in: Family, Featured, People

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

How to Avoid a 3-Car Pile-Up in Your 30s

Illustration of the railway carriage boxes one on another.

“There is a big difference between having a life in your thirties and starting a life in your thirties.” –Dr. Meg Jay, The Defining Decade

The average age that men marry these days is 29, up from 22 in 1960.

Not only is marriage being put off by both men and women, but other life milestones, like getting one’s first “real” job and having children, are being postponed as well.

The prevailing wisdom is that this trend represents nothing more than a change in chronology — that the same set of big life events that formerly took place in one’s twenties have now simply moved to one’s thirties, with no real consequence other than a shift in age. Thirty is the new twenty.

Several realities belie this common perspective, however.

One is neurological: the twenty-something brain possesses special qualities that make it especially primed for forming new habits, learning new skills, and starting new ventures. These once-in-a-lifetime qualities disappear as you approach thirty.

The others are biological and simply practical. While our lifestyle and culture have shifted over the decades, the window in which a woman can conceive children (and a man’s sperm is healthiest), remains stubbornly the same. Thus, if you start having kids in your thirties rather than your twenties, you’ve only got one decade to work with rather than two, and if you also wait until that decade to get married and begin focusing on your career, you get a trio of huge, energy-consuming situations all colliding at once — you get a 3-car pile-up in your 30s.

Hitting Life’s Big Milestones in the Past and Present

A man in 1960 might have gotten hitched at age 22.

He and his wife then enjoyed a few childless years together before having their first baby at age 25. With a decade and a half of fertile time remaining, they had the freedom to decide how many children they wanted and to amply space them out, having their second at age 28 and third at age 31. One kid was out of diapers before the next came along.

Professionally, this man was starting to climb the first rungs of his career in his mid-20s. With just one child at home, and still imbued with the energy of youth, he easily had the stamina to learn the ropes of his job and prepare for future success. By the time he reached his mid-30s, all his children were sleeping through the night, potty trained, and burgeoning with an independence that freed up significant mental bandwidth right at the time his career was really taking off.

A man in 2018 might get married at age 32.

He and wife of the same age want to have kids, and the window of her fertile years is shrinking, so they don’t have much time to just enjoy married life without them. The wife gets pregnant a year after their wedding, and has their first baby at age 34. There isn’t much room to space their kids out, so they have a second at age 36. And this is if the couple doesn’t encounter fertility problems or miscarriages, which could postpone the birth of their first child until their late 30s, and end up excluding the possibility of having a second at all.

But let’s say our hypothetical man and his wife do have their two kids at age 34 and 36. If this man did some drifting in his 20s, he may only now be getting serious about his career. That means he’ll be passing through the hardest part of a job — learning how to be competent at it — when he’s got two kids still in diapers, and with overall energy levels that aren’t what they were a decade prior.

While 1960-guy had the breathing room to spread marriage, career, and kids out in manageable stages — tackling one season at a time, and the hardest parts of them when he had the most energy — our modern man is ramping up a fairly new marriage, new kids, and a new job all at once; all three areas demand a ton of energy, of which he has little to spare.

How to Avoid a 3-Car Pile-Up in Your 30s

If you want all three things in life — marriage, kids, and career — then it is advantageous to stagger out your pursuit of each. Of course, these things can’t be completely planned: you don’t always meet the right person when you’d like, sometimes it takes longer than expected to find the right professional track, and kids don’t always come even when you want them to. But by being more intentional in each area, you can improve your chances of ordering your life’s progress in a way that is arguably ideal — along the lines of the following successive stages:

1. Get married young(er).

Getting married at a younger age has fallen out of favor, but it really sets the best possible foundation for everything else you want to do in life. While it’s commonly thought these days that marriage will stifle your fulfillment and impede your ambitions, the opposite is actually true; getting hitched younger comes with a bunch of unique benefits, including greater wealth and career success.

While folks often wait to get married until their finances improve, getting married would likely improve their finances. Research in fact shows that those who marry see “income increases of 50 to 100 percent, and net wealth increases of about 400 to 600 percent, and that married men make up to $18k more a year than their single peers. Why would this be? Well, you’re able to pool resources with your spouse, and you may feel more motivated to step things up at work when you’re not just looking out for yourself; indeed, studies show that married men in their 20s drink less and work harder than their single peers.

But the real key to the way marriage catalyzes success may be the way it hugely enhances your focus. Dating takes up an enormous amount of mental bandwidth: there’s the hunting, the courting, the planning, the stress, the drama, and the uncertainty of it, all of which not only requires a great deal of time, but saps oceans of emotional and mental bandwidth as well. Once you’ve found your life partner, on the other hand, you enjoy steady sex, a steady living situation, and steady emotional and social support. Marriage (at least a happy one) requires much less energy than dating, and you can channel all that saved energy into your professional pursuits.

In a piece astutely titled, “The Perfect Spouse Is the Best Lifehack No One Told You About,” Ryan Holiday observes that while “we’re supposed to believe that relationships tie people down, that they are the death knell for creativity and ambition,” he had found the reality to be quite different; being in a relationship with a girl he met his sophomore year of college, and married at age 27, “accelerated everything I ever hoped to do.” As part of his wedding vows, he said “that marriage was essentially one of the few regrets I have in my short life—in that I wish I’d done it sooner.”

Getting married younger doesn’t mean you have to walk down the aisle right after you graduate high school, or that you should marry the first woman who’s willing. Researchers have found that getting hitched between the ages of 22 and 25 seems to be the sweet spot for having a happy marriage, and of course, having marital bliss centrally depends on choosing the right partner. But, once you’ve found her, you shouldn’t hesitate in making your commitment official.

Not only will your spouse prove the greatest support to all your dreams and ambitions, the younger you marry, the more freedom and leeway you’ll have in deciding when to have kids. And childless married years are just fun.

2. Lay a solid career/financial foundation before you have kids, and before your thirties.

Getting married is hardly the death knell for your ambitions, and having kids isn’t either. But, I have to say that the latter, unlike the former, does make pursuing them a little harder. Kids just require a lot of energy, a lot of willpower, a lot of mental bandwidth. They plumb tire you out and there’s no getting around that fact.

Thus, I do think it’s beneficial to get off and running with your professional ambitions before your children come along. The “start-up” phase of a career — whether you’re literally starting your own business or simply learning the ropes at a 9-5 — really benefits from a single-minded intensity. It’s a time when you want to be able to work late nights without feeling too guilty or pull all-nighters without a toddler jumping on your bed at seven in the morning.

The hardest part of any professional endeavor is definitely its initial phases, when everything is new, everything has to be figured out for the first time, and you don’t have a firm grasp of exactly what you’re doing. It’s truly amazing how much more efficiently you’ll work after getting a few years of practice under your belt and settling into a real groove. Your performance will be better and yet take much less time and stress. It’s thus ideal to undergo the “launch” phase of your career without children, and then to have kids once you near its “cruising altitude” (a state that doesn’t preclude staying ambitious and continuing to grow, obviously, just one in which you’ve achieved a certain level of competence and mastery).

As we’ll get to next, you don’t want to wait too long to have kids, which means that if you want to initiate your professional launch before your thirties, you need to get intentional about your career in your twenties — the earlier the better. 

If you know what you want to do right out of college, that’s great, and you can start focusing on jumping into that field feet first.

If you’re not sure of what direction to head after you graduate, that’s okay too, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to drift for the remainder of the decade. As Dr. Meg Jay, a psychologist who specializes in working with 20-somethings, explains, such complacency can really come back to bite you in the butt:

“Economists and sociologists agree that twentysomething work has an inordinate influence on our long-run career success. About two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first ten years of a career. After that, families and mortgages get in the way of higher degrees and cross-country moves, and salaries rise more slowly.

Twentysomethings who think they have until later to leave unemployment or underemployment behind miss out on moving ahead while they are still traveling light. No matter how smoothly this goes, late bloomers will likely never close the gap between themselves and those who got started earlier. This leaves many thirty- and fortysomethings feeling as if they have ultimately paid a surprisingly high price for a string of random twentysomething jobs.”

So what do you do if you’re in your twenties and aren’t sure what career path to take? If you’re deciding between different options and opportunities, choose the job with more of what Jay calls “identity capital.” Identity capital is an investment in yourself and includes not only resume fodder like degrees and certifications, but your network and connections, manual, social, communication, and problem solving skills, and confidence.

Identity capital that you earn in one endeavor can open doors in another — even if they’re not related. Employers often care more about your intangible skills and experiences than they do about checking off certain boxes of a job description.

That’s why if you’re deciding between different paths and opportunities, Jay “always advise[s] twentysomethings to take the job with the most capital.” That doesn’t mean automatically taking the safe corporate job; rather, it means taking a job with Outward Bound rather than working a ski lift; taking a job with a non-profit rather than at a coffee shop; taking an internship in a field you think you might be interested in rather than working as a waiter.

Even if it takes until your thirties to figure out the professional field you want to pursue, if you intentionally seek out opportunities that build your identity capital in your twenties, you’ll still have launched yourself into a greater personal and professional maturity, so that as you do start a more focused working life in your thirties, you won’t spend the decade stressed out and floundering around. 

3. Don’t wait too long to have children.

Once you’re married and your career is in gear, don’t put off having kids for too long.

While celebrities (who behind the scenes are often using top-dollar fertility treatments and surrogates) have made conceiving children seem as viable at age 40 as age 30, a woman’s fertility begins to decline even in her early 30s, and this decline speeds up after age 35. At the same time, the chances of conceiving a baby with a birth defect goes up as a woman’s thirties progress, and research shows that children of older fathers have increased risks for several physical and mental disorders compared to children of younger fathers.

Beyond universal age-related fertility issues, you and your wife may have particular fertility problems that would have arisen regardless of when you first started trying to have kids. It’s better to discover these when you’re younger and have more time to conceive, than it is when you’re older, and are already facing down a narrowing fertility window. Fertility issues and their attendant treatments can turn the conception of each child into an expensive, emotionally and physically taxing, multi-year endeavor.

When looking at things from the outside during your younger years, conception and pregnancy can seem like things that happen naturally and smoothly for everyone; but as you get older and have more friends in the child-conceiving stage, you realize how many couples have to deal with infertility, miscarriages, and more. Don’t assume things will go smoothly for you and your wife and that you’ll have plenty of time to have the number of kids you desire; plan for more time than you think you’ll need. You may be enormously grateful for this leeway later on.

Besides the fertility issues that come with age, you’ll have greater energy in your twenties and even in your early thirties than you will as that decade wears on. Muscle mass and testosterone slowly start decreasing after age thirty, and you’ll be surprised by how much more tired you get with each passing year.

If you space out the three stages above as outlined, the timeline looks something like this:

  1. Getting married in your early to mid-twenties
  2. Launching your career in your mid to late twenties
  3. Starting to have kids in your late twenties to early thirties (the more kids you want to have, obviously the earlier you’ll want to start!)

Again, big life events like these don’t always go according to plan, and sometimes everything just unavoidably comes together at the same time in your thirties (or even later). Such situations can be a little more stressful, but with commitment and flexibility, folks can manage to cook a trio of pots on the stovetop of life just fine.

But tackling things in successive stages is arguably more ideal, and if you’re intentional about each area — dating deliberately with marriage in mind, pursuing identity-capital-building career opportunities, minding the reality of the biological clock — then by the time you get in your thirties, your marriage will be well-seasoned, your kids will be coming along, and your career will be in an effective groove. Handling all those areas of life will still require a lot of effort, but it will be easier than dealing with a 3-car pile-up!

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