Friday, 4 June 2010

Another Chapter Begins

In tribute to Old Maid's Day today, a celebration of thirty - the age when you're officially an Old Maid, panic often sets in and people start to evaluate their lives

"But you're only 12," the bubbly Canadian at the bar next to me affectionately said. I was forced to admit that I had in fact turned 30 some time ago. Something that I had been dreading for months and as the fateful date drew nearer, grew to care less about.

In my teens 30 had seemed ancient - the end of life, the end of the road. Eighteen felt old with only 12 years until I would be deemed officially dead; a concept explored in the 1970s film, Logan’s Run, that depicted a society where people are killed off at 30 or forced to become fugitives on society’s outer fringes.

Less extreme views in our society see 30 as representing the outer-most boundary of youth, the border between young and middle-aged. Now, realising, I am no longer considered young and I am an adult, a woman, not a girl, is a hard thing to accept. I have to ask myself why this milestone age carries such stigma, expectation and anxiety.

The number itself means very little; it is the way others perceive us and the landmark events that individuals are expected to have achieved by this age that are more significant. Thirty is a socially imposed milestone, unlike 18 or 21, that are significant because of their legal implications. Thirty is a marker by which humans can measure each other both physically, in terms of ageing body conditions and in terms of life achievements. With our huge capacity for learning, people grow and develop over time and judge each other by how far we have done so. To feel as if nothing much has changed implies failure.

Men have a tendency to measure their success by their careers and personal relationships and are often more concerned with the affect of ageing on their joints, with many athletes and footballers out of the game after 30. Women however, fear losing their looks and getting wrinkles, reflecting at 30 on the status of their social standing and ability to form a long-lasting meaningful relationship.

Feeling, somehow cheated, I experienced no magical transformation as the bewitching hour drew near and the clock struck midnight. I wondered what the big deal was. Historically, according to 19th century belief systems, women have more to worry about, becoming 'old maids' or 'spinsters' at 30 if they have not followed traditional life paths. The word 'spinster' by modern standards has positive connotations of a woman who spins wool, thereby living independently from the male species, off her own wages.

Wool spinners were often single women and in medieval times when the fear of witchcraft was very real, likened to witches, as something out of the ordinary and therefore threatening. This sinister association disappeared in the Elizabethan era and 'spinsters' became women of traditional 'marrying age' without children who wouldn't or couldn't marry. Today, the term is viewed as derogatory, suggesting those it describes are wrinkled bitter old women. The rather twee title 'Old Maid' is commonly used to describe unmarried women without children, past the age a woman's biological clock is traditionally thought to be active. The fear of becoming a crazed baby-obsessed single woman is still very real for many.

With the fast pace of life, developments in gender expectations, the erosion of the family unit and longer life expectancy, fear of becoming an 'old maid' should be something of the past with women celebrating their freedom and independence on days like today - Old Maid's Day (June 4th). In 2007 the Office for National Statistics found that the average age for first marriages increased to 31.9 years for males and 29.8 for females and the majority of the population were cohabiting.

There has also been a huge swing in favour of delaying parenthood until the thirties and beyond. In 2006 the Baby Medical Advisory Board claimed that 48 per cent of women having their first child were over 30. Statistics collected by NationMaster showed the average age for first time mothers was 29.1.

In modern society, the pressures to have made something of yourself, lived a little, be a home owner and have a successful career are more predominant. Although with house prices increasing over the years and the current recession, the time it takes to amass sufficient savings means that homeowners are now increasingly in their thirties, rather than twenties. According to the GE Money Home Lending and Customer Research Organisation, the age of first time buyers in the UK has increased from 27 to 34 in the last 30 years, with only a third of buyers buying with a spouse, unlike in the 1970s when 80 per cent purchased with a partner.

These statistics suggest it is perfectly acceptable to be single, childless and without your own home, yet 30 still seems to be that age we dread. Humans have a habit of breaking up significant chunks of time into decades- the ‘noughties’. the 60s, golden wedding anniversaries... As a child I was told, the older you are, the faster time escapes you. This is one thing that certainly rings true for me - I can’t remember being ‘bored’ since the age of 13. In the grand scheme of things, 10 years is pretty insignificant; in the life of the solar system a decade is only enough time for the earth to travel around the sun 10 times.

A loophole around this human tendency to look to the future, plan and dream is coping more with the details of each day as it comes, something increasingly easy to do as the pace of life speeds up. One reason, I stopped fearing 30 was a pre-acceptance of the age. My ‘turning’ had alarmed me for so long before the big day, I was already starting to view myself as 30. By the time it was my birthday, I was so busy and stressed, I almost couldn’t be bothered to celebrate it.

After ‘d day’, I wasn’t a dramatically altered person but had to tick a different box on forms and unintentionally started to assess what I really value in life, what my energy should be invested in, who my friends really are and how I have changed over the years. I realised that the biggest difference in who I am now is my attitude to others - no one is ugly. I try to see the positive in whatever life may throw at me; I care less about what others think about me and I am, perhaps more self-assured.

The way others view me, has changed to some extent. To be taken seriously, I feel I have to dress like an adult, and express my personality less through clothes and accessories. At 30, it is inappropriate for me to behave in the same way as I did as a student. For the first time in my life, after my 30th Birthday, my mother, who is not very keen on children, actually started suggesting I ought to consider my body clock and I found myself surrounded by friends discussing mortgages and children.

Turning 30 wasn’t all bad. It was an excuse to have a huge party and rely on friends making a special effort. One of my friends made up for the 21st she never had, while another proved being 30 didn’t necessarily mean that you had to be sensible, having to redecorate after her 30th. Unlike for men, who reach their sexual peak in their early 20s, 30 is something to celebrate for women as the age their sexual peak begins, hitting it somewhere between 30-40.

Am I happy with who I am at 30 and do I fit the social model? Until recently, I was a student again; I am still without a house, job or children and back to a long-distance eight-year relationship so should be despairing, but the reality is, I feel I have achieved something over the years. I have experienced world travel, have a profession and will soon be embarking on another. TV sitcoms like Friends, Sex and the City, Coupling and Seinfeld help make it cool to be 30.

The saying goes, ‘You are as old as you look or feel’ and according to supermarket staff who regularly ID me and my friendly Canadian, I’m not 30. So as modern women, let’s empower ourselves to free ourselves from the pressures and expectations of being 30 by starting a new chapter in our lives rather than ending an era.

Now you’re 30, you’ll:

  • Leave clubs before the end to "beat the rush".

  • Get more excited about having a roast on a Sunday than going clubbing.

  • Prefer Later with Jools Holland to MTV.

  • Start referring to those older than you as “Only...”

  • Stop throwing out worn clothes because they could be useful for doing DIY, house work or gardening in.

  • Listen to Radio 2, instead of Radio 1.

  • Take a greater interest in the world around you and the news.

  • Stop laughing at those innovations catalogue that fall out of newspapers and start seeing the benefit of a plastic figure for the car to deter would-be thieves.

  • Think IKEA and self-assembled furniture aren’t a bad way to spend your Sunday.

  • Start to understand the benefits of a pension scheme.

  • Have to begin supporting your parents, financially and emotionally.

  • Stop tutting at immobile elderly people taking too long to get on or off the bus and start tutting at loud swearing youths instead.

  • Start saying things like, “I remember when the top ten was good...”

  • Start to feel the cold and lose your ‘beer jacket’.

  • Have a well stocked fridge and enough milk and bread.

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