The ’90s are 29 days, 15 hours, and about 58 minutes older than I am—it’s a simple fact that formed the basis of my identity. I love that I was born in 1990; it’s such a nice, stable, even number. Plus, being months older than most of my friends gave me the legal right to say, “Respect your elder” whenever we disagreed.
It was essential to my very being that I helped kick off an entire decade. Though I joke about technically being made in the ’80s, I’ve never been anything other than a ’90s kid. So, for the entirety of 2019, I was preparing for the 30th birthday of the ’90s—and, by extension, my own. But now that the time is here, I’m feeling nothing but panic.
I won’t argue that this is unique. As far as I can tell, every 29-year-old wigs out as their 30th birthday approaches. But, I think my feelings have a certain quality innate to this beloved decade we know as the ’90s. You see, for most people, the decade was all about butterfly clips, Pokémon cards, and the Backstreet Boys vs *NSYNC war (BSB all day, every day!). At the time, that rang true for me as well. But looking back, I can see how things were setting me up to be the anxious adult I am now.
Some of it was just my predisposition for nervousness. Growing up, I was a perfectionist who felt untethered whenever someone got a better grade than me.
But there were external factors—namely, some Big Bad Things™ that I had to grapple with. In 1996, a little blonde girl named JonBenét Ramsey was killed. I didn’t know her, but magazine covers all over the grocery store asked if I knew what happened. The next year, Princess Diana died, and I remember it vividly because my mom called her sister to talk about how sad it was. I wasn’t sure who Princess Diana was, but because “Princess” was her name, I agreed—it was very sad.
Then came the Y2K scare. As the twentieth century wrapped up, no one knew what to expect. Were the computers going to crash? Would the world end because of accidental missile launches? Would Twentieth-Century Fox change its name to Twenty-First-Century Fox? (That last one is just something I wondered about.) It was a lot to internalize before I’d even hit double digits.
I was still technically a kid when the ’90s ended, but it felt like my childhood was over. Because it was the year 2000 when I learned about present-day politics, and few things kill youthful innocence faster than politics. I didn’t really know about Democrats or Republicans. All I absorbed was that George W. Bush represented Texas, and I was born in Texas, so I thought my Black parents would want to vote for him. I was very wrong.
Then, the next year, my childhood really was over. Like everyone else, I remember exactly where I was when the Twin Towers fell: sixth-grade English class. And just like that, I experienced real, visceral fear for the first time.
All the Disney movies in the world couldn’t have prepared me for that.
So many events from my childhood coded a fear of the uncertain into me. I tried to circumvent it by meticulously plotting out every aspect of my life. But that didn’t work. Instead, I’m basically in a constant state of terror about the future. And that’s without factoring in how Donald Trump’s presidency has painted an even larger target on my back—or how the world is hurtling toward a literal boiling-over point.
But, honestly? Not even all of that is the reason I’m scared to turn 30. I’m worried that I haven’t earned the adulthood that being 30 represents. Thirty-year-olds have mortgages and nice clothes and a favorite wine. By the time my mom was 30, she’d already had me and my younger sister. I’m not there yet, and it feels like my fault.
Then again, as a millennial, it’s taking longer and longer to hit those traditional adult milestones. I know people who are resigned to the fact that they never will. And it doesn’t help that news outlets constantly infantilize us, calling us a generation of Peter Pans who would rather play video games than have real responsibilities. Even if that were true, I don’t see how that’s on us. Corporations actively profit off a state of endless nostalgia by selling our childhoods back to us with better graphics but less heart. How are we supposed to look forward when everyone is pulling us back? It’s an extremely difficult balancing act.
Despite my incessant doom and gloom, I don’t think all is lost—not truly. Change is definitely scary, but there’s always that tiny burst of optimism that maybe things on the other side will be better. Besides, I hear people reach a certain clarity in their 30s, and I’d really love to know who, exactly, I am. Primarily, I hope that this new phase of life means I will stop thinking of myself as a physical representation of the ’90s and finally just see me: Nicole, as a full-fledged adult.