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'.