Academic High Achievers At Age Thirty
January 2015 (perspective of an assistant professor)
How do academically high-achieving Americans view their lives at age 30 versus back when they were in college? To find out, I surveyed 160 friends and acquaintances, most of whom hold graduate-level degrees. This article summarizes their views on life at age 30 versus at age 20. These insights can be useful for high-achieving students who are curious about what might be in store for them over the next decade.
This year is around the time when many of my peers are turning 30 years old. We were born in the early to mid-1980s, spent most of childhood in the 90s, and attended college in the early 2000s. We've since gone off on very different career and personal paths.
It's now been about a decade since we were in college, so I'm curious about how we perceive our lives now versus back then. To find out, I sent a survey to 160 friends and close acquaintances (around Dunbar's number). It asked two simple questions:
Focusing on Academic High Achievers
I didn't set out to make any discoveries about the general American public. On the contrary, the 160 people I surveyed are a highly-selective sample. They are all academic high achievers, since that was my peer group throughout childhood, college, and graduate school.
Most of these people hold graduate-level degrees: 82 of them have four or more years of graduate education (earning an M.D., Ph.D., or both), 51 have up to three years of graduate education (earning degrees such as an M.B.A., J.D., M.S., or M.A.), and 27 have a bachelor's degree. Many studied at top-ranked universities, majoring in science, engineering, medicine, business, or law.
There are lots of surveys about attitudes of the general American public, but I haven't seen any that focus on my own peer group: people who grew up as high achievers in school, excelled within the academic system, and then entered the high-skill professional workforce. So with this survey, I set out to discover: What's changed in the decade between college and now for some of the most well-educated and professionally ambitious 30-year-olds of this generation?
Due to this unique sample, the insights from this survey are most useful for high-achieving college students who are curious about what might be in store for them over the next decade. Say you've done all the right things in school, gotten good grades, checked off all the boxes, and are on track for a solid job that can take care of your material needs ... now what?!?
In short, this survey aims to uncover what I would've loved to know back when I was 20 years old.
Demographics and Responses
There are 83 men and 77 women in my sample, and everyone is around 28 to 33 years old (i.e., born in the early to mid 1980s). Most are married or in long-term monogamous relationships. But almost none have children; of those who do, their children are very young. Thus, the majority of perspectives come from working professionals who are not yet parents. Some people answered the questions together with their significant other.
66 out of 160 people (41%) responded to this survey. I'm really happy about the response rate, which is probably due to me sending it out during the winter holiday season when everyone had some free time off from the grind to reflect on their lives.
Most people replied anonymously, so I don't know the exact demographics of the 66 respondents. One benefit of anonymity is that people are more likely to be candid. But there are still bound to be self-reporting biases. Also, since I'm the one summarizing and presenting the responses, I'm sure my own biases will creep in as well, but I'll try to remain impartial.
Most Popular Answers
The five most popular kinds of answers to each question:
Let's now dig deeper into the major categories of responses to uncover their nuances. I'll start with the most common ones and then work down the long tail ... here we go!
Confidence was what most people said they have more of at age 30 versus 20: more confidence in their own abilities, in social situations, and in professional settings.
One person said that they have more self-confidence today since they were surrounded by exceptional peers back in college, but now they're one of the more exceptional people around. Another said the opposite: that back in college, they were at the top of their game, but now they don't feel as outstanding. Yet another said that attending MIT thoroughly beat down whatever was left of their confidence. However, most people seemed to feel like they grew more confident over the past decade.
Free time was what most people said they have less of at age 30 versus 20. Less free time for personal development, for learning new things, for doing what they want to do rather than what they are obligated to do, and for just sitting around and doing nothing.
Some people lamented a lack of free time to spend with friends and even to maintain distant friendships. (More on this topic in the Friendships section.)
A pair of young parents responded that having kids was the single biggest factor in their lack of free time now, way more so than jobs or the usual adult responsibilities.
Some are now more protective of their time since they recognize its scarcity. One said that they are more picky about what kinds of opportunities they now pursue, since they don't want to waste time going down dead ends. Another said, “I have a much greater appreciation of how little time we have to do things that really make a difference. And that really makes me evaluate more carefully how I spend my time and what I do with that time.”
Another common sub-theme was the lack of focused time. Back in college and grad school, there was plenty of time to just focus hard on investigating a topic in depth. But, as one person mentioned, “the work world is a loud place with a great deal of talking and many meetings, and my home life is often interrupt driven.”
However, a few people said that they actually have more free time now than back in school. And several mentioned that they now have more hobbies as well.
Many people mentioned how they have more patience now than back in college: more patience in professional settings, in social interactions, and in romantic relationships.
However, a few said how they actually have less patience now, especially for frivolous matters that might be a waste of their increasingly scarce free time. Also, less “patience for fools.”
Many people said that they have significantly less physical energy than back in their youth, but that they are now taking better care of their health overall.
People reported their metabolism slowing down, not being able to stay up as late, not being able to pull all-nighters, less stamina, less physical hardiness, less ability to heal from injuries, and lower tolerance for alcohol and junk food. More aches and pains, more physical ailments, and more fat. One even issued a cautionary note to youngins: “[Less] energy. Oh god this one is sad, folks. Live it up while you've still got it. By 30 you're a power plant that runs on sleep instead of one that runs on food.”
Not all is lost, though. People are now taking better care of themselves, trying harder to stay physically fit, and keeping up with doctor's appointments. One optimistically wrote: “[More] endurance, both the physical and the mental kinds. I feel like this [is] probably less a result of physiology and much more about having dramatically improved my ability to take care of myself during my 20s.”
Unsurprisingly, people gained expertise throughout their 20s and now have more skills than they did back in college. More ...
The flip side is that people now feel like they don't have nearly as many opportunities to learn new things. This is partially due to a lack of free time, but also due to no longer being in a school environment. One mentioned how there was always easy access to ways to learn random things back in school, but not so much in the working world. Others mentioned a lack of intellectual stimulation and intellectual excitement, and also a lack of creativity and curiosity in their everyday lives. (I'm speculating that this might be due to the nature of their work environments.)
Many people mentioned the topic of friends. In contrast, very few mentioned their families. The main family-related sentiment was having a greater appreciation for parents now than at age 20.
People have fewer opportunities to make new friends, fewer friends overall, and less day-to-day social interactions. They're physically farther from friends: “They used to be down the hall, now they are across town.” It's also harder to synchronize schedules: “Planning a week-long trip with a bunch of other people is really difficult now. It used be just called spring break.”
People also have fewer casual friends, fewer large-scale social activities, and less diverse social interactions. Some value their close friendships more now and have less interest in superficial relationships: “In college, there are fewer barriers to finding people with common interests and being part of a community, while now, it can be pretty hard. The flip side of this is that among the friends I do have, the friendships tend to be stronger.”
When friends get married or have kids, that changes the nature of existing friendships.
Despite less social interaction, people reported more appreciation for their current friends, better understanding of what real friends are, and stronger friendships. “I have more skills (and respect) for earning and maintaining close friendships that aren't a function of proximity and convenience. Adult friendships require something different than those we had in high school and college.” But note how this sentiment is framed in terms of skills – it takes work to maintain long-term adult friendships.
People were split on this topic. Some said that they now have more independence and thus more freedom, but others have less of a desire for novelty and thus don't take much advantage of potential freedoms.
The most direct positive sentiment: “vastly more independence and freedom to move and live where the hell I want.” Others cited the freedom to pursue personal interests, freedom from feeling like they must conform to parental and peer pressures, and freedom to use their own money to customize their environment.
Speaking of money, over a dozen people mentioned having more money now. Money buys some kinds of freedom and improves one's sense of control, but it also causes anxiety. Some reported having less of a desire to get rich or to obtain material possessions. An interesting opinion about money and happiness over time: “I wish I went into more debt in college. A dollar now brings less happiness compared to a dollar back then.”
Even though people have more freedom now than back in college, they tended to seek less novelty and serendipity in their daily lives. Less adventure-seeking behavior, less wanderlust, less willingness to travel and move to random places, less impulsiveness, less spontaneity, less fearlessness, less wild stories and drama, less adventures, and less shenanigans.
On the topic of travel, although some people travel more now, others said that it's harder to travel now due to life or work responsibilities: “[Less of an] ability to do something random for a summer or semester. Colleges seem more cool with you deciding to take time off than a job is. (Sure you could quit, but once you get back companies won't be excited to interview the weirdo who quit his last job to travel or whatever.)”
Responsibilities diminish some of the freedoms of adulthood that were described in the previous section. New parents felt it most: “insanely more responsibility, pretty much due to having kids.”
Some relate responsibilities with money – feeling responsible for making enough money to support their families. Others feel heavy responsibilities to support their aging parents, both financially and emotionally.
A stark contrast between ages 20 and 30: “Thinking back, when I was 20, my primary responsibility was a few hours of classes for something like nine months of the year, and the rest of my time I could spend however I wanted, which seems crazy in retrospect. These days, I work much more of the year (and of the day) and make important decisions that will affect my life and my family's life on a near weekly basis.”
People were generally more optimistic about romantic relationships at 30 versus 20. More love, better taste in romantic partners, more steady support and security from one's partner, more wisdom about romance, and better at advocating for one's own desires in relationships. Less fear of commitment, and less relationship stress.
One person said more sex; another said less sex.
People didn't talk much about their careers, despite being such professional high achievers for the most part. Some expressed more job satisfaction, while others expressed more tolerance for not-so-great jobs. Some felt like they have less career options now since they've already gone down a certain path and it's becoming harder and harder to switch at age 30.
Everybody who mentioned ambition said that they now have less of it; nobody grew more ambitious.
A vague but somewhat-common answer was more perspective. One person elaborated: “I have better perspective about what success looks like, what it takes to achieve success (it's *never* overnight no matter how much it looks that way). Better perspective about who I am, what I stand for, what motivates me, what deflates me, what I'm good at, what I'm not good at.”
People had more realism and less idealism. Specifically, more:
A proactive take on perspective: “I am less naive about the challenges in life. Some things don't go as planned or are not what they are cut out to be. When I was 20, I had a specific mindset about how my life would play out. I thought I knew what I needed and what I didn't need. But in that decade, I really learned that life is rarely like you plan it to be, and I experienced a lot along the way. I guess that also means I've become less conservative and more of a risk taker.”
Getting down to the long tail now ... people listed a wide range of emotional characteristics in their answers.
A common positive was self-awareness: more awareness of one's own emotions, of how the world works, of what's important in one's life, and of what will ultimately make one happy. But also, awareness of the limitations of life planning: “I am more aware and expect that life will take me to random places that I hadn't expected. I think a few years back I thought I could plan out life more than has actually been possible.”
Another common positive was emotional stability: more stability, more groundedness, feeling more supported by loved ones, feeling more comfortable with oneself, more calmness, and more clarity about what makes one happy.
A few mentioned anxiety: some had more, and others had less than when they were 20. Less worries about the future, less worries about what other people think, fewer insecurities, less existential woe, and less fear of the unknown. But some actually felt more internal pressures and worries about the future.
Below are characteristics that only one or two people mentioned. They appear positive for the most part. But it's hard to make any definitive claims from so few instances, especially since these kinds of responses are prone to social desirability bias.
At age 30, some reported having more ...
And less ...
I don't want to editorialize too much, but my takehome message for college students is to use this information to make the most of your early 20s and then enjoy the ride toward 30.
[insert old fogey unsolicited advice here]
Thanks to everyone who participated in this survey! Next stop: 40.
This article was republished on Quartz in March 2015.