TED Talk Tuesday: Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20

Oh how I wish I had this in my early twenties, even in my mid-twenties…so much wasted time and unearned “identity capital.”

Dr. Jay is a clinical psychologist who’s work focuses primarily on adult development and particularly the crucial 20s. As a former Outward Bound instructor, University of Berkeley student, and currently in private practice in Virginia, Jay has thus far had an interesting career journey. She most recently published the book “The Defining Decade,” which is a how to guide for twenty-somethings (and beyond) who still don’t have a clue. Jay’s TED talk is an abridged version of her book but still effectively covers all the key points. Her real message, you kind of just have to live life in order to figure it out, the process happens simultaneously.

For all the twenty-somethings out there, hope this can be a positive guiding force.

With the funny stories that Alex would bring to session, it was easy for me just to nod my head while we kicked the can down the road. “Thirty’s the new 20,” Alex would say, and as far as I could tell, she was right. Work happened later, marriage happened later, kids happened later, even death happened later. Twentysomethings like Alex and I had nothing but time.

And then my supervisor said, “Not yet, but she might marry the next one. Besides, the best time to work on Alex’s marriage is before she has one.”

That’s what psychologists call an “Aha!” moment. That was the moment I realized, 30 is not the new 20. Yes, people settle down later than they used to, but that didn’t make Alex’s 20s a developmental downtime. That made Alex’s 20s a developmental sweet spot, and we were sitting there blowing it.That was when I realized that this sort of benign neglect was a real problem, and it had real consequences, not just for Alex and her love life but for the careers and the families and the futures of twentysomethings everywhere.

So I specialize in twentysomethings because I believe that every single one of those 50 million twentysomethings deserves to know what psychologists, sociologists, neurologists and fertility specialists already know: that claiming your 20s is one of the simplest, yet most transformative, things you can do for work, for love, for your happiness, maybe even for the world.

We know that the brain caps off its second and last growth spurt in your 20s 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. We know that personality changes more during your 20s than at any other time in life, and we know that female fertility peaks at age 28, and things get tricky after age 35. So your 20s are the time to educate yourself about your body and your options.

” But what we hear less about is that there’s such a thing as adult development, and our 20s are that critical period of adult development.

Okay, now that sounds a little flip, but make no mistake, the stakes are very high. When a lot has been pushed to your 30s, there is enormous thirtysomething pressure to jump-start a career, pick a city, partner up, and have two or three kids in a much shorter period of time. Many of these things are incompatible, and as research is just starting to show,simply harder and more stressful to do all at once in our 30s.

First, I told Emma to forget about having an identity crisis and get some identity capital. By get identity capital, I mean 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 now is the time for that cross-country job, that internship, that startup you want to try. 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.

Second, I told Emma that the urban tribe is overrated. Best friends are great for giving rides to the airport, but twentysomethings who huddle together with like-minded peers limit who they know, what they know, how they think, how they speak, and where they work. That new piece of capital, that new person to date almost always comes from outside the inner circle.

Last but not least, Emma believed that you can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends. Now this was true for her growing up, but as a twentysomething, soon Emma would pick her family when she partnered with someone and created a family of her own.

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.

So here’s an idea worth spreading to every twentysomething you know. It’s as simple as what I learned to say to Alex. It’s what I now have the privilege of saying to twentysomethings like Emma every single day: Thirty is not the new 20, so claim your adulthood, get some identity capital, use your weak ties, pick your family. Don’t be defined by what you didn’t know or didn’t do. You’re deciding your life right now. Thank you.

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