The first important detail Edith Wharton reveals about Lily Bart, the protagonist of The House of Mirth, is that she is beautiful. The second is that she will turn 30 soon. So, wonders every character in the novel (Lily included), why isn’t she married?
Speaking to a male friend who is too poor to be marriage material, Lily confesses, “I’ve been about too long—people are getting tired of me; they are beginning to say I ought to marry.”
“So why don’t you?” the man responds, later adding: “Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?”
Lily sighs in resignation. “I suppose. What else is there?”
I turn 30 today. I am not married, haven’t had a serious relationship in nearly three years, and until recently had never wished I had a husband, never wondered “what else is there,” or felt pressure from anyone in my life to settle down. But lately, I’ve been fielding a torrent of unsolicited pep talks from older people offering me advice on turning 30, an occasion I had erroneously thought had lost most of its connotation of impending doom. Usually, their words of wisdom boil down to “don’t panic about finding a man.” But what they really mean is, “don’t panic about finding a man yet.”
As you may have heard, my generation, the Millennials, have fundamentally reshaped how society defines adulthood. That’s in part a result of the recession, which has left more than 15 percent of us jobless, forcing the lucky ones to live with their parents. But we’ve actively created our own, more positive societal changes as well. We’re far more likely to go to college than our parents, especially if we’re women. And women have an unprecedented number of opportunities—enough to answer Lily Bart’s rhetorical question about what else there is beyond marriage for a 30-year-old many times over. But we haven’t actually transcended society’s definition of what it means to be an adult woman—married, with kids—we’ve just pushed it back a few years.
“For most educated women  really does mean that you’re just beginning to approach the markers of being grown up: completing all the education you’re going to get, settling down with a partner, having a child,” says Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College who studies the evolution of family structure and gender roles. “To a certain extent people are giving you permission to wait, but as you turn 30 they’re beginning to put a little pressure on you.”
I know what she means all too well. The pressure in the form of pearls of wisdom began coming my way months before my birthday. One relative suggested I “stop moving across the country every few years,” so I could find someone to settle down with. A professional acquaintance told me not to worry about still being single because someone “smart and pretty and funny” would inevitably find a husband. Checking my ID last weekend, a liquor-store clerk handed me a shot-sized bottle of Jameson on the house and said “you’ll be fine!” with a wan smile.
Kate Bolick, a 41-year-old writer whose book about being a single woman comes out next year, told me to expect the pressure to increase over the next couple of years, and with it, the internal panic. “For me, 32 to 35 were the high-stress years where I was thinking, ‘What is wrong with me, am I commitment phobic, do I have deep psychological issues?,’” she says. Even explicitly telling people that she wasn’t married because she didn’t want to be, she says, wasn’t always convincing.
The median age for an American woman to first get married is 27, compared to 20 in 1960. That number rises with education level. But despite the fact that 50 percent of Americans are now single, there are no signs that young women are less likely than their mothers to get married eventually, Coontz’s research has found—we’re simply more likely to do it in our 30s instead of our 20s. I had assumed society had evolved beyond this concern over a single woman’s marriage prospects, but in fact I simply hadn’t been old enough for anyone to express it to me yet.
Now the floodgates have opened, in a very particular way. When I surveyed a dozen highly educated female friends in their 30s, only two reported hearing classic tropes like “when are you going to think about settling down?” or “you’re not getting any younger” around the time of their 30th birthdays. It’s 2014: No enlightened being would ever say those things to a single woman. The most common advice my friends received is the same as what I’ve been getting: “don’t panic,” in tones ranging from peppy to sympathetic. Besides the universal assumption that we will marry in our 30s, the other striking similarity among our experiences was that none of us had to seek out advice or indicate any level of concern for people to tell us not to be concerned. Aunts and uncles: I wasn’t worried until you told me not to worry!
Of course, well-meaning older people offering unsolicited advice to eye-rolling younger ones is what makes the world go round. But the particular gendered nature of 30th birthday advice was underscored when I talked to a single male friend who also turns 30 today. Unlike me, he’s actually been a bit stressed about his birthday, worrying about whether he’s achieved enough in his career, whether he should be settling down, etc. Yet when I asked him a week ago whether he had received the same advice I had, he couldn’t recall a single incident. “Probably because people think I’m beyond saving,” he half-joked.
No, probably because people assume my male friend (who’s doing great, by the way) is fully qualified to make his own choices, whether relating to his career or his personal life. Short of committing a felony, there are few decisions he could make at 30 that would irreversibly ruin his prospects. Even vasectomies can be undone. Meanwhile, my own benefit-of-the-doubt clock is running out even faster than the notorious biological one. Within the next decade, my advice-givers assume, I’ll either get married and give birth, or I’ll become a wrinklier Lily Bart.
I mean, what else is there?