Did you spend your 20s working odd jobs and dating incompatible partners? Or did you keep your eye on the prize, studying and working in your chosen field, hanging your shingle out for marriage material only?
Either way, clinical Psychologist Meg Jay has something to say about it. She recently gave a Ted Talk called “Why 30 is Not the New 20,” in which she urged young people to be more deliberate in their choices and not waste what she terms ‘the most important decade of our lives.’ When you have the time, check out the Ted Talk in it’s entirety.
For now, here’s a summary of what Meg Jay had to say:
-Many young people today view their 20s as a time to mess around or procrastinate, thus delaying adulthood and making their 30s a more difficult decade
-Twentysomethings shouldn’t waste time on dead-end jobs (she specifically mentions waiting tables) or dead-end relationships and instead seek out meaningful jobs and relationships
-Those who stay in stagnant relationships are more likely to marry the wrong partner when the music stops and their peers begin marrying
-Aim for something, build something, do something with your 20s
And, here, a few of her most salient quotes:
“80% of life’s most defining moments happen by age 35.”
“The brain caps off its second and last growth spurt in your 20s as it rewires itself for adulthood, which means that whatever it is you want to change about yourself, now [your 20s] is the time to change it.”
“Forget about having an identity crisis and get some identity capital. … Do something that adds value to who you are. Do something that’s an investment in who you might want to be next.”
“When a lot has been pushed to your 30s, there is enormous pressure to jumpstart a career, pick a city, partner up and have two or three kids in a much shorter period of time. Many of these things are incompatible and, research is just starting to show, simply harder and more stressful to do all at once in our 30s.”
“The post-millennial mid-life crisis isn’t buying a red sports car. It’s realizing you can’t have that career you now want. It’s realizing you can’t have that child you now want or you can’t give your child that sibling.”

How Important Are Your 20s?

There we are, twenty-five and not a wrinkle in sight.

Mmm Hmmm, I think it’s pretty easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to this one. Some of us are cheering, “Yes!” and some are going, “Wait a minute…No.”
I found myself alternately doing both. If you’ve already lived through your 20s, it’s tough not to look at your own life and weigh it against Jay’s words. And if you’re in your 20s, no pressure or anything, but remember, “whatever it is you want to change about yourself, now is the time to change it.”
Why you want to hurt us so bad, Meg Jay?
I highlighted those last quotes because I think they get to the heart of the issue and pinpoint something that Jay doesn’t directly address: if it’s a lot of pressure to have a career, find a partner, choose a city and have a child in your 30s, isn’t it also a lot of responsibility to shift all of that frameworking to your 20s, when you don’t yet have a clear idea of which of those things you want or what you’d like them to look like?
I agree with Jay that your 20s aren’t a time to sit on your thumbs and live in your parents’ basement (unless you’re creating something really awesome in your parents’ basement), but I’d also argue that this is a chicken/egg question. How can you know you’re dating someone incompatible if you haven’t done a lot of dating? How can you know what you want (or don’t want) to do with your life if you haven’t tried a few unexpected (and possibly useless) things? It’s tough figuring out how you want to spend your grown-up days when you’ve been coddled by academia/your parents for the first 20-odd years of your life.
In retrospect, I would tell my 24 year old self to place more emphasis on her career and not date those five two jerks. But the incovenient truth is that I know a bunch of things about myself now that I just didn’t back then. It took all of the missteps and years in between to point me in the right direction. Maybe I’m a late bloomer. If that’s the case, I know a heck of a lot of late bloomers. Like, a lot, a lot.
While I think Jay’s intention to motivate and inspire twentysomethings into action is fantastic, the conversation feels incomplete. Many 30 (and 40) year olds are considering a career change or are still single or are postponing or even avoiding having children not because their 20s were a mess, but because our ideas about what make a worthwhile career, family, partner, and life-trajectory have changed. And expecting that these varying aspects of our lives will converge into some perfectly balanced ball once we hit the magical age of 30 as long as we played our cards right in our 20s seems, at best, unrealistic, at worst, terribly misleading.
Meg Jay says, “Twentysomethings are like airplanes just leaving LAX, bound for somewhere west. Right after takeoff, a slight change in course is the difference between landing in Alaska or Fiji.” Obvious metaphors aside, Alaska and Fiji both sounded like cool options when I was 20. So, unfortunately, did bangs.
Speaking as someone on the gen x/y cusp, I think most of us spent/are spending our 20s trying to gain some “identity capital,” as Jay calls it. But we live in a noisy, crowded, over-saturated world with way more options than our parents and their parents ever had. We are told that we can be anything and do anything. We can start a revolution through a You-Tube video or a blog post. We can drop out of school and become the next Mark Zuckerberg. We can receive in-vitro fertilization at the age of 40. And we can get a divorce and start all over again at 50.
Many of us watched our parents split up or work for the same company for thirty years only to get laid off in their 50s (check and check), so we know that the face of work and commitment has drastically changed over the last few decades. It’s no wonder we’re a bit confused, paralyzed and “delayed.” Maybe we should talk about what these things really look like today rather than what they looked like for earlier generations: career, family, gender roles, love, the ever-rising retirement age. If we want to have a real discussion about the best use of our 20s, then we need to acknowledge that, over time, priorities and timelines have shifted and evolved and that a “successful” decade doesn’t look the same to every person or every generation.
What do you think?
Did you spend your 20s with your eye on the prize?

If I use my good eye, I may actually have a shot at this thing.

Or taking a spin on the merry-go-round of self-discovery?

Round and round we go. Where we’ll end up, nobody knows.

How did that turn out for you? What did you learn/are you currently learning? I’m dying to hear your opinions on this one!