When I was 15, I watched Rachel Green turn 30 on Friends. It was early 2001. At the time, I was literally half her age, and Rachel was my adult spirit guide showing me what the future would be. I watched eagerly, wondering what this new birthday would bring the girl with the best haircut in the room.
Now, before watching the episode, titled "The One Where They All Turn Thirty," 30 was just a number to me. I was proud of my ability to count to this number in English, French, and Latin, but other than that, I didn't attach a particular meaning to it. I didn't really see how it could possibly be that different from age 29. That is, until Rachel taught teenage me turning 30 wasn't like other birthdays — it was the end of the freaking world.
Recently, like most people with a Netflix account, I re-watched "The One Where They All Turn Thirty." I did so the week before my own 30th birthday. For some reason, I thought revisiting Rachel's transition to her 30s would help me navigate my own, but I immediately realized I couldn't relate to how distraught she was.
When Rachel lamented, "I just see so many people who have accomplished so many other goals by the time they're 30," she lost me completely. Who the hell were these people she knew who had accomplished more than her?
I'm a millennial, and the economy has been pretty shaky since I graduated undergrad in 2008. Most people I know are struggling to eke out a living working anywhere from two to 17 jobs, no matter how many degrees they have. But the 30-year-old Rachel Green had an executive position at Ralph Lauren. She even had her own assistant. None of the 30-year-olds I know have their own assistants. Many of them, however, do work as assistants.
The truth is, if Rachel Green were a real-life millennial instead of a fictitious Gen X-er, she'd be the most established person I know. I didn't understand why she was complaining. She probably had retirement savings and everything!
"The One Where They All Turn Thirty" ultimately ended with Rachel breaking up with her 24-year-old boyfriend, Tag. Why? Because, at one year past 29, she announced, "I'm past the point where I can just have fun." I found this line particularly jarring for multiple reasons. First, nothing in the episode made clear why Tag couldn't be a serious partner for Rachel. He was a sweet and sympathetic guy, a fantastic kisser, and he got along well with her friends. Why was there no long-term potential?
I guess 15 years ago, viewers were meant to assume that because Tag was six years younger than Rachel, it was impossible for them to end up together. Who ever heard of a woman marrying a younger man? Well, in 2016, almost everyone. Hell, Jennifer Aniston herself went on to marry Justin Theroux, who is nearly three years younger than she is. I myself am currently in a relationship with a caring partner who is slightly younger than me, and not only did it never occur to me to dump him when I turned 30, we're actually getting married this fall. There is absolutely no reason a woman cannot have a successful relationship with a man who has spent a little less time on the planet than her.
To me, the most upsetting part about newly 30-year-old Rachel resolving never to "just have fun" again is the statement's defeatism. It's a joyless decree that suggests adulthood must be devoid of spontaneity and adventure, that women have an expiry date for enjoying their lives. The message is clear: For women, the right to pleasure ends when one's 20s do.
The interesting thing is, at the time it aired, Friends was a cutting-edge show praised for illustrating how many urban Americans were settling down later. It's the show that brought so-called "extended adolescence" to popular consciousness, and yet, all Rachel Green wanted to do on her 30th birthday was settle down for good. It's a message that to me, a brand-new 30-year-old living in Toronto, no longer makes sense.
When I had my 30th birthday this March, it was the opposite of Rachel's. While Rachel insisted she just wanted hide from the world, I dragged my friends to a fancy French restaurant, where I proudly informed all the waitresses that I was no longer a 20-something. I did not mourn for my youth or resolve henceforth to do only practical things. Instead, I am trying new things and taking risks every day.
Of course, 30 may feel different to me than it did to Rachel because the economy has been so unreliable for about a decade. Unlike Gen X, it has become normal for millennials not to settle down with just the one career, purchase a house in the suburbs, and start a family. While the lack of stability experienced by millennials today is lamentable for many reasons, the silver lining is there's less pressure to settle for settling down.
So far, age 30 has been a thrilling time for me. I'm experimenting with completely new ventures, like writing a web series with some fabulous women I know. I have an entertainment pop culture podcast that debuted this year on iTunes, and I'm even writing young adult novels for Toronto's Inanna Press. Unlike Rachel, doing what I want to do — not what I think I have to do — continues to be the guiding principle of my life.
While I still love Rachel Green like the big sister I never had, I'm happy that 15-year-olds today have shows like New Girl, which depicts turning 30 not as a frightening killjoy moment, but just a regular old birthday. Jess and her gang of roommates are all well past 30, yet they still experiment by doing things like buying bars or becoming news anchors. Some of them even date just for the hell of it! That's the sort of 30-year-old life I know. You can be 30 and still have fun.