articles about youth and about older people, and also evenly split between articles with a positive or a negative spin. The subjects tended to ignore the stories about their middle-aged peers and spent their time reading about young people — especially the stories that were negative.

Next, the psychologists gave their subjects a test to determine how they felt about themselves. They found that the more time the midlife subjects had spent reading the negative stories about young people, the higher they rated their self-esteem.

That’s one explanation for why young people are so broadly slammed as wayward, narcissistic, and lazy — because it makes middle-aged folks feel better about no longer being young themselves. But another explanation is that the generational stereotypes, excessively general as they are, are a little bit true: Young people are more self-focused and aimless than their elders. That’s because, according to some psychologists, that’s exactly what being young is for.

Now Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, the inventor of the concept of “emerging adulthood” as a distinct life stage between adolescence and adulthood, has been studying the next stage of life: the 30s. And the Clark University psychologist has found that thirtysomethings look an awful lot like twentysomethings: They are still having tons of fun. They still revel in their freedom. And when looking toward their futures, they still believe that while things might be tough today, it will all work out tomorrow.

That cheery outlook was a surprise to Arnett, co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years. “I always thought, Wow, the bubble has got to burst in their 30s,” he said, referring to the optimism he considers a hallmark of emerging adulthood. “Those of us who are beyond our 20s,” said the 57-year-old Arnett, “know that life can take twists and turns, and not necessarily in good directions.” But in a new poll released by Clark, among the 655 thirtysomethings who were asked whether they agree with the statement, “I’m confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life,” a startling 87 percent said yes. More than three quarters said they still feel like “anything is possible.”  

Arnett told me that their optimism is amazing and admirable, but it’s also completely unrealistic. He’s not sure where it comes from. It’s not because life has worked out well for them so far. Fifty-six percent of respondents (born between 1975 and 1984 — roughly the first wave of Millennials, with some overlap of late-cresting Gen X) said they haven’t gotten as far in their careers as they’d have hoped to by now. Seventeen percent said they are not in a relationship now but would like to be. Yet Arnett’s impression is that most of the thirtysomethings he polled still believe there’s a perfect job, and a perfect soul mate, out there somewhere.

Maybe that optimism is the whole point. It seems to have worked for my friends’ son Max, who spent his 20s trying out a bunch of things, believing his various passions would gel some day into a meaningful career — something his parents were not so sure of.

Max spent his twenties rotating through a series of jobs he was madly interested in: criminal investigation in D.C.; unpaid blogging in Pittsburgh; a short detour into law school inPhiladelphia (it took less than a semester for him to realize he hated it); construction work in Philadelphia; graduate school in London. When he got a master’s in urban design in the U.K. and a job at a progressive think tank in D.C., it looked like he was finally where he belonged — at a professional job with a steady paycheck, the kind of place my friends had hoped he’d land.

But no. What he really loved, Max told his increasingly alarmed parents, were two things: gritty neighborhoods and antique bricks. He hoped somehow to turn his love of old bricks into a career.

Really? Bricks?

And then, soon after his 29th birthday, just as his 20s were running out and his parents were beginning to despair, Max found his dream job. It was at an inner-city nonprofit in Baltimore involved in “deconstruction,” an industry that disassembles buildings rather than demolishes them, in the process teaching job skills to ex-offenders and preserving historical artifacts for resale. The artifacts include, of course, antique bricks.

The story of Max finally coming into his own after a series of detours, only to emerge with a job that combines everything he loves — urban planning, construction, the judicial system, bricks — is the story of a lot of other Millennials now making their way into their 30s, according to Arnett.

It’s not true that Millennials don’t want to enter adulthood,” said Arnett. “They just don’t want to do it at 20 or 21, or even 28 or 29. But they all eventually take on adult commitments,” he said, and if they haven’t yet, they are “clearly moving in that direction” by the time they reach their 30s.

Well, I should hope so. Not to sound too much like a curmudgeon, but if you’re not going to be a grown-up by the time you’re 39, will you ever? In the new Clark poll, only 77 percent of the thirtysomethings said they feel like adults “all the time.” What’s up with the rest of them? They’re in their 30s, for heaven’s sake.

The Unshakeable Optimism of Thirtysomethings