Why you lose your ambition in your 30s

Article by Kimberly Gillan /
My Body+Soul /
September 26, 2016 /
Click here to view original /

My teens and 20s were spent plotting an ambitious career trajectory. No sooner had I settled into a role than I’d start thinking about the next step to get me to a level I deemed “successful”.

Along the way, that meant a lot sweat, tears and networking, while repeatedly falling victim to the “I worked until midnight last night” humble brag.

But as I inch towards 32, my ambition has simmered right down. Instead of dreaming of the next career milestone, I’m scrolling Instagram and admiring the yogis stretching out in exotic locations and anyone who seems to have a healthy work-life balance.

It’s not that I don’t want to be successful or maintain a good work reputation, but I don’t feel the need to do it at the frenetic pace of my 20s. It’s too exhausting and starts robbing other aspects of life.

When I’m tackling my career at breakneck speed, I turn into a zombie around my husband; I bail on catch-ups with friends because deadlines are pressing; and my Nana’s lucky to get a quarterly visit.

But by dropping things back a notch, I find my lungs fill more easily with air. I’m more present in conversations with my loved ones and instead of only squeezing a 20-minute high-intensity interval training workout into the day, sometimes I actually have time for a walk to the beach just to watch the rolling weather patterns.

I wondered if my quieting ambition relates to the fact I’m now married and thinking about next steps like a mortgage or a baby, but plenty of my single friends are in the same boat.

One friend works in a glamorous agency but says the shine of her title is wearing off when she’s exhausted from constant pressure and unrealistic expectations from management. Another has joined a big corporate that prioritises health and wellbeing and says the culture is rubbing off. There, fitting in time for a lunch break walk is becoming more brag-worthy than chaining yourself to your desk until the wee hours.

Research shows that most workers lose their ambition to get promoted or seek more responsibilities by the age of 35, so it would appear that my friends and I are right on target. It’s not that we don’t want to work or don’t enjoy what we do, it’s just that we’re happy to do it at a manageable pace without the competitiveness and constant lamenting about working so hard.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle says it’s not surprising that 30-somethings are dropping the gears. Unlike previous generations, which generally started families in their 20s, McCrindle says the average Australian woman doesn’t have a child until 31 and blokes don’t usually become dads until 33, so we’re spending our 20s focused on work.

“By the time someone is hitting their 30s, they’ve been at it, working pretty hard and studying hard for a decade and a half,” he told news.com.au.
“It can be exhausting and so by the time the 30s are coming along, people are trying to get a bit more of a sustainable pace and broader perspectives start to arise.”

McCrindle says that 30-somethings today are also redefining success after watching their parents strive for material possessions.

“In the ’80s and ’90s [it was all about] a brand name car and flashing around the Rolex and business card, whereas I think the definition of success and achievement has been broadened,” he says.

“If someone is successful in their career but they are hard to work with and health-wise they’re falling apart and they don’t have any hobbies … that’s today not regarded as an appreciable goal.”

McCrindle says Generation Y is under no illusion that they have many decades of work ahead of them, so want to ensure they’re not going to burn out.

“They’ve learnt from their parents that you’ve got to [have experiences] while you’re healthy and active,” he explains.

“It’s probably a healthy perspective to not just be on the wealth-accumulating pathway that their parents were.”

University of Melbourne social researcher Lauren Rosewarne says many high profile people have spoken about the futility of working stupidly long days, which has sparked questions among a lot of people.

“[They] champion leaner and more productive use of work hours,” Dr Rosewarne says.

“I suspect ambition has thus been reconceptualised. A 15-hour work day is no longer viewed as the only way to strive for achievement and in fact, can actually lead to burnout and counter-productivity.”

I certainly have no regrets about my 20s work ethic. Putting in those hours and commitment laid the groundwork for a satisfying career that I hope will see me through my 30s and beyond. But I plan to be doing it with a clear idea of what I’m really striving for — more sleep, more sunshine and more life satisfaction.