From no fun to a new beginning, the age 30 gets a facelift

From left, female protagonists in their 30s from television series "My Lovely Sam Soon" (2005) on MBC, "Sweet My City" (2008) on SBS, "Discovery of Love" (2014) on KBS and "Work Later, Drink Now" (2021) on tvN [MBC, SBS, KBS, TVN]

“I want to be 30! Thirty and flirty and thriving.”

A 13-year-old girl named Jenna Rink sobs inside a closet wishing she would turn 30, firmly believing that she would have everything she had imagined for herself by then. Her wish comes true, and when she opens her eyes, everything she’d dreamed of seems to have magically come true: With a gorgeous body, glamorous boyfriend and a dream career, now 30-year-old Jenna has the world at her feet.

The narrative is from the beginning of the 2004 American romantic comedy film “13 Going on 30” starring Jennifer Garner as the adult Jenna. The film was released in local theaters in November that year.

The next year, a local television series titled “My Lovely Sam Soon” on MBC saw huge success — becoming one of the highest-rated Korean drama series of all time with an average viewership rate of 36.9 percent — with its story describing the romance between a 30-year-old talented pastry chef named Sam-soon and 27-year-old Jin-heon, the son of a wealthy hotelier. The catch here is that the character of Sam-soon is described as a spinster at the age of 30. Although passionate and talented at what she does, everyone around Sam-soon sees her as a plain old, fat woman who is unable to get married even at the age of 30. Even Jin-heon, before he becomes romantically involved with her, describes her as an ajumma [middle-aged woman] and makes fun of her “old” age.

The stark contrast between how the female protagonists of the two productions released within a similar time period feel about the age 30 shows the certain social stigmas attached to the specific demographic: The former describes it as a peak age with plenty of opportunities, while the latter considers it to be the end of their youth and an age at which one should be “settling down” to get married and raise a family of their own.

Of course, turning 30 is a significant milestone in one’s lifetime, and it is largely ubiquitous across the globe: a big transition from the youthful 20-somethings to an age range that society refers to as “adulthood.”

Korean content made in the early 2000s, however, attached a different meaning to the number, specifically in regards to their female characters.

A scene from KBS sitcom series "Old Miss Diary" (2004-05) [KBS]

KBS sitcom series “Old Miss Diary,” aired between 2004 and 2005, revolves around the romance of three couples. Like Sam-soon from “My Lovely Sam Soon,” the 30-year-old protagonist Mi-ja is initially described as a “spinster” being pressured to get married, and soon. The “Old Miss” from the title derives from the Konglish (or Korean English) “gold miss,” referring to a single woman in her 30s with a successful career. In another film “How To Keep My Love” from 2004, 29-year-old Hyun-joo awaits in half anticipation and half fear for a marriage proposal from her longtime boyfriend So-hoon, whom she’s dated for seven years. To Hyun-joo, marriage is the only escapeway from her boring and mundane life.

Fast forward to the 2020s, and the marriage bar for women in contemporary society seems to have been somewhat eased, and local content is reflecting the new social phenomenon. Women in female-centered narratives no longer fear the word 30 or dread approaching the age.

An insider from Duo, a top matchmaking agency in Korea, believes that contemporary society has become more lenient toward women’s age in marriage.

“Compared to the 1990s to early 2000s when the norm was for women to get married before 30, or at least within their early 30s, the [acceptable] age range for marriage has widened due to the diversification of social values, economic development and the advancement of technology that broadened the age during which women can give birth,” the Duo insider said. “Within our company, the average age at which one first gets married is 36.7 for men and 33.6 for women, based on our 2021 report.”

According to a 2001 survey done by the company on 1,038 members, when asked at which age they would like to get married, the average response was 28.6 for women and 30.6 for men.

“In our annual report for 2021 regarding the standards for a suitable marriage partner, 51.2 percent of our male users and 64.8 percent of our female users replied ‘there is no suitable age for marriage’ regarding the question of the proper age at which one should get married,” the insider added.

To say that Korean women are completely free of the social pressure to get married, however, is another matter completely.

“My older sister is 29 years old, but my mom thinks that she should at least meet someone this year so she can get married next year,” said a 26-year-old who wished to be only known by her surname Kang. “My mom doesn’t tell her that, though. She only keeps telling me. I think that the older generation still believes that there is a certain age at which women should settle down, but they no longer say it out loud like they did in the past. And my sister is feeling the pressure too.”

Jung, a 31-year-old who wished to only be known by her surname, says she doesn’t want to rush marriage and her parents support her decision.

“My parents want me to get married as late as possible because they believe that there are still social barriers that women face when they get married,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t ever want to get married, but I want to do it when I feel that my situation is stable, when both my mind and body are at peace. And I believe that I don’t necessarily have to get married, because nowadays, there is so much to do in my senior years even if I don’t get married and raise a family of my own. There are so much [recreational activities] that I can do by myself to enjoy my time alone. Once you have your own family, it’s hard to do that because you have to take care of and provide for them.”

In the now-airing “Thirty-Nine” on JTBC starring Son Ye-jin, Jeon Mi-do and Kim Ji-hyun, the three women who are the best of friends, all aged 39, all are single. Romance is still a part of their lives, and their parents might occasionally nudge them to meet someone and get married, but no longer are they stigmatized or branded as a spinster or a gold miss.

A scene from JTBC drama series "Melodramatic" (2019) [JTBC]
A scene from tvN drama series "Search WWW" (2019) [TVN]

The same goes for other, more recent female-centered narratives such as JTBC’s “Melodramatic” (2019), tvN’s “Search WWW” (2019) and “Work Later, Drink Now” (2021-). The age range of the women appearing in the programs ranges from 30 to 39. The content includes romance, but it does not focus solely on romance; the arena of what the women go through has expanded to the sometimes haphazard areas of their professional life, family and friendships.

Even programs that do specifically target romance — such as television series “Discovery of Love” (2014) on KBS and the film “Nothing Serious” (2021) — no longer portray women whose life goal is to don a white dress and arrive at the marriage alter to say “I do.”

The cast of KBS drama series "Discovery of Love" [KBS]
A scene from the film "Nothing Serious" [CJ ENM]

“I believe the expansion in these narratives came from the increase in the analysis and the consumption trend of ‘single economy’ — basically, the increase in one-person households,” culture critic Kim Heon-sik said. “The social phenomenon is reflected in cultural content saying that it is not necessary for women, particularly those in their 30s, to get married [merely] because of the social stigma.”

Kim believes that the shift in the social atmosphere was reflected in local content after the “My Lovely Sam Soon” phase ended, such as in SBS drama series “Sweet My City” (2008) and tvN sitcom series “Rude Miss Young Ae” (2007-19). Both series have women crossing over the 30-year threshold, gradually learning to accept their age instead of just conforming to the social norm.

A scene from tvN sitcom series "Rude Miss Young Ae" [TVN]

“For instance, in ‘Rude Miss Young Ae,’ the narrative is focused more on her work life, and from then on there were more productions that deal with struggles females deal with in their work. If content used to be dichotomous in the past — solely focused on their work and love — now the diversity in single person’s lifestyle is also reflected in the local content.”