Lately I have been consumed by the thought I am running out of time. Because of the coming ecological collapse, of course. But more pressingly, in the short term, to be named as Under 30. Yes, to be included in one of those opaque, often random-seeming lists of an industry’s promising up-and-comers that mean nothing although, at 28, with my opportunities dwindling, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Jessica Richman seems to understand, even if you don’t. The co-founder of uBiome, a multimillion-dollar biotech startup selling gut-microbiome-testing kits, is said to have shaved a few years off her age — OK, a decade.
In 2014, a Business Insider reporter said that Richman had said that she was “under 30”, but had declined to be more specific. Although it’s not known whether or not this was her aim, she went on to be named one of the site’s “30 most important women under 30 in tech”. At the time she was 40.
Then last year, a different reporter said Richman had said that she was “under 40”, which earned her a spot on a “30 healthcare leaders under 40”. She was then 45.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is now investigating — not Richman’s skincare regimen, which must truly be exceptional, but uBiome’s questionable billing practices. The lengths Richman is said to have gone to in order to conceal her age, however, reflect a more widespread pressure to achieve by a certain point in life. Thirty, say.
Lying about your age may give you more time to succeed — but whether you are older or younger, everyone loses when age becomes the benchmark for success.
These “minimally prestigious” 30 Under 30 lists are often criticised for erasing older people’s ambitions and achievements. Their very existence, the argument goes, implies that talent makes itself known young or not at all, as with piano prodigies or elite gymnasts. Meanwhile, for people under 30, that milestone can loom like an expiry date, implying that if you are not demonstrably successful by then it is too late.
Your sympathies may be limited, I understand. But the reason I, like so many millennials, put so much weight on professional achievement is that we have absorbed the Silicon Valley mindset of “work as identity”, perhaps the natural outcome of being constantly told work should be a passion rather than a chore.
The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson calls this “workism” — the idea, as he put it, “that work should be the nucleus of our lives, the centrepiece of our identity”. When we measure our worth by our output, time is either spent working or is being wasted.
Social media doesn’t help, amplifying others’ achievements as well as their apparent work-life balance. But nor does the fact many of the milestones for previous generations — home ownership, marriage or children — are delayed or out of reach entirely, giving us more time to work.
So — I ask myself whenever a novelist’s well-reviewed debut crosses my desk and I see that their birth year is somehow, implausibly, 1994 — why haven’t I written a novel yet? In my least charitable moments, the only answer I accept of myself is lack of discipline. It’s easy to recognise that this is unhealthy, but untangling myself is not an easy process. So maybe what we need is stories of those people who achieve their goals late in life, or change them or give them up entirely with no regrets. Not a 65 Over 65, but stories that paint the course of a life as something rich and weaving. We certainly don’t need any more under-30 lists — unless, of course, you think I could get away with passing myself off as 18.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Elle Hunt is a columnist, specialising in popular culture and issues affecting the millennial generation.