But the recession put some speed bumps on many people's career tracks -- or sent them off their tracks altogether -- and today, a large number of early 30-somethings find themselves in a profoundly different position than they'd expected.
For instance, The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that the Great Recession led to disproportionate unemployment among young people and also affected their long-term incomes. The article cites a Bureau of Labor Statistics study showing that most workers have historically enjoyed the greatest income growth before age 30.
It's a pattern that does not bode well for those turning 30 now.
Patrick Eichhold, a freelance designer and entrepreneur in Indianapolis who turned 32 on Sept. 3, says that he feels he has been "'just starting out' for nine years."
"I have not been satisfied with my career or income since the day I graduated college," says Eichhold. He graduated with lofty goals, "but no experience or plan on how exactly I was going to achieve them."
"So naturally, I am far behind where I thought I would be at this age," he says.
Struggling to find work
Alyssa Hale (pictured above) of Boston tells a similar story. After graduating college in 2001, she struggled to find a job. "After a couple years I finally found a sales job for a printing company," she says, "and then 2007-2008 hit."
"I had climbed to $57,000 in annual income," says Hale. "I was 28 years old. As the financial sector crashed, so did the start-ups, and funding disappeared. I was out of work for a year before I just started teaching yoga and looking for work."
"Now, at 31 years old, I make about $55,000 working for a marketing firm," she relates. "I have a house, a child, and a husband bringing in a little more than me, and it's almost impossible to balance our budget if an unexpected expense hits."
Far from Financial Independence
Mark Gerlach works as a career counselor in Niagara Falls, N.Y., but says that, "At 30 years old, the closest I have been to financial independence was one year when my mother paid for my cell phone and loaned me $3,000 for a car."
Gen Xers had an easier time of finding jobs, he contends. "On the older side are people who got degrees in things like Romantic Victorian Children's Literature, and because the economy was generally in a decent state of growth, they got jobs straight out of college," Mark says.
In his view, his own generation did not have the same opportunities. "We got the rhetoric that a degree, any degree, was worth having. Some of us racked up $75,000 or more in debt to get that degree, and our first job out of college paid maybe $10 an hour," Gerlach says.
Worse still, he says, "A lot of my friends lost what little traction they'd gained on the corporate treadmill when they got laid off during the recession. Yes, they are starting back at the beginning."
Crushing Student Debt
Even those who are happy with their careers still have financial issues, says Allison VanNest, who works at a start-up in the Bay Area and lives with her husband, an engineer, in East Oakland, Calif.
VanNest says felt mixed emotions when she turned 30 in July 20: "On one hand, I am very proud of my career and income, and this is exactly where I hoped I would be when I envisioned my future in college. However, due to what feels like insurmountable student loan debt, I don't feel like I will ever feel comfortable with my monetary situation."
"My husband attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and has more than $120,000 in student loan debt. I attended Emerson College (B.S.) and Lesley University (M.A.), also in the Boston area, and have more than $80,000 in student loan debt."
"I want to be debt-free and retirement-ready by the age of 50," says VanNest. "But I'm not even sure that I will be finished paying off my student loans by that time ... It's sad that everyone says that higher education is the way to go, but no one tells you how horrible paying off your loans will be. I mean, who signed off to give two 18-year-old kids more than $200,000 in loans that they had no way of paying back? It's crazy."
Facing an uncertain future
Rodric Hurdle-Bradford, a PR consultant in Scottsdale, Ariz., urges his fellow 30-somethings to accept the new reality. "You have to stay hustling," he argues.
"Our parents had the luxury of knowing they could be with the same company for 20 years," says Hurdle-Bradford. "Nobody goes into a job now thinking they are going to work there for 20 years. Heck, some of my jobs have barely lasted 20 months."
"I had been on unemployment four times from three different states by the time I was 30," he says. "Despite that, every job change has been for the better."
Today, in addition to PR work and running his own Las Vegas valet-service company, Hurdle-Bradford freelances as a magazine writer and bartender. As he puts it, "The future comes faster than you know."
"Most of the people I know are living well below their means and relying on their entrepreneurial skills," he argues. "They're fully aware that the days when Americans lived on credit, and in a false reality, are clearly over."
That goes for 30-somethings and everyone else, he says.
What's your take, DailyFinance reader? Did you or will you achieve your financial and career goals by age 30? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Catherine Baab-Muguira is a contributor to The Motley Fool.