HEALTHY LIVING

Here's Everything That's Wrong With Our 'Under 30' Obsession

02/20/2014 08:51 am ET | Updated Feb 25, 2014

Forbes' 30 Under 30. The New Yorker's 20 Under 40. Inc.'s 35 Under 35. Fortune's 40 Under 40. TIME's 30 Under 30.

Sensing a pattern? We see it all the time in the media: Hyped-up lists of successful people categorized by age -- but always under 40 -- with brownie points given to the youngest wunderkinds of the bunch. And in every magazine profile, whether about an actress or an investment banker, the subject's youth is presented as a badge of honor. "He took the helm at just 26, becoming the youngest CEO in the company's history...," "She published her first novel at 23," or "She earned her MBA from Harvard by 25."

It's safe to say, as Simon Doonan put it, that "Youth is the new global currency." Of course, American culture has long fetishized youth in terms of physical appearance -- plastic surgery and anti-aging products are multi-billion-dollar industries in the U.S. -- but more recently, our cultural obsession with youth has shifted to focus more on success. (Or at least, the traditional markers of success -- money, power and status). In the digital age, anyone can become a CEO (and/or billionaire) by 22. And with people marrying, having children, and buying homes later and later, many 20-somethings are choosing to focus more on work and personal development rather than settling down.

"This is the time to be young and ambitious," Forbes wrote last month in the introduction to its annual 30 Under 30 list. "Never before has youth been such an advantage."

While this evolving definition of young adulthood is a positive development in a number of ways -- young people should be encouraged to go out into the world and pursue their dreams -- it comes at a price. Increasingly, they're being judged by the outward success they achieve by the (rather arbitrary) age of 30.

There's nothing wrong with celebrating the achievements of accomplished, driven young people, but the proliferation of "Under 30" lists may perpetuate unhealthy views toward youth and aging. And they could take a negative toll on the way the under-30 set views their own life progress and achievements.

Here are seven reasons we need to do away with the "Under 25/30/35/40" lists and celebrate success (in whatever form it may come) at every age.

We're too obsessed with youth.

You don't have to look far to see how obsessed our "forever 21" culture is with youth. Most TV shows and movies feature 20-something protagonists, and the media loves to focus on the achievements of young people -- and to tell us all the amazing things about being in your 20s.

When we're constantly being made aware of how young (or old) other people are, and marking our lives by the milestones of hitting 25, 30, and so on, age becomes central to our identity.

Obsession with youth also reflects and perpetuates a widespread societal fear of aging. Without a cultural ideal of old age (and even middle age), says psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, "our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life."

20- and 30-somethings are stressed enough already.

Most Millennials would agree that perusing under-30 lists doesn't exactly make them feel good about themselves. Besides glorifying an overachiever mentality (Achieve as much success as possible, as young as possible!), the lists encourage comparison, offering 20-something a yardstick against which to measure their own achievements -- and inevitably come up short. Millennials are already America's most-stressed generation, and a needless reminder that time's a' tickin' likely isn't helping matters.

As Millennial trend researcher Maude Standish wrote in a Huffington Post blog:

The allure of youth has culturally shifted from being about innocence to being about achievement. Many a Millennial I know has spent a long night pondering their misspent youth after reading the horrible torture tool that is the "30 Under 30" article. This deep panic is different from what Boomers experienced in their 20s, as many were capable of acquiring the trappings of adulthood early on -- thankfully for them the economy made the dream of a house with a white picket fence a reality.

Feeling that you're somehow already behind in life at the age of 23, or attaching your entire self-worth to external accomplishments, isn't healthy. This can only worsen the unofficial (but all too real) malady known as "time famine," the constant, stressful feeling that you don't have time for all the things that need to get done. Time famine has been found to increase stress levels and decrease life satisfaction -- and it certainly won't help you achieve success in any meaningful way. Life doesn't end at 30, and a goal achieved later in life is in no way diminished because you weren't the youngest person to do it.

Your 20s (and 30s) are supposed to be for figuring things out.

There's been a whole lot of debate about how one should spend their 20s, and everyone seems to have a strong opinion on the matter, whether you view it as the "defining decade" or a 10-year extension of adolescence. But wherever you stand on the matter, the scientific data has shown that in the early to mid-20s, the brain is still developing -- meaning that it's a prime time for exploration, learning and experimentation. (Read: You don't have to have it all figured out.)

For this reason, some experts have argued that it's better to delay major life decisions until the late 20s.

"Until very recently, we had to make some pretty important life decisions about education and career paths, who to marry and whether to go into the military at a time when parts of our brains weren't optimal yet, "neuroscientist Jay Giedd told The Wall Street Journal. "It's a good thing that the 20s are becoming a time for self-discovery."

Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who coined the term "emerging adulthood," agrees that it's typical for 20-somethings to change their minds regularly and not be sure of what they're going to do. "It's the norm," he said.

Big breakthroughs happen in your late 30s.

If you haven't published your first novel, launched an outrageously successful tech start-up, finished your doctoral thesis, or made your first million by 35, fear not! Research has found that major creative breakthroughs tend to happen in an individual's late 30s.

Researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research studied the ages of Nobel Prize-winning scientists and inventors, and found that many had their biggest scientific breakthroughs between the ages of 36 and 41. But it's not just in science: Olga Khazan of The Atlantic noted that genius has been found not to decline with age -- Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams wrote over 40 percent of their best poems after the age of 50 -- so don't worry if you've yet to pen your magnum opus.

As Khazan explained, "Genius, it seems, happens when a seasoned mind sees a problem with fresh eyes."

There are a lot of perks to being a late bloomer.

What do Van Gogh, Julia Child and Sylvester Stallone have in common? Their great successes came much later in life -- enough to immediately disqualify them for any "Under 30" list. Van Gogh didn't start painting until his late 20s, and Harrison Ford didn't get his big break in movies until he was cast in Star Wars at age 35.

It may even be beneficial to achieve your greatest successes later in life, after a period of experimentation, learning or even challenges. Late bloomers may be better at developing resiliency, according to some psychologists. They've also had time to experiment, make mistakes, overcome obstacles and learn things the hard way -- which could lead to deeper, more meaningful work down the road.

Letting go of the "life timeline" you've created for yourself -- dream job by 25, marriage by 28, kids by 30 -- can be enormously liberating, and can help you to allow your life and career to unfold organically. And you never know what the unexpected upsides may be -- as the Dalai Lama said, "Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck."

Life gets happier as you get older.

Here's an alternative to keeping a running tally of everything you achieve by 30: Take a page from the book of the older and wiser among us, and make a little time in your pursuit of success to enjoy life's small pleasures.

Life doesn't end at 30 -- or 40, or 50, or 60. There's a lot to look forward to as you age, and an extensive body of research has shown that people tend to enjoy greater happiness, lower stress levels and increased well-being later in life. A recent report found that while young people tend to seek out unusual or exciting experiences, older people are able to derive more value and enjoyment from ordinary, quotidian pleasures.

Becoming a CEO in your 20s also doesn't account for much in terms of longer-term life satisfaction. The 75-year Harvard Grant study, the largest longitudinal study ever conducted, found that satisfaction in later life had very little to do with the achievements an individual racked up over the course of his career. In the context of a full life, love and connection to others was a far greater predictor of happiness.

“We found that contentment in the late 70s was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income," psychiatrist George Vaillant, the study's director, told the Huffington Post. "In terms of achievement, the only thing that matters is that you be content at your work.”

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