Photo: Garry Knight via flickr
Society has convinced us that it’s perfectly normal for 20-somethings to work as baristas, live in shoebox-size apartments, struggle to pay rent, and date all the wrong people — all the while having the time of their lives.But psychologist Dr. Meg Jay says millennials have taken it too far, that this decade is not a time for indulgent self-exploration.
In her book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter And How To Make The Most Of Them Now, Jay says that if you follow everyone else’s advice about “finding yourself,” you’ll waste your 20s and be a wreck by your 30s.
We’ve compiled some of Jay’s compelling reasons for why society’s portrayal of this period of this decade is all wrong, and why young people should capitalise on their 20s.
'It might even seem like adulthood is one long stretch of autobiographically consequential experiences -- that the older we get, the more we direct our own lives,' writes Jay. 'This is not true. In our thirties, consequential experiences start to slow. School will be over or nearly so. We will have invested time in careers or made the choice not to. ...
With about 80 per cent of life's most significant events taking place by age 30-five, as thirtysomethings and beyond we largely either continue with, or correct for, the moves we made during our twentysomething years.'
Jay stresses the importance of being realistic and narrowing career choices. She cites psychology's famous jam experiment, the conclusion of which is when one has an array of options, as opposed to a smaller selection from which to choose, he or she has a harder time making a decision.
The good news, Jay says, is realistically no twentysomething has unlimited career prospects. If you were never good at chemistry, it's probably unwise to suddenly consider a postbac program. You have never liked working with kids? Perhaps you shouldn't apply to Teach for America. Focusing on interests and talents is a good place to start when feeling bombarded by choice.
The 'urban tribe,' as Jay describes it, are your buddies, the friends you call when you want to grab frozen yogurt or play pick-up basketball after work. Yet when it comes to your career development, it's likely that a stranger will help you more than your best friend ever will.
Jay cites a famous social networking study conducted by Stanford professor Mark Granovetter, who found that 'weak-tie acquaintances were often more important than strong-tie friends because weak ties give us access to social networks where we don't otherwise belong.' If you are spending most of your time with the same five friends, you are likely missing out on the new ideas and opportunities that stem from these weaker connections.
Jay often hears from those in their 20s about a desire, or need, for an 'Eat, Pray, Love' journey fueling self-discovery. Some young adults in this demographic feel compelled to fulfil a 'cultural imperative' of sorts: riding rickshaws in Southeast Asia, driving across the country in a beat-up minivan, living in an unfamiliar city, hostel-hopping in Europe. All part of the decade long adventure delaying adulthood, right?
However, many feel pressed to seek out adventure, even when it may not be what he or she really wants. Jay suggests identifying and seizing authentic personal experiences, while making sound choices. 'An adult life is built not out of eating, praying, and loving,' writes Jay, 'but out of person, place, and thing: who we are with, where we live, and what we do for a living. We start our lives with whichever of these we know something about.'
One of Jay's most important points is that the 20-something years are essential to career development. While it may seem as though there's more than enough time to get on a great career track later, the reality is that 'salaries peak and plateau in our forties.'
Jay highlights that those who don't take advantage of these early working years feel as though 'they have ultimately paid a surprisingly high price for a string of random 'twentysomething jobs.''
When you were in college, you didn't necessarily have to go to class to do well on the final exam. If you didn't feel like doing the reading, there likely weren't serious consequences. And as long as you did decently, you would walk away with a diploma alongside your peers.
In this regard, student life differs tremendously from life in the working world. Your job is not like this. 'What happens at work every day matters,' writes Jay. 'Typos matter and sick days matter, not just for the worker but for the company's bottom line.'
It's healthy for college grads to feel equipped to take on the world. But a few days into their first jobs -- when their supervisor essentially renders them incapable of basic tasks -- they realise they have much to learn.
This feeling of being inept isn't necessarily a bad thing. As Jay says, 'twentysomethings who don't feel anxious and incompetent at work are usually overconfident or underemployed.' The good news is that work success leads to confidence when the job is challenging, done without a lot of support, and requires effort. Jay cites the work of K. Anders Ericsson, who found that experts have typically spent 10,000 hours honing their craft.
Today 'more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation,' says Jay, who also reports that 'couples who 'live together first' are actually less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce than couples who do not.'
Some experts think its because these duos 'slide' into marriage, rather than making a conscious decision to commit to the other. Though it's relatively easy to slide into a living situation with your boyfriend or girlfriend, it is quite difficult to slide out.
Statistically, 'most twentysomethings --male or female, gay or straight-- will be married, or partnered, or dating their future partner within about 10 years' time.'
In Jay's experience, many 20-somethings start panicking when they reach the 30 milestone and have yet to settle down. Of her patients, she writes, 'so many of my twentysomething clients either don't take their relationships seriously or don't think they are allowed to. Then, somewhere around 30, getting married suddenly seems pressing.'
Jay insists that the media has given young people a false sense of security by publicizing the successful pregnancies of older women, when in fact, fertility peaks for women in their late twenties.
And, despite the attention IVF (in vitro fertilization) has received for helping thousands of infertile couples, IVF only succeeds between 10 and 20 per cent of the time. Many clinics won't even attempt to treat women over 40 because of extraordinarily high failure rates.
Many go into this whirlwind decade thinking it's going to be the best of their lives, and are quickly faced with the realities of the job market, economy, corporate ladder, and difficult courtships. In Jay's experience, these years 'are the most uncertain and some of the most difficult years of life.'
With that in mind, young people shouldn't waste time trying to make their 20s the best years of their lives. Instead, they should manage these years wisely -- since all the decisions they make during this defining decade will frame the rest of their lives.
What do you think? Did Dr. Jay get it right? Are you past 30 and living in regret? Or are you in your 20s, and believe this is the decade to make mistakes? Or maybe you're somewhere in between. We'd love to hear from you. Shoot us an email at dschlanger
@businessinsider.com, and please include your age, and why you agree/disagree, your job/industry and marital status (we'll keep you anonymous, unless you say otherwise).
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