Why you need to quit wasting your twenties

16 May 2013

If you're in your twenties and marriage, kids and career are on the to-do list, there are plenty of people who will be willing to offer up -- often unsolicited -- advice on exactly how you should be navigating your future plans.

Young women on the cusp of career, marriage and family are being implored to 'lean in', being told they 'can't have it all' and even that they should be spending their time at university seeking out a husband.

And now author and clinical psychologist Meg Jay wants to rip apart the mantra that our twenties is a period of prolonged adolescence, a decade in which we thought it was ok to trip up and recover without feeling the wrath of life's significant moments.

The author of the millennial self help book, The defining Decade: Why your Twenties Matter - and How to Make the Most of Them Now, Jay recently delivered a Tedx talk in which she offers statistical and psychological evidence to declare that "30 is not the new 20".

She says that women in their twenties who have marriage, career and kids on the future agenda need to quit viewing their twenties through a lens of time, and treating it as a dress rehearsal for adulthood. "Your twenties", she says, "are the most defining decade of adulthood".

"When you pat a twenty-something on the head and you say, 'You have ten extra years to start your life' ... you have robbed that person of his urgency and ambition," she says.

And even though people are generally settling down later, Jay believes it doesn't discount the importance of the significant developmental stages that take place during your twenties.

"Yes we're doing things later but that doesn't make our twenties a developmental downtime," she says. "The way we navigate professional landscapes and manage relationships in our twenties becomes wired into your brain.

"Right now, we're sitting here blowing it."

According to Jay, 80% of life's most significant moments take place by age 35, making your twenties a "developmental sweet spot". She says the first ten years of a career has an "exponential impact on how much money you're going to earn".

Though life's choices can often leave people paralysed by uncertainty, not making a choice at all is a choice in itself, according to Jay. She stresses the importance of being realistic and narrowing career options. "These 20-somethings think they are keeping their options open, but they are actually closing doors."

"The biggest myth is that the twenties are a time to think about what you want to do," notes Jay. "That doesn't work. You basically know what you want. Just start, and get the best job you can get."

And while she notes that our brain will hit its second and final growth spurt during our twenties, this still-developing brain is not a reason to wait it out. She believes the developing brain is one of a 20-something's best assets, and that learning will never again be as easy as it is during this period. "If you want to change something about yourself, now's the time to do it".

On partnership, Jay believes that we establish our core relationships during our twenties. She implores 20-somethings to quit wasting time on the dating game. Although she says it's fine to get married later, she doesn't want 20-somethings to think there is an infinite amount of time and that those they date casually is not significant. 

"Claiming your twenties is one of the simplest yet most transformative things you can do for work, for love, for your happiness".

All about your twenties, according to Meg Jay:

  • 80% of life's defining moments will happen by the time you're 35.
  • Two thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first decade of one's career. The first 10 years of your career have an exponential impact on how much money you're going to earn throughout your career.

    "People who wait until their thirties to get going are never going to catch up."

  • The work you do at the office matters all the time: "Typos and sick days matter."
  • Being good at your job takes time and real confidence is something that 20-somethings haven't mastered yet.

    "The 20-something brain is still developing its frontal lobe which is in charge of overriding emotion with reason. This, coupled with less on-the-job experience, means 20-somethings are more sensitive to surprise and criticism. They are more likely to take feedback personally, and magnify events to enormous proportions in their minds. Step back and get some perspective, advises Jay. You're not going to be fired because your boss is angry."

  • Female fertility peaks at 28 and things "get tricky" after 25.
  • Adult responsibilities will make you happier.
  • Don't live life by the mantra that your twenties will be the best years of your life.

     "The only mistake not worth making is doing something that is a placeholder, or that you're aware is killing time, that this doesn't matter," she told LinkedIn in a post-TED Q&A. "If those are the words you're saying to yourself, that's probably a mistake."

What do you think? Are you you using your twenties a period for experimentation or a need to set up your path in life? Or did you use your twenties this way? Let us know in the comments below.

Jordi Roth

Jordi Roth is a writer and producer for Women's Agenda.

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