In the early 1900’s, the “teenager” materialized as a distinct age group and subculture in the United States. Before that, there were simply children and adults. Many kids began working at the tender age of 13, and it was not uncommon for girls to be married off by the time they were 16 or 17. But then, economic, educational and family changes in the country led to the emergence of this strange in-between age group that couldn’t be classified as adults, but weren’t quite children: teenagers.
With the major shift in culture and economy that has occurred since the rapid onslaught of new technology, we are now looking at another new age group classification. Twentysomething’s now belong to an age classification referred to as “Emerging Adulthood.” Journalists have even coined silly nicknames for this age group such as “twixters” and “kidults.”
Your 20’s can be a difficult, thrilling, confusing time no matter what decade you were born into. Ask your parents, they’ll tell you! Most people don’t have it all figured out in their 20’s, and they aren’t expected to. However, what our parents may not understand is that there is ample evidence to show that many things are different about being in your 20’s now than it was in their time:
- From 50 years ago, the median age of marriage has gone from 20 to 28.
- Young adults tend to have children later in life, in their 30’s.
- Emerging adults leave the nest (their parent’s house) later.
- The economy is not as forgiving as it was when the Baby Boomers entered the workforce.
- College is now the norm, not the exception: almost 70 percent of high school students attend college, compared to 33 percent in 1960.
- Options for women in the workforce are almost equal to men’s; women exceed or equal men in school enrollment numbers
- Emerging adults stay in school longer to keep up with an information economy.
- Emerging adults experience far more instability: moving houses, changing jobs and switching majors constantly.
- Social media has changed how we view business, relationships and ourselves.
What’s more is that emerging adults possess a quixotic sense of optimism and often feel that the possibilities for their lives are infinite (Do I want to be a rocket scientist? Or the President?… Hmm, so many possibilities). Not only that, twentysomething’s have impossibly high expectations for their careers and marriages: their job must not only provide for them financially, but be personally fulfilling; their marriage must not only be happy and content, but passionate and exhilarating.
With the timetable of major life events stretching out into our 30’s, and the life expectancy for most people stretching into their 80’s, there is a tendency to view one’s 20’s as the “throwaway years.” Many young people waste their 20’s by partying, dating someone they would never marry, postponing career advancement in favor of short-term employment that simply pays the bills… and all the while they are thinking that they will eventually get their big break, meet that one guy or girl, and things will turn out just fine.
Psychologist Meg Jay from Charlottesville who specializes in twentysomething’s sees this all the time, and she warns that doing this is a grave mistake. (In fact, she did an excellent TedTalks about it. Fifteen minutes well-spent; listen HERE). According to Jay, your 20’s are not a developmental downtime, they’re a developmental “sweet spot.” And so many people are simply blowing it.
Here are the facts:
- 80 percent of a person’s defining moments happen by the time they are 35 (that means that 8 out of 10 major decisions and experiences and “A-ha!” moments will have taken place by your mid-30’s!).
- The first 10 years of your career have an exponential impact on how much money you will earn.
- Over half of Americans live with or are dating their future partner by 30.
- The brain caps off its second and final growth spurt in your 20’s as it rewires itself for adulthood (which means that whatever it is you want to change about yourself—now is the time to change it!).
- Your personality changes more in your 20’s than in any other time in your life.
- Female fertility peaks at 28, and things get tricky after age 35.
“By making light of ‘kidults’ and ‘twixters’, our culture has trivialized what many researchers refer to as a “defining decade.” It robs 20-somethings of their urgency and ambition.” -Meg Jay
When we placate ourselves by telling ourselves we have 10 extra years to start adulthood, we are forestalling ourselves from crafting the future that we always imagined we would have. It also places immense pressure to do it all in our 30’s: pick a spouse, choose a city, have babies, and jumpstart a career in a much shorter time. It is almost impossible to do all those things in such a shortened time period, especially since some of those objectives are incompatible with each other. It is incredibly difficult to start a family and ignite a career at the same time. (Sorry, but it’s true—ask a mom and a career girl. Not impossible, but way harder than if you had been working up to it all along.)
This is a hard pill for many twentysomething’s to swallow because another descriptive characteristic of Emerging Adults is that they are commitment-phobic. Committing to one path inevitably means closing the door on other options. Millennials have a complex, what I like to call “Open Door Syndrome,” which comes from research on twentysomething’s that finds they have trouble closing “doors” because they like to keep all of their options open “just in case” (even though they usually have no intention of walking through that door). This is because of the immense number of options available to us, which ultimately is paralyzing. Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it the “Paradox of Choice,” and says “clinging too tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction.”
Writer Sylvia Plath expressed this poignantly in this excerpt from The Bell Jar:
The aversion to making life-altering choices may explain why we put off adulthood, but Jay warns that if we take the approach of killing time, we may end up relating to some of her clients:
“Every day, smart, interesting twentysomething’s come into my office and say things like this: ‘I know my boyfriend’s no good for me, but this relationship doesn’t count. I’m just killing time.’ …[But] then it starts to sound like this: ‘Dating in my 20’s was like musical chairs. Everybody was running around and having fun, but then sometime around 30 it was like the music turned off and everybody started sitting down. I didn’t want to be the only one left standing up, so sometimes I think I married my husband because he was the closest chair to me at 30.'”
Please, whatever you do, do not choose your spouse that way!
“I’m not discounting twentysomething exploration here, but I am discounting exploration that’s not supposed to count, which, by the way, is not exploration. That’s procrastination.” -Meg Jay
So what can we do to avoid wasting our 20’s and make the most of them instead? We don’t need to have it all together, but we do need to be at least heading in the right direction. As Jay says, “Twentysomething’s are so easy to help because they are like planes leaving LAX westbound, the smallest adjustment in direction can make all the difference between landing in Fiji or Alaska.”
If you’re lucky enough to be a 20-something who has their parents helping them out, use that extra cushioning to make a risky business venture while the stakes are lower. Now is the time to fail forward! Be intentional about who you date. Expand your network, talk to people who don’t think, act, live and speak the same way you do—that’s how you expand your mind! Don’t be afraid to close doors. Your parents were mistaken when they always told you that you could be anything you want to be. You are not Barbie or Ken: you cannot have hundreds of stellar careers. You may have to choose only one or two. Remove those exceptional expectations and you will find yourself less disappointed and much happier. If you are one of those who takes yourself too seriously, don’t. You are young and capable; life is a marathon, not a sprint. Focus on what makes you happy in the long run. If you don’t take yourself seriously enough (kidults!), please re-read the sobering facts about your crucial 20’s and choose to do at least one thing a week that positions you to be better by age 30, not worse.
Meg Jay condenses it into 3 simple steps to claim your adulthood:
- Don’t have an identity crisis, get 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. Identity capital begets identity capital, so start investing now!
- Use your weak ties (ie: friend of a friend of a friend)
Sticking to the same circle leads to the same results. Expand! New things come from new people, which are those weak ties. New people to date, new job opportunities, new identity capital—you can use your weak ties to find them.
- Choose your family.
“Grabbing whoever you’re living with or sleeping with when everyone on Facebook starts walking down the aisle is not progress. The best time to work on your marriage is before you have one, and that means being as intentional with love as you are with work. Picking your family is about consciously choosing who and what you want rather than just making it work or killing time with whoever happens to be choosing you.”
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
George Bernard Shaw
Cheers to all the twentysomething’s out there!