Your 20s are the Defining Decade of Adulthood, and You Can’t Ignore it

I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression, “Your 30s are your new 20s.” People are getting married later, having children later, moving around more in their work lives, and trying out different career paths. We’re told that our 20s aren’t the time to get all settled down. No, that’s for our 30s.

Recently, however, I stumbled upon a TED Talk by Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, called “Why 30 is NOT the New 20.” She starts off the presentation with an anecdote about one of her patients who was 26. She would come to therapy sessions and talk about the idiots she was sleeping with and the guys she was “wasting time with.” Meg didn’t think much of it at first. The thought of pushing her patient in her love life didn’t cross her mind until her supervisor brought it up. It was then that she had this “aha” moment and realized that your 20s aren’t just a development downtime. Instead, they are your development sweet spot.

As she says, claiming your 20s is one of the simplest yet most transformative things you can do. If there’s something you want to change about yourself, your 20s are the time to change it. If there’s a new skill that you want to pick up, your 20s are the time to learn it. Your 20s are the time to do the things that could have a huge impact on the rest of your life.

In the TED talk, Jay provides a couple of pretty mind-blowing facts. 80% of life’s most defining moments take place by the time you’re 35, meaning eight-tenths of your big decisions, experiences, and “aha” moments will happen by your mid 30s. The first 10 years of your career have an exponential impact on how much money you’re going to earn. Your brain caps off its second and last growth spurt in your 20s.

Just like how the first five years of a child’s life is a critical period for their development, your 20s are the critical period of your adult development. It’s the defining decade of adulthood - but what happens to many people? They let their 20s go by without having anything to show for it. They waste time with people they don’t see a future with, or spend time working jobs that they have no passion in, always waiting for the right moment to go for the job they really want.

Meg Jay pulls a quote spoken by Leonard Bernstein. He says, “To achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time.” But if we’re treating our 30s like our 20s, we’re telling ourselves that we have 10 years of extra time. And this lack of urgency is why nothing gets done a lot of the time. We end up waiting – waiting for the right opportunity to come by. But then, by the time we’re half-way through our 30s, we may realize that we’re now out of time. And so we rush, marrying the first person in our friend circle and jumping into a stable job that is probably not the one that we would’ve wanted 10 years ago.

So, don’t let your defining decade go by without doing the things you really want to do, or spending time with the people who matter to you.

At the end of the TED talk, Meg leaves the twenty-somethings in the room with three major tips.

1. Get some 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. She says that identity capital begets identity capital. A big point she makes is that in your 20s, you are supposed to explore. You should wander around a bit, and take a couple of different paths. But exploration that’s not supposed to count is just procrastination. If you’ve always wanted to work at a law firm, waiting tables for two years to “get ready” is procrastination. Instead, go for opportunities and do things that align with what you really want down the line. Even if it’s just taking a LSAT prep course, you’re still moving towards your end goal.

2. The urban tribe is overrated.

New things – new relationships, new job opportunities, and new friendships – come from what are called our weak ties, which are the ties outside our inner circle (Think: your friend’s boyfriend’s neighbour). These weak ties that you have can be the key to getting somewhere, and once you have that connection, you’ve entered a new social circle. 

3. Be as intentional with love as you are with work.

Meg once had a patient who said you can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends. However, as a twenty-something, you WILL have the option to pick your future family. Picking your family is consciously choosing who or what you want. Meg mentions that the best time to work on marriage is before it actually happens.

I think the important thing is to have a rough idea of what it is you see yourself doing, and who you see yourself with, in your 20s. And that’s where the idea of the five-year or 10-year plan comes in. Ask yourself these things: Where do you want to be working? In what city do you want to be working? At what age do you want to move out? What do you want to be doing in your free time? Where do you want to say you’ve travelled to? When do you want to have kids?

Once you have an idea of what you want to do, you’ll be able to do the things and meet the people that will help you accomplish these goals. If you know you want to do a six-month trip abroad after graduating from undergrad, you might need to think about how that will affect your relationships and your career decisions. The important thing is that if you have this plan – even if it’s tentative, since all plans should be flexible – you won’t end up wasting time or pushing it off. You’ll take action. You’ll take calculated risks to get there.

The other important thing is to be open to new experiences, like taking risks and opportunities that you’d never thought of before. Again, it should be intentional exploration, keeping your future in mind, but being curious is also important. One good conversation with a stranger, a good break, or a different turn in life can have an enormous effect on the years to come. Just remember that these things can come from where you least expect them to.

Meg leaves the twenty-somethings with one final thought: you’re deciding your life right now. Every day. Every minute. So make it count.