Culture TED Conferences

Make the most of your 20s: Meg Jay at TED2013

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In her 20s, Meg Jay saw her first psychotherapy client, Alex, who was there to talk about her guy problems. Jay didn’t take the sessions all too seriously at first. But then her supervisor gave her a wakeup call. While Jay said, “Sure she’s dating down and sleeping with a knucklehead. But she’s not gonna marry the guy.” Her supervisor responded, “Not yet. But she might marry the next one. The best time to work on Alex’s marriage is before she has one.”

For Jay, it was an a-ha moment. She realized that 30 is not the new 20. The 20s are not a throwaway decade — they’re a developmental sweet spot as it is when the seeds of marriage, family and career are planted.

There are 50 million 20-somethings in the US — that’s 15% of population. And Jay wants them to consider themselves adults, and know that this period is as important for their development as the first five years of life. Because the first 10 years of a career have an exponential impact on how much money a person is going to earn. Love is the same way: Half of Americans are with their future partner by the age of 30.

“Claiming your 20s is one of simplest things you can do for work, happiness, love, maybe even for the world,” says Jay. “We know your brain caps off its second and last growth spurt in your 20s as it rewires itself for adulthood. Which means whatever you want to change, now is the time to change it.”

Jay worries that messages in the media about the changing timetable of adulthood, and the 20s being an “extended adolescence,” are trivializing this important decade. These messages encourage 20-somethings not to take action on the things that matter to them most. It leads them to think,  “As long as I get good job by 30, I’m fine.” Or that dating is just a game, and that they should stay with someone who is just “fun.” The result: they waste valuable time.

Jay also takes issue with the phrase “you can’t pick your family, but can pick your friends.” Because you can pick your family — your own. Jay notices that many people feel pressured by time on this big decision. “Grabbing whoever you’re living with or sleeping with when everyone on Facebook starts walking down the aisle is not progress,” she says. She wants 20-somethings to be as intentional with love as they are with work.

“Too many 30-somethings and 40-somethings look at themselves and say about their 20s, ‘What was I doing? What was I thinking?'” says Jay. “When a lot has been pushed to your 30s, there is enormous 30-something pressure to start a family, have your career, pick a city. Many of these things are incompatible to do all at once.”

So what can 20-somethings do? They can own their adulthood. They can invest in identity capital—courses, skills, friends—that add value toward who they might want to be. They can work on building a wide social network, instead of a tightknit one that doesn’t allow for outside opportunities.

Jay explains, “Twenty-somethings are like airplanes, just taking off from LAX heading for somewhere west. A slight change in course on takeoff is the difference between landing in Alaska or Fiji.”

Meg Jay’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com»