I think it all comes down to the assumption that at that age, you are assumed to be worthy of respect.
Catherine Rampell, 29 years old and writing for the Washington Post, ponders a somewhat non-scientific survey of centenarians and 65-year-olds. Both groups were asked which stage of their lives they recalled most fondly; the responses were all over the chart, but the life stage with the most positive responses was the 30s.
Rampell gives some thought to context, noting that the centenarians were in their 30s in the postwar era, and the 65-year-olds were in their 30s during the Reagan years. She wonders what historic backdrop will frame her own 30s. But I don’t think these external historical contexts are driving the fondness for one’s 30s; I was around for the Reagan era of “trickle-down economics,” high interest rates and Cold-War tension, and I don’t imagine a lot of folks reminiscing fondly over arms-control talks or the 16% interest they paid on their car notes at the time.
No, I think our 30s occupy a special place in our hearts thanks to a personal context.
In your 20s, you are a new adult. Any insurance company can tell you that 20-somethings are still brash and (statistically speaking) irresponsible. Even if you were a responsible, employed, steady adult in your 20s, it was probably harder to be taken seriously, harder to be hired for management positions, harder to be entrusted with good credit terms or a nice apartment lease. These days, with helicopter parents and adolescence seemingly extended into our 30s, it’s probably even harder for 20-somethings to be seen as fully adult.
Then there is the experience thing. In your 20s, no matter how smart, hardworking and responsible you are, you just don’t have the weight of experience behind you. You haven’t published as much as longer-serving folks, your resume is scanty, the years that add credibility just aren’t there yet. There is no getting around this. Credible experience and personal history only come with time.
You know how Lila ended up in the Army? I was a college graduate working in the sciences and earning less than a poverty wage. I could easily move from one worker-bee, poverty-wage job to another, and my bosses valued my capabilities highly… but I could never get ahead because I “lacked experience.” It was the age-old dilemma: how to get experience, when no one will give you the opportunity to prove what you know you can do?
My all-time favorite age is about 35. I looked forward to it, I enjoyed it, and if I could somehow have frozen my clock there, I would have thought it ideal. At that point, you are still solidly in your physical prime, but you are also solidly experienced and credible in your field. By that age, you can have a fairly impressive resume, you will have developed your professional reputation, and whether people know you or not, you are granted a certain modicum of respect based on the mere assumption that by 35, you know what you are doing. You have arrived. You are a player. And there you stay… for a while.
At some point, you will wake up and realize that you have crossed imperceptibly but firmly into the “older generation.” Not doddering old age, not yet, but… you are one of those 40-, 50-, or 60-somethings who is still vital, still alert and on top of things, still active in your field and with a wealth of experience… but… BUT. You find yourself increasingly being judged, probably by those 30-somethings who came along behind you.
In your youth you were judged, rightly or wrongly, as probably impetuous, irresponsible, inexperienced. As a result, opportunities were denied to you, and how you chafed! In your later years (especially in certain fields), you may find yourself judged, rightly or wrongly, as entrenched, behind the times, inflexible. And as a result, opportunities may be denied to you, and you will feel that old familiar chafing. Thus begins the slide into invisibility and irrelevance. The word “elderly” can’t be far behind.
So when you are asked to look back and choose your favorite time of life, is it any surprise that the 30s will stand out as the best?