This 1 Thing In '13 Going On 30' Is Still Too Real 20 Years Later

Are you "30 and flirty and thriving"?
The movie is surreal, but the pressure to figure yourself out by 30 is all too real.
Sony Pictures/Alamy
The movie is surreal, but the pressure to figure yourself out by 30 is all too real.

When you turn the big “3-0,” you are going to hear many unsolicited messages about what you should have accomplished by now.

Whether or not you ask for it, you’ll hear advice and admonishment from friends, families and pop culture about what this next decade should look like. And if you were a young millennial in the early 2000s, you likely got one of these messages of what a thirtysomething could and should be from the popular film “13 Going on 30.”

In the 2004 romantic comedy, 13-year-old Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) makes a desperate wish to jump past the humiliation of puberty and be “30 and flirty and thriving,” which has now become the movie’s most famous line. Jenna gets what she asked for, although nothing turns out quite like she expected.

Jenna wakes up and suddenly she is 30, as portrayed by Jennifer Garner. This older Jenna has all the status markers of thirtysomething success that young Jenna wanted. She lives in a luxury apartment filled with designer shoes and clothes, she has a “big-time magazine” job, is on a first-name basis with Madonna and has a buff boyfriend who’s a professional hockey player.

But she also happens to be a “pretentious, conniving snake,” as one disgruntled colleague puts it. She is passing off a secretary’s idea as her own after firing her. She ignores professional boundaries and is having an affair with her co-worker’s husband in her office.

Jenna’s ambition has made her well-known in her industry but a stranger to those her knew her growing up. As Jenna learns in the movie, you can be 30 and still be a hot mess. Her journey in the film is learning that the success you might end up treasuring the most is something that will not show up on a résumé. (In Jenna’s case, it’s regaining the relationship with her childhood best friend, Matty, as portrayed by Mark Ruffalo.)

Although the movie is now 20 years old, “13 Going on 30” depicted a very real pressure to understand yourself by a certain date that is still relevant. Jenna strongly believes her teen angst will end when she turns 30 because society is telling her that’s when she should be “thriving.” And that’s a common belief young people still hold, said Kayleen Schaefer, a journalist and the author of “But You’re Still So Young: How Thirtysomethings Are Redefining Adulthood.”

“I absolutely had the misconception, as Jenna does in the movie, that you hit your 30s and everything is figured out,” Schaefer said. “And your life is settled, and the hard stuff is over. And that is a lie.”

In this way, the milestone of 30 still carries a heavy weight, especially if you are dissatisfied about what you have yet to do with your life.

“There is this idea of taking your 20s to find yourself. But ... I think when you hit 30, you kind of are like, ‘Oh, OK, this is the decade where it gets serious and where I need to figure out my adulthood,’” Schaefer said. “But the thing is, adulthood doesn’t look the same for anybody.”

Why there are still pressures to reach milestones by 30

For Schaefer’s book research, she found that 1950s sociologists had a checklist for what adulthood should entail: finish school, leave home, make your own money, marry and become a parent. Back then, you needed all five markers of success to be a real adult.

And even though what’s on that cookie-cutter checklist has undoubtedly changed, many young people still have one.

“I certainly had that belief that when I was in my 30s, I would just check all these things off, and I was really rocked when it didn’t work out like that because you actually have to go after these things,” Schaefer said about the checklist. “We have a lot of agency, which is amazing, but it’s also really hard.”

In this way, it’s interesting how “13 Going on 30” depicted Jenna being unmarried, child-free and career-driven ― and a professional success as a result. Schaefer said it’s an example of how the 2004 film shows a shifting on-screen idea of what society expects from people in their 30s.

So, yes, this can be a decade of transformation. But ultimately it helps to put your life in perspective. Each of us has our own path but no roadmap to consult. Schaefer gave the example of starting a new career in your 30s or making the decision to not have children as milestones you can give yourself.

“Some people are in early stages of their careers. Some people are in late stages of their career, some people have two kids, some people are still deciding if they want to have kids or not,” she said. “Life isn’t just a straight line anymore.”

“I absolutely had the misconception, as Jenna does in the movie, that you hit your 30s and everything is figured out.”

- Kayleen Schaefer, author of “But You’re Still So Young”

Take what happens to Jenna. Once she realizes all the people “older Jenna” has betrayed, she returns to her parents’ home in need of comfort.

The background music swells. Billy Joel croons “You’re so ambitious for a juvenile / But then if you’re so smart tell me / Why are you still so afraid?” Jenna is at her lowest, loneliest point. She climbs into her mom’s bed and apologizes for not visiting at Christmas.

Her mom gives Jenna the pep talk she needs to keep going, and Jenna returns to New York City to make amends.

Jenna discovers that these relationships ― not her résumé ― are what she values. Nurturing and investing in these acquaintances and friendships can actually end up creating the most meaningful memories of all.

Indeed, the big lesson of “13 Going on 30” is that those personal connections can be what saves you from going down a lonelier, harder path. That can look like befriending your young neighbor who lives down the hall and learning her name. Or it can involve thanking your secretary and promoting her ideas. Or sometimes it’s simply sharing red Razzles with your old friend.

“We need to remember what used to be good. If we don’t, we won’t recognize it even if it hits us between the eyes,” Jenna declares to her magazine colleagues as she pitches a redesign, to applause. They are taking her more seriously as someone to respect and admire, and so is Jenna.

Ultimately, turning 30 has as much power as you give it. This decade will likely take you on a journey you did not intend to make, and that uncertainty can fill you with anxiety or excitement. It just depends on what you wish, as Jenna would tell you.

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