Author Lucy Foley on the unique pressure to have ‘Achieved Things’ by our mid thirties and why everyone’s hiding their anxieties
Recently I was invited to a university friend’s engagement drinks, a friend who’d been much better at keeping in touch with a load of people I wouldn’t have seen for a decade. This realisation prompted a Romy-and-Michele-style panic about what to wear, which was really a superficial symptom of a bigger concern: how to present myself to people I’d last seen when I was twenty-two.
It wasn’t as though we’d all completely fallen out of contact. Because we live in the twenty-first century, we’re ostensibly ‘in touch’ via social media. Even though I hadn’t spoken to a large number of them in years I knew the names of their babies and where they’d most recently been on holiday. And they might well have been able to produce a similar level of detail about me. That’s the world we live in. But a real-life meeting is very different from the sort of contact we have via Instagram or Facebook. It’s a well-documented fact that on our profiles we can present a carefully-curated version of ourselves, selecting all the best bits and leaving anything less flattering behind. This meet-up would be exposing. In real life, there’s no flattering filter to hide behind.
There they were at the party – the people who had ‘Made It’ according to society’s barometer of success: becoming youngest-ever partner at their law firm, showing off bellies rounded by pregnancy, new engagement rings, talking about the completion dates for their new houses. People I’d last seen doing body shots or snogging in dark corners or receiving police cautions for running naked down the street at 2am. And perhaps I myself was being grouped by others into the ‘Smug Marrieds’ category – having been with my husband for thirteen years, and married for the last four, even if our childless status was something that had begun to be openly questioned by family members, parents’ friends and Uber drivers. And I found I had to remind myself of how much I love my work as I spoke to one guy who couldn’t understand how I could sleep at night with such a lack of job security: ‘but what happens if your next book doesn’t sell any copies?’ he’d asked, and ‘do you have a pension plan?’
The experience got me thinking about the unique pressure of the thirty-something reunion – as opposed to the twenty-something one. Our twenties, it seems to be universally accepted, are for messing around, trying new things – countries, jobs, partners – making mistakes. But suddenly, in our thirties, as at perhaps no other stage in our lives, it feels as though there is a new, sudden demand for us to have ‘Achieved Things’. To be sensible, adult, settled. To have made significant headway in the career of our choosing — even if it took us most of the previous decade to decide what it was we actually wanted to do. We should have a mortgage, found a partner, have or be about to have children. And arguably this pressure is amplified for women, thanks to the biological sell-by-date the world seems so keen to remind us is stamped on our wombs. But it’s definitely not exclusive to women, as a straw poll of my thirty-something male friends attests. They’re worried about falling behind their peer group in terms of life achievements, the direction their career is going in and, particularly among the single ones, about their own biological clocks, now that there’s been more research into the health implications of being an older father.
The whole experience at that drinks was also, in part, inspiration for my novel, The Hunting Party. On the surface the book is a murder mystery ‘whodunit’ puzzle. But on another level it’s also about thirty-something angst. The characters, who have met up in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands to celebrate New Year’s Eve, have been friends since they were at university together more than a decade ago. On the surface they all have fairly enviable lives (and are pretty over-entitled to boot). But in reality, they’re all hiding their own anxieties— whether they’re related to fertility struggles, career disappointments, money troubles or concerns that they’re too wedded to their work at the expense of everything else. None of them are really ‘winning’ at their thirties in the way they appear to be. And part of this is because of the way in which they are measuring their own lives against those of their peers.
Because it’s exhausting, comparing yourself to others. Life isn’t a race… because (not to be morbid or anything) if it is, then what’s the finish line? In 2019, when there are so many choices available to us in terms of how we love and work and live. And when we know what makes one person happy may be very different from the next, why are we still so obsessed with measuring up to some standard that’s really a throwback to an earlier age? We need to let go and allow ourselves to do our own thing, in our own time. Don’t be like the characters in The Hunting Party. Because – spoiler alert – it doesn’t work out so well for them.
*The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, £8.99, HarperFiction, is available in paperback, ebook and audio now.