At age 30, Charles Kurault was on the road, reporting from Letcher County, Kentucky.
It was 1964 and America was said to be in an economic boom. But Kuralt saw another, seemingly ignored America . . . and spent his 30s bringing focus to the ordinary and overlooked.
It was as if theirs were the stories he was born to tell.
But how likely is it that any one of us will find our true calling at 30? Do 30-year-olds like me know who we are, let alone who we will become? And should we?
"For this generation certainly, you know, 30 is more of a starting point than it is a mid-point," said Lockhart Steele. He and his former classmates Jonathan Van Gieson and Joshua Albertson settled their own anxieties about turning 30 by researching and writing "Book of Ages: 30" (Crown), filled with statistics, ranging from the number of thirtysomethings who own a car to how many own guns.
78% OF PEOPLE OWN A MOTOR VEHICLE BEFORE TURNING 35. ON AVERAGE, IT'S WORTH $8,900.
45% OF THIRTYSOMETHINGS OWN A FIREARM.
MORE PEOPLE IN THEIR 30s OWN GUNS THAN IN ANY OTHER DECADE OF THEIR LIVES.
"Finding these little nuggets, I think, does actually paint a portrait of what it means to be 30 in America today," said Steele.
"Is 30 a landmark age?" Doane asked.
"After 21, it's the age at which you really have to look at yourself and decide, am I on the right track?" said van Gieson. "Have I succeeded in the ways I've wanted to succeed? Have I failed as spectacularly as I thought I might?"
Journalist Gail Sheehy (left)wrote the book on our rites of passage, literally. Published in 1976, "Passages" brought then-39-year-old Sheehy wealth and worldwide acclaim.
"Everybody wants to be 30," Sheehy said. "50-year-olds say 50 is the new 30. 40-year-olds are saying 40 is the new 30. And interestingly when I interview people in the mid-40s, in their 50s and ask, how do you feel inside? They almost always say 30."
It's "the golden age," she said.
More than 4.2 million Americans are turning 30 this year. Nationwide, about 78% of women and 70% of men have been married by their early 30s. Fifty-five percent own a home. Eighty-two percent of women have been pregnant.
Today's 30-year-olds, Sheehy says, are like Peter Pan: they don't want to grow up. But for the most part, they're doing so anyway.
"It's a roil of contradictions," she said of the belief "'I still feel 21, but maybe I'd better just apply a little more commitment to my life.'"
And Sheehy says there's one commitment most of them have made. Eighty-three percent of people are in significant debt by their early 30s. Their median income is $55,000, but their median debt is $26,500.
"Here we are in an economic squeeze and I think the 30-year-olds are gonna be squeezed pretty hard," Sheehy said.
"So this is not a good time to be turning 30?" Doane asked.
"It's always a good time to be turning 30!" she replied.
But, 34-year-old Jonathan Van Gieson says there's a downside. In the book he writes, "At 30, your body begins a slow fade to the grave."
"Boy, we wrote that? That's a depressing thing to say," he said.
Sadly, they're armed with statistics to back it up:
YOUR MUSCLE MASS IS DROPPING AT 10% A YEAR.
25% OF MEN ARE GOING BALD BY THE AGE OF 30.
But thirtysomethings, don't despair! These former classmates suggest a coping method: Gauge your own 30-year progress against that of famous people.
"Part of what fascinated us was people who went on to great fame but at the time they were 30, they were still nobodies," said Steele.
"George Clooney, for instance, was on his 14th or 15th failed pilot," said van Gieson.
"Ted Turner was running his father's company he'd inherited that was actually an outdoor billboard advertising company in Atlanta," said Steele.
And Barack Obama had only just graduated law school.
Still, the authors point to others who found their, shall we say, inspiration at 30. That's when Jesus gave up carpentry and began preaching.
And both Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy took their seats in the Senate.
And then there are those few exceptions who hit their peak at 30 . . . and held onto it.
"When Bill Gates was 30, Microsoft went public and I think Bill Gates' net worth, just at that time, was somewhere north of $200 million overnight," said Steele.
It's not only money that measures success. Sometimes it's the message, told at just the right time.
"'Sunday Morning'was born in 1979," said Doane. "How different was it then to turn 30 than today?"
"Well, we were in a cultural whirlwind in 1979," said Sheehy. "The women's movement was almost ten years old. Couples were breaking up all over the place. There was just no single way to put your life together that anybody could hang onto. It was just up for grabs."
So for 30 years, "Sunday Morning" has been covering the news, of course, but also the arts and music and especially the kinds of stories the thirtysomething Charles Kuralt originally brought to national attention.
"Sunday Morning" has made some changes, perhaps the most important 15 years ago when one Charles handed the reins to another.
But guidance about where to go from here can seem hard to come by, given the paucity of broadcasts with track records this long.
"Not a lot of TV shows have made it to 30," said Steele. "You guys are in a pretty elite audience there!"
"I mean, I think there's probably some lessons to be learned," Van Gieson said. "Ask yourself, could you do 'Sunday Morning' on a Monday?'"
Or maybe the best lesson, no matter your age, is: Know your strengths, build on them, and when you're on a roll . . . stay the course.
For more info:
"Book of Ages: 30" (Crown)