The problem with '30 is the new 20'

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It’s the kind of question that drunk friends like to ask: “What would you do if you could start your 20s over again?” As you swirl around the flat beer and pick at the leftover corn chips, everyone suddenly starts talking at once: Travel? Write? Spend a year learning Spanish in Mexico before starting that second degree and going for a job you actually like?

Well, Meg Jay thinks you probably won't do anything. At least that's what working with hundreds of 20somethings has taught her. In a TED talk published last week, the author and clinical psychologist argues that our 20s has become something of a throwaway decade because so many of us now buy into the thinking that "30 is the new 20" -- a time when relationships and careers finally come together and 'adulthood' is supposed to begin.

Sociologists blame this on the “changing timetable of adulthood”.  In a widely-read 2010 New York Times article called, "What is it About 20-somethings?", psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett even argues that our twenties should be seen as a distinct life stage -- a second adolescence, if you will. He calls this period the 'emerging adulthood'.

"Just as adolescence has its particular psychological profile, Arnett says, so does emerging adulthood.” During this period, notes Arnett, “Men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background.”

Interestingly, when asked whether they agree with the statement “I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life” – 96 percent of the 20-somethings surveyed said yes. That is to say, practically everyone thinks they will turn out okay.

And while I love nothing more than a good laugh at a hipster case study, this article happened to have come out shortly after I’d quit my job in a women’s magazine. The world was still licking its wounds after the GFC and for the first time, I saw my generation’s alarming optimism reflected back at me. Did I really need to take a ‘career break’ in my 20s? Was it wise to go travelling and risk losing touch with an industry that was going through a worse identity crisis than me? Was I one of the faceless fools bemoaned by the zeitgeist-sy New York Times magazine?

In her now-viral talk, Jay warns us against treating our 20s as a developmental downtime. She calls this ‘benign neglect’ – like wasting hours fracking for approval on Twitter or ignoring a hairline fracture in our relationships that can later come back and haunt us. More importantly, Jay believes that too many young people have internalised the belief that their 20s are for experimenting, and for ‘finding themselves’, effectively wasting a period where taking the right actions can be the most transformative.

This is why she hates the phrase “30 is the new 20”: “What do you think happens when you pat a twentysomething on the head and you say, "You have 10 extra years to start your life”?’... You have robbed that person of his urgency and ambition, and absolutely nothing happens."

“The post-millennial midlife crisis isn't buying a red sports car," adds Jay, "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 a sibling. Too many thirtysomethings and fortysomethings look at themselves, and at me, sitting across the room, and say about their 20s, "What was I doing? What was I thinking?"

Apparently, 80 percent of life’s most defining moments take place by the age of 35. With statistics like this, Jay is trying to create a sense of urgency that she thinks 20-somethings desperately needs. But is a stern warning that we’re running out of time necessarily going to motivate us? Or is it more likely to render us paralysed?

Leonard Bernstein may have said that to achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time. But one TED talk commenter, Omar Spence, delicately pointed out the gap in Meg Jay’s tough-love theory: “For me and many others, 30 being the new 20 is a philosophy of survival and regrowth, not some excuse for putting off our responsibilities.”  

Having made it through the other end of the decade, I tend to agree. Sure, it’s important to live intentionally, but more than anything, being in your 20s is about the expansive sense of possibilities. Anything could happen if you took a different turn. Went to a different cafe. Kissed a different boy or girl  today. That's what makes films, stories and TV shows about 20-somethings so compelling. And it's often that feeling of hope, rather than a calculated probability that propels us to do things, that launches us headlong into decisions that strangers call 'brave'.

51 comments

  • This was a good article for me to read since i am in my mid 20s and about to go travelling. It's a lot different to my parents generation. She was married and has kids around my age. Now days people don't think about marriage + kids until 30+. It's funny how time changes things. People obviously want to live more and want more out of life.

    Commenter
    BB
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 22, 2013, 8:35AM
    • I think I'm living more and have got more out of my life by having my children in my 20s, when I was money-poor, energy rich and adaptable. Now in my early 40s my children are independent, money isn't as tight, my career takes me around the world and - voila! - the world is just available to me now as it was when I was younger! It's tempting to stretch adolescence into one's 20s, but remember that it delays the inevitable growing up that has to be done. And, if you plan on having children, it extends the time in which you'll be caring for them hands-on well into your 40s, 50s or 60s.

      Commenter
      Cam
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 1:42PM
    • I thnk there are way too many generalisations in this article and in the comments. Firstly BB, I am nearing 60 now. but I andmost of my friends didn't want to get married and have kids in their twenties. We mostly left that to the 30s and even 40s. We travelled, we wandered round aimlessly in various jorbs or even careers, we took drugs and had free love (the pill had become popular and AIDS hadn't arrived) and we railed at the world and the stuidity of "the syste", politicians, th eolder generation etc. I challenge the idea that 80% of life's defining moments happenby 30. I am looking forward to plenty more yet, and so are my friends. We have no intention of rotting in a rocking chair or dribbling into a bib in a nursing home, and will run away from that for as long as we can.

      Also, the length of our stay on earth has increased dramatically so life has strectched out. I say to 20 somethings, if you have decided to be a neurosurgeon or teacher or writer of aid worker by your early 20s, good luck to you, go and pursue it and have fun. But if you haven't go t aclue, why worry, enjoy life, get some new, different and challegning experience, mess about and it will usually come good. Until you next unsttled period, or upheaval, or enforced change. THere is no need to lead an orderd, sensible and possibly boring life, preordained by others' and your own limited expectations.

      It's never too late for a change, some harmless fun or to work out what you want to do with your life. I am still happily working on at at 58! I can't wait for the next twenty years.

      Commenter
      Foresooth
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 2:12PM
    • I know lots of people at got married, bought houses and had kids early. As most got into their late 30's they started thinking for themselves. Most got divorced. Many are now started again in their 40s in a career they hate, fighting with a ex-spouse they despise and missing kids they barely see.

      The truly sad part is that most haven't changed / matured / evolved in any way since high school. They are just older.

      Commenter
      Dave
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 2:12PM
    • @ Cam:

      I am in my early 50s, had my first child at 27, my fourth at 35, they are all pretty grown up now and I feel much the same as you. Still plenty of energy, time and opportunity to travel with my husband and do lots of things. Life goes on until you die, so enjoy whatever it is you are doing and live in the moment!

      Commenter
      MO4
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 2:16PM
  • What a lot of hogwash. I watched the TED talk. This is coming from a woman that lives in a country that is so competitive and has such a narrow definition of a successful life. I ought to know, I lived there when I was a teenager, and couldn't wait to escape!

    I left for Europe when I was 19. I didn't have a plan or any idea of what I wanted in life. I spent the next four and a half years traveling all over the world before settling here in Australia. That was over 20 years ago. I now have a beautiful partner, three wonderful kids, and a very fulfilling life!

    I know this is partially because I allowed myself the time in my 20's to discover who I was at my own pace, without some else's ridiculous hyper plan of success hanging over my head. I encourage my kids to find their own path in life and their own definition of happiness just like I did.

    Commenter
    Happy
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    May 22, 2013, 8:46AM
    • True about the narrow definition of a successful life, which is why I questioned what they mean by defining moments. It's all relative.

      Commenter
      Mellah
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 12:24PM
  • I agree with Omar Spence's comment. Nobody goes in to their 20s thinking they're just going to waste the next decade because 30 is the new 20. That's something you say to yourself when you get near 30 and realise that your life isn't where you perhaps wanted it to be.

    Commenter
    Emma28
    Date and time
    May 22, 2013, 9:11AM
    • I listened to the talk too, and it wasn't about not taking risks - it was about not wasting time. i.e. hanging out in dead end relationships, jobs and instead working towards something. Time passes faster then you can realise and you can't get it back. By all means travel as it's a wonderful thing to do and can expand your world - it can inspire a career move and re-invigorate you, and give you new life long friends. However time is not infinite and you have to start working towards where you want to be with friends, family, career and life. All things have trade offs and the twenties and thirties are where this comes into play, where your decision to go down one path has costs. And doing nothing has one of the highest costs of all.

      Commenter
      CityDweller
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 9:12AM
      • CityDweller, I have not listened to the speech that forms the basis of this article, but would agree that the whole 'time-wasting' thing is the biggest risk for the young. Now in my early thirties, I do wonder at how little I managed to accomplish with all the spare time in my twenties. I wonder why I did not go travelling more, did not work harder, did not do any further study. (I probably could have done all three!) And I am regarded by most people I know as quite successful, driven and focussed. To me, getting the most out of life at any age is not so much about doing the 'right' things, but about doing 'something'. Anything, really - whether that be building your career, travelling or chasing a dream.

        One things many young people do is get bogged down in dead ends. Dead end jobs, dead end relationships, or just a dead end lifestyle of partying, drugs and bad company. Those are what you really need to avoid, in my view.

        Commenter
        AdamC
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        May 22, 2013, 11:56AM

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