When Roger Federer and Zlatan Ibrahimović retire, no sportsperson of the very highest class will be older than me. The sting of mortality I feel that day will pass. One of the many ways in which sport differs from life, despite literary efforts to entwine them, is the former’s unavoidable cult of youth. By the time a professional athlete passes into obsolescence, people with normal lives are just getting into their stride.
Older readers will advise me to reserve judgment but I am convinced that people in their thirties — such as myself — are living through the best decade they will ever know. And that the young, nervous and insecure as they sometimes are, deserve advance notice of the glory years ahead.
Thirtysomethings have more energy than their elders to lead a strenuous social life and more disposable income than their juniors to fund it. They have enough youthful curiosity to try new things and enough experience to avoid obvious follies. Enough career progress to feel confident and enough they still want to achieve to preserve motivation and sharpness. Enough relationships under the belt to distinguish love from a trick of the light, but not so many as to feel jaded. They will have tasted disappointment, but not so much as to cut a sad figure. It is, if not the “Goldilocks” decade, then at least the hinge decade, the period of transition from youth to non-youth.
Pareto point in life
Economists talk of Pareto efficiency, an allocation of resources after which it is impossible to give more to any person or preference without taking away from another. The thirties are the Pareto point in life: it is possible to have more of certain things in prior and subsequent years, but only at the cost of other things. It is the decade of optimal balance.
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The balancing act can be parlayed into the forties — I have friends who pull it off — but at some effort. In the thirties, physical decline proceeds on such a shallow gradient as to be ignorable. The snap and spring goes out of your bound up the stairs and the period of recuperation after a night out creeps into the next afternoon. But these are secrets between you and your body. No one else need know. Unless you are in Federer’s or Ibrahimović’s line of work, there is no cost to this private deterioration.
A decade later
A decade later, any fool can spot it from the other side of a room. The slower rate of cell production is etched into your laughter lines. The slower metabolic rate is, in the absence of a scrupulous diet, all over your midriff. In other words, the thirties are the last decade in which you can pretend you will never die. There is an intellectual understanding of the inevitable, of course, but you do not quite believe it. That only comes as proofs of decay multiply on your person.
All my heroic claims for the thirties are subject to conditions. It helps to be single or part of an outgoing couple. Your twenties must have gone well enough that you are secure in your work (although there is no need to be rich: the point is that this decade beats the others, not that it is a continual blast). Then there is the question of gender. Men are under less pressure to start a family in these years than women, if they want one at all. Nothing smashes your rationalist conceits, nothing persuades you of nature as the great inescapable quite like observing this inequity play out again and again, often with sad and bizarre results.
Too expensive for the young
But then no decade treats everyone with equal kindness. The thirties privilege the middle-class, the non-family-minded and, above all, the urban. Big cities are too expensive for the young to enjoy in full and too ferocious for the old to withstand. London still cowed me in my twenties; it is now as transparent and responsive as a vending machine. Years from now, I will be at a loss again, out-of-date in my mental map of the action, fumbling to feel where the city’s heartbeat has moved. The streets will belong to the people now at the start of their careers, head down in the office after hours to impress the boss, unable to summon an Uber without wincing at the cost.
Tom Wolfe called the 1970s the Me decade for its worship of the individual (he did not know what was coming, did he?). If the human lifespan contains a Me decade, it is the thirties. In their teenage years, people are selfish but too dependent on their parents to act on it. In their twenties, they are sweating to establish themselves in professional life. In their thirties, the bar is open at last.