18 Women Disprove Clichés About the Most Mythologized Decades

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Popular culture bombards us with milestones to reach by the time we age into a new decade. Big dreams by 20; a strong sense of self by 30; a new lease on life by 40. Many of us absorb and internalize these tropes, using them to imagine and even determine how our lives should look and feel. Did you write angsty poetry or experience your first love as a teenager? Did you stay out late partying and dating your way through your heartbreaks and career crises of your twenties? Did you get your shit together in your thirties? Stop caring what people thought in your forties? These ages, in particular, are vulnerable to the cultural mythology of what it means to grow older.

It’s easy to get lost in this kind of storytelling—to compare yourself to how your age is depicted in books and movies and memes. But are these markers useful in real life? And maybe more importantly, are they even accurate? I asked women leaving or entering a new decade about how their experiences compared to some of the most pervasive clichés of the most clichéd decades. Here’s what they answered:

Myths About Your Teens: Emotional & Dramatic

“I was the complete opposite of a ‘teenage dirtbag’. I did my homework at least two days ahead of the due date, never skipped a class, or partied much until I started college, and I was usually responsibly in bed by 10pm. I didn’t even have my first kiss until March of this year! That being said, emotionally I was all over the place and very in-line with the mental health issues a lot of teenagers experience. I definitely struggled with depression, school, and social related stress, and had the biggest mood swings of anyone ever. And the worst cliché of them all: I was so mean to my mom!”
—Aleksandra, 19

“High school drama; thinking I know everything at 16 years old; lots of crushes on lots of people; driving around with friends blasting music because we had nothing else to do; tension with parents over the amount of freedom I was given; sneaking around; learning more from my friends about life than I learned in the classroom. Idyllic in a sad, small-town way.”
—Mariel, 20

“My teenage years were incredibly easy. Happy family, popular kid, good grades, good college, everyone liked me and I liked everyone. Yet in the last two years I entered my first serious relationship with a girl, resulting in me coming out as bisexual. Each year I look back and say ‘that was the most fun year of my life’, yet this year I am looking back and thinking ‘that was hard, and scary, and stressful, and painful’. Am I looking back at my first adult year? At my first year when I am no longer responsible for simply getting good grades and being well-liked, but responsible for another human being’s happiness? I look back on my teenage years and thank them for the smooth sailing, and for my ability to conform and perform the Western mythology of teen popularity and party culture. I am now experiencing another Western mythology of ‘coming of age’, and although it has already taken a large bite out of my naïveté, I am intrigued to see what the next decade has in store.”
—Kiera, 20

“In high school I was so determined to figure everything out and have my life together. Control was the ultimate goal. Now, as a semi-adult, I’m finding small ways to make up for the mistakes I didn’t make before. I’m more emotional and more out of control, but I’ve found strength and maturity in that feeling, rather than fear. As a teen I needed to be put together, but entering my twenties, I’m rediscovering and learning to love the messy parts of myself.”
—Maya, 20

Myths About Your Twenties: Lost & Messy

“I’m endlessly thankful that I’m not the same person I was at the beginning of the decade. But as opposed to feeling like I have it figured out, I’m just more comfortable owning that I don’t. I’m also shocked by how youthful I still feel. I think city life adds longevity to that feeling. I’m not afraid of 30 at all.”
—Hannah, 29

“I feel like I didn’t do enough in my twenties. Now that I’m 30, I feel like I should have everything figured out, but I’m actually going through a crisis because I don’t feel like I have enough success at work and I don’t make enough money or have enough savings. I know that in reality it’s OK that I don’t have things figured out and I have plenty of time, but I cannot shake that feeling that life is passing me by.”
—Auriel, 30

“I’m not usually a believer in astrology but everyone told me about the ‘Saturn return’ years of your mid-late twenties and the big changes that follow. I didn’t want to be a cliché but here I am living in Europe after six years in New York, halfway through a portfolio program (after quitting my job of five years) and two years into a new relationship. My mid-late twenties were really life affirming and made me feel more ME than ever before and I cannot wait for 30, when all of that becomes even more true.”
—Julia, 29

“I’m about to turn 30 in five days. And yes, the overused and oftentimes overwhelming clichés rang true for me. Like burning bridges by quitting a dream job in New York at 23 because your ego thinks you can make it in LA. Or the sexcapades that force you to hide from your college professor in broad daylight because you’re sleeping with him. Or losing your best friend over something so trivial you can’t even remember. Been there, done that.”
—Chani, 29

“I found my twenties to be a confusing, whirlwind continuation of my teenage years. I was in no way an adult, yet felt like I had to pretend that I was, trying out everything to see what would fit. I had no sense of the importance of money. I honestly thought I could move to London with $800, no job, and be perfectly fine for a while (spoiler alert: it wasn’t fine). I was shocked to discover that I had all this new freedom that I couldn’t do anything with. I feel a more fitting term for your twenties would be ‘Teenager: the later years’. You’ll still be working crappy jobs, going to school, and trying out this whole ‘adult’ thing. I’m turning 30 in two months and still feel like an imperfect adult. I’m still learning, and still discovering who I am and want to be. But slowly, I’m learning the power of ‘no’, realizing age is a privilege not a curse, and leaning in to the idea of being ’30, flirty, and thriving’.”
—Ashton, 29

Myths About Your Thirties: Together & Settled

“Leaving my thirties behind gave me the chance to formally dropkick my expectations that had hung around since my late teens. I got married at 22 (amazing decision) and my twenties were about adjusting to marriage and establishing a biomedical career, then having two babies and becoming a stay-at-home mom. I woke up out of a fog at 35 with two school-aged kids, opening up the age-old question of ‘now what?’ I just kept caregiving because I could. I watched the lives of others via social media and pined like everyone else. Then life happened—my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at 39. This completely changed my perspective of life, love, and my role as a caregiver. I’m now three years into this new ‘normal’, and they have been some of the most heartbreaking yet joyous ones ever. Not to say I don’t fear or lament lost expectations of what this decade should look like, but that they pass through my mind a lot faster than usual.”
—Mary, 41

“I became comfortable in my own skin, quit a high-paying job to live in a basement working as a part-time nanny, had great sex, loved being single, and made true, life-long friends. It felt like I was finally having [what was supposed to have been] my carefree twenties!”
—Heather, 38

“My thirties were a mess. Though I had two beautiful children, I also one day realized that my life and marriage were a complete sham. So, now, I’ll have to spend my forties to build my life from scratch. It’s exciting and terrifying.”
—Mekhala, 39

“It seems like everyone I know has children, and my husband and I spent a few years deeply, incredibly sad that we weren’t able to. But I’ve managed to leave behind a lot of emotional baggage, learned to let things go, and decided to enjoy my life. My husband and I have a very loving marriage and I’m getting laid hard. My basic takeaway is: You only have one life; it should be appreciated and honored.”
—Bianca, 40

“It’s hard to say whether I got my shit together because shit is relative. I will say that in the last year or so I’ve stopped giving as much weight to what other people think and I feel more content and less restless. I was told to expect this so I’m glad that cliché came true. My thirties were way more fun than most of my 20s. I hope the trend continues into the next decade!”
—Adria, 40

Myths About Your Forties: Enlightened & Actualized

“I was an early-starter and landed my first job as a managing director in my early thirties and had three kids under my belt. This means that my midlife career crisis had an early onset at the beginning of my forties. I decided to open my own practice and recalibrate my life goals in my mid-forties before returning to a ‘regular’ management job. At 48 I quit the corporate world entirely and started writing, and I am now publishing my first book after recently turning 50. The decade has been full of soul-searching and crises from which I now seem to be emerging. Thank god I left my forties and found my new life!”
—Malene, 50

“I feel young and energetic sometimes and ancient other times. My kids are older and able to be on their own so I finally have time to take care of myself. I weigh the same as I did in my twenties—I’ve always been tall and thin—but now my wrinkling face and age spots on arms and legs show my age. My neck is crepe-y and frankly it’s depressing. I feel like my days of feeling desirable are numbered. This will not be an easy transition. What gives me solace is the group of younger women around me who look up to me for my wise old age and years of experience. This is the hardest decade transition yet.”
—Jen, 50

“My forties looked more like I thought my thirties would in that I got married, had a baby, bought a house, and settled down. Six months ago I started my own business. I’m tired all the time, living in a peri-menopausal brain fog while craving chocolate in the throes of PMS! But I’ve never been happier.”
—Frances, 48

“Every time I leave a decade I consciously realize the good of it. It’s like eating the entire cake and only at the end realizing how good it was. It happened when I turned 30 (recently divorced) and I didn’t know where I was going nor where I was coming from. When I turned 40, I realized how much I had enjoyed the party.”
—Francesca, 50

How did your experiences compare?

Katie Bishop

Katie Bishop is a book editor and freelance writer based in Oxford, UK. She writes on topics including feminism, mental health, the social impact of technology, and the business of being a millennial. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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