The ‘Not-So Roaring’ 20s

Why young alumni need to make their twenties count.

By Alex Taylor (Huntingdon)

Meg Jay has a stern warning for the young college graduates casually meandering through their twenties. “The deceptive irony is that our twentysomething years may not feel all that consequential,” she writes in her new book The Defining Decade. “It is easy to imagine that life’s significant experiences begin with big moments and exciting encounters, but this is not how it happens.”

Jay goes on to explain why 30 is not the new 20, and how twentysomethings must seize the most developmental years of their lives to achieve the optimal career trajectory.

Dr. Jay, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Virginia, submits that twentysomethings are often paralyzed by possible career choices because of an identity crisis. This identity crisis is best overcome by developing “identity capital,” explained by Jay as “how we build ourselves — bit by bit, over time. Most important, identity capital is what we bring to the adult marketplace.”

Dr. Jay uses the example of Erik Erikson, a famed psychoanalyst and Pulitzer Prize winner who lived a life familiar to many young Americans. Erikson traveled the world prior to pursuing his career, and lived on very limited means for a brief time. Jay lists his many accomplishments while in his twenties and uses this to show how Erikson used this time to develop identity capital.


Jay shares her own story of working for an outdoor adventure company while she explored possible career paths. Though the industry wasn’t what she ended up pursuing, she took several leadership roles that she credits with preparing her for graduate school interviews. Far from an identity crisis, she used her experience to get to a more desired place in her career. Jay does not discount taking jobs that will be temporary, but urges readers to make sure temporary opportunities are credible and build toward what you want to do in the future. She cautions readers by noting that fearfulness in making a decision about work is not an identity crisis; it’s procrastination.

Much of Dr. Jay’s research also looks at the way dating and love influence the other challenges of being a twentysomething. Through marriage people can pick their family, she says, and you have control over who you choose.

Dr. Jay tackles the changing trends of cohabitation. Nearly half of twentysomethings want to live together prior to marriage and a similar number follow through in these plans. Jay argues that this trend – which she calls “sliding, not deciding” – is harmful to the development of stable and healthy relationships as couples casually – and sometimes carelessly – slide into relationships without reaching a formal decision to be with that one person. Cohabitation is easy to slide into, she says, but people become trapped in relationships with no defined expectations and no direction. The longer the relationship lasts the harder it is to leave and the less likely it is to end in marriage. The twentysomething girlfriend or boyfriend does not also become the thirtysomething wife or husband.

Jay also addresses what she calls “dating down,” in which people choose partners for convenience in place of more practical reasons, leading to empty relationships based on physical attraction but devoid of true compatibility.

The third and final section of Jay’s book discusses the brain and the body. Biological clocks are real, she argues, and she encourages  twentysomethings to be more forward thinking, using logical thought in place of rash emotional decisions.

To avoid emotionally-driven decisions, Jay encourages twentysomethings to learn to calm themselves and avoid dumping emotional problems on whoever happens to be near. She describes how to build the confidence that so many young Americans lack. “Whether we are talking about love or work, the confidence that overrides insecurity comes from experience,” she writes. Confidence comes not from delaying adulthood, but from deciding to invest time and effort into being a member of society.

Though The Defining Decade is written for twentysomethings, the book offers insight that’s equally useful for those who regularly interact with the demographic. The current generation of twentysomethings is coming of age – Millennials are expected to account for 36 percent of the workforce by 2014. Dr. Jay has a special message for those twentysomethings who may have it together, and a definite message for those who seem to be drifting along: Ultimately, adulthood and life is within one’s own control, and when the trajectory and aim are chosen early, there is a much better chance of hitting the target.

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One thought on “The ‘Not-So Roaring’ 20s

  1. Maury D. Gaston says:

    Great summary by Alex Taylor!

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