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Thoughts from a twentysomething on Meg Jay’s talk on twentysomethings

Posted by: Thu-Huong Ha

Meg Jay gave a talk at TED2013 suggesting that the 20s are a person’s defining decade — and it started a heated debate at the office. Here, a 20-something responds. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

I’m 24 and a woman, and that makes me a target for a lot of speculation and life advice. Sheryl Sandberg wants me to lean in to become a woman leader; Anne-Marie Slaughter says my lady parts may doom me to a half-fulfilled life; Susan Patton thinks I should have spent my time at Princeton looking for a husband (ideally one of her sons); and in TIME Magazine’s most recent cover story, Joel Stein suggests that I’m narcissistic and dying to be famous. Everyone’s talking about me.

And people wonder why millennials are so self-involved.

Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20Now I can add clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who gave today’s talk, to the list of well-intentioned non-millennial millennial critics. Jay spoke at TED2013 — and emphatically stated that “30 is not the new 20.” She urges twentysomethings to rid themselves of the idea that their 20s are a prolonged adolescence, throwaway years. According to Jay, 80 percent of life’s defining moments happen by the time a person is 35. Powerful — and intimidating — words.

To be honest: When I first heard the talk, I was appalled. It wasn’t a message I wanted my peers to hear: it put pressure on an already overstimulated generation to find the right career and start thinking about marriage now. And it seemed to simultaneously berate thirtysomethings, telling them their most important years were over and it was too late to get what they wanted.

In her book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now, Jay addresses a lot of the eyebrow-raisers she couldn’t in her 14-minute talk. As anybody who has given a TED or TEDx Talk knows: Boiling years of work down to 18 minutes is a terrifying honor. While the format makes for a good introduction to a new idea, the nuance and detail can be lost in the condensation. The heteronormative lifestyle Jay seems to take for granted in her talk is subdued in her book, which actually dedicates its first 30 percent to work. And the book very quickly establishes a critical condition that’s taken for an assumption in her talk: That her advice is geared toward people who choose to list marriage and/or children in their life goals.

In her book, Jay includes personal experiences and reflections that help to soften what could otherwise seem like a condescending stance. She writes, “Like many twentysomethings, I wanted to establish my career before I had kids, and I did. I waddled across the stage to collect my Ph.D. diploma while eight months pregnant with baby number one.” By the time she had her second child Jay had a university job. But she writes, “Having two babies after thirty-five did not go quite as smoothly as I expected, and now I see how lucky I was. Many women are not as fortunate.” Jay wants twentysomething readers to avoid some of the same mistakes she feels she might have made.

If you are in your 20s and marriage and/or children are things you desire, Jay has a lot to say on the matter. She opposes the media’s portrayal of American twentysomethings as a “culture dominated by singles who are almost obsessed with avoiding commitment.” She writes, “I have yet to meet a twentysomething who doesn’t want to get married or at least find a committed relationship.” The anecdote doesn’t convince me, but Jay’s argument that postponing marriage just for the sake of it is a reasonable one. Just because people get married later doesn’t mean that, a priori, later is better. And that also doesn’t mean twentysomethings should be content to date and cohabitate for years with people they know they won’t end up with. At least thinking about the qualities you want in a long-term partner while you’re in your twenties, says Jay, can help prevent what she sees often in her practice: people who rush into marriage when they turn thirty because it’s suddenly the time to care. Basically: Start worrying in your twenties, and you might not feel as screwed in your thirties.

Twentysomething women trying to figure out how to have it all will have to look elsewhere. In her chapters on work and love, Jay doesn’t address the critical relationship between the two — and more important, how one might hinder the other. She doesn’t recognize that for an ambitious twentysomething, there simply might not be enough hours in the day to further a career and work on finding the perfect mate.

Ultimately, Jay’s goal is to create a sense of urgency for twentysomethings so they don’t end up in their 30s feeling like they wasted the past ten years — and to provide tools to deal with this proverbial fire under the butt. As she told me, “I’m being sincere when I say there’s nothing worse than sitting across from a 35-year-old who’s realizing they’re never going to get the life they want, and that’s sad. Creating urgency for twentysomethings is okay.” But how this helps anyone over thirty is less clear.

Indeed, Jay’s book could be a pretty depressing read for thirtysomethings who haven’t been powerwalking through their 20s. It might also add more pressure to twentysomethings who are being told from every angle what their generation could be doing better. It’s nice to imagine a bunch of Gen X’ers sitting around nodding their heads saying “Yes, yes, yes I wish I had heard this when I was 20. Onward, millennials! Succeed where we failed!” Certainly these people exist, as evidenced by the deluge of Gen X advice to young poets (Jay, Sandberg, Slaughter and Stein are all Gen X’ers); but what’s much more likely is a bunch of thirtysomething women tearing their hair out when they are told that being the first real beneficiaries of feminism and birth control has doomed them to spinsterhood.

And finally: What about youth? If your 20s is not the time to have fun, when is? As Jay says in her talk, “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.”

I’m not going to upend modern philosophical thought when I say: Not all experiences need a focus, and not everything that counts can be counted. While I had hoped that Jay’s final chapter, “The Brain and the Body,” would focus on the sort of “capital” that doesn’t belong on a work or relationship résumé, it turned out to be further reading on my developing adult brain and my rapidly deteriorating eggs. Adults need to play, too.

When I asked Jay about “fun,” she said “there should be fun all throughout your life. Twentysomethings shouldn’t feel this pressure to live their life like an eternal spring break — because how can it, when you’re working and you don’t have money and you don’t know whether you’re going to get a text back from the person you like? It’s actually a very stressful time.” Agreed, but — as you get older — spring break gets harder and harder to schedule. While Jay finds it hard to see what is fun about scrambling for the L train at 4 am after too much Scotch, it’s hard for me to imagine what’s fun about owning a home and having two kids. And, yes, I know that’s in part because I’m in my twenties.

If my father’s house had a mantra, it would be “Life is long.” I was infused with the belief that I could do anything I wanted, at any age. No one likes thinking about life as a series of limitations, and certainly no woman likes to think of herself as a ticking time bomb. But Jay is right when she says we all have to face certain realities: Time runs out. Which is why I am also completely on board with Jay’s own mantra: Be intentional. Because while we may have different ideas on how to live the good life, Jay and I can agree that the intention of living it should be realized early and often.

Comments (11)

  • commented on Mar 23 2014

    As part of the just-left-my-twenty-somethings category, with a husband and ‘good career’ but as someone who perhaps hasn’t followed the ‘plan life in your twenties mould’ I agree so much with the criticisms in this article. Having seen two close friends pass away over the past year I have made a deep realisation that is not a series of limitations, nor is a series of milestones to meet. Thankfully these two friends lived full lives before they turned 30, and really enjoyed their time.. I’d also like to ask everyone to get off young women’s backs (yes understand about the fertility thing but don’t panic also).. PLan ahead but also be ready for the unexpected, because some of our most positive and life changing moments occur when we fall down and get back up again.

  • Natalie Ralstin commented on Jan 8 2014

    Thank you for this educated and fair post. I am also a 24 year old woman and I just saw the video for the first time today. It was inspirational and terrifying at the same time. All of a sudden I felt like I needed to view the comments below to see if my peers were feeling the same way. I couldn’t believe how much criticism Jay received, and unfair criticism. People were stuck on details like marriage and kids, and they completely missed the big picture of what she was trying to say. I was almost ashamed at how many of my peers went off and broadcasted their opinions without given it a second thought or doing any research. So thanks again for going beyond the 15 minute video and giving an informed analysis of its contents.

  • John Cotter commented on Jul 26 2013

    As the parent of a 32 year old and a 27 year old, both males, I have seen one son be intentional and has created a life that continues to evolve. He has worked for two years after graduation from college, then went traveling and surfing in Bali and New Zealand, paying for the trip in cash. He returned home and worked for about eight months before taking off for Australia, where he has been since February of this year, working in a restaurant as a bar back and bar tender. He plans to return to Bali and home by his 28th birthday next February. He has thoroughly enjoyed his travels, has had many life experiences and has had to be resourceful at times to figure out how to deal with issues that surfaced. He did get a private pilot’s license while in college and plans to go to flight school to become a commercial pilot when he returns to the states.
    On the other hand, our older son started out strong after college with a couple of career jobs. He worked for Wells Fargo processing home loans during the sub-prime loan era. They closed the whole building and moved the work to Arizona. My son quit before the building closed. Next he worked for an embroidery startup that embroidered mostly golf equipment. This lasted for about a year. This son has had a drug problem on and off for about 15 years. It got the best of him about a year and a half ago. He has been unemployed since January, 2012 and has battled schizophrenia and bipolar disorder since then. At this time, he is on meds and is pretty stable. However, he has greatly diminished career possibilities with a resume that would be much weaker now than when he was 23 and just graduated from college.

    My point here is that in terms of where you end up financially in later life, your 20s are the decade to start to build the life you want for yourself. With the 20s decade, you have enough time to retire a millionaire if you start saving and investing at this time in your life. Waiting until your 30s loses the investing time you would have gained by starting in your 20s. If you are just getting started in your 30s, there might not be money to invest, especially if you marry and have a kid or two you are trying to raise, not to mention wanting to buy a house. TIME IS ALWAYS TICKING! I am 60, a teacher with 40 years experience by the time I retire next June. So many in my generation retire with not enough resources to support themselves at this time in their lives. I think Meg Jay’s talk is a wake up call to 20 somethings to get going instead of treating your 20s like more of your teen years. Before 1950, a 25 year old would have been working for eight or so years, would be married, have a kid or two and be considered an adult in every sense of the word. They contributed to their communities, held responsible positions and made a life for themselves that was not all about them. For many, but not all 25 year olds in today’s world, there seem to be too many choices that prohibit them from settling down to get going on the life they want for themselves. I think this is a function of a lack of demand for them to grow up more quickly because others were depending on them to help support the family, or that there was no family money to get them started, so they self started because they knew if they didn’t take control of their future, nothing would happen and they wouldn’t have the money to make anything happen anyway.

    Sorry for the length of this post, but it’s my opinion. I think it’s really important for 20 somethings to get past themselves and get a start on creating the future they want, thinking about where they want to be when they are older. We need their brains and abilities to shape our country and society for the future.

  • Ben Whitehair commented on May 26 2013

    Great post. Totally agree about the importance of being intentional.

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  • Jamia Wilson commented on May 15 2013

    Thank you for this piece. I agree–the one takeaway I support is the importance of being intentional. I had a similar reaction to the talk when I first heard it as well. I would have liked to hear more interrogation about who she is really talking to/about in her talk. I think there are some assumptions about meritocracy, race/class privilege, systemic equality, and access that need to be addressed in the context of her message.

  • Alexander Swallow commented on May 13 2013

    Reblogged this on one swallow makes a summer and commented:
    Fascinating blog about leadership and aspiration for young women.

  • Ryan Portsmouth commented on May 13 2013

    I think something that is also important to acknowledge is the general profile of a person walking into Meg Jay’s office. I don’t personally like generalizations however in this instance I feel it is important to acknowledge who this message is really for. Those who have hit a roadblock, are in their 20′s and cannot quite workout how to get through it.

    Everyone who walks into Meg Jay’s office are all there 1 way or another because they want something different in their lives, they want some form of change.

    I am a 30-year old male, I have a career, I have a family (wife and 4-year old son), I’m stubborn and opinionated, I love to argue, I’m a pain in the butt, I am equally career and family focused but my life isn’t exactly balanced yet. I’m the type of person that would have been on Meg Jay’s couch if things didn’t go how I wanted them to go and couldn’t see how to get to where I wanted to go.

    I have SOME friends that were in my class at school who are still working entry level jobs at franchise stores. Many of these friends don’t want change, they are happy doing what they do, a few have started their own families but all of them have THEIR dream life, their values are surprisingly similar to mine even though we now live worlds apart. These people are also not the type of people who would end up on Meg Jay’s couch and are likely to completely disagree with everything she has to say.

    It is those who are in between me and my friends that I have mentioned who I believe Meg Jay is really referring to. Those who have my friends lives but want my life, or maybe the opposite. I know that sounds completely obnoxious and arrogant but what I mean by this is very simple, I always felt like I was moving forward, the friends I spoke about also felt the same. We were (and are) always learning, getting more value from our lives and discovering something along the way. These people Meg Jay is wanting to talk to are those who feel like they are stuck and need to be given some focus, who need to be given direction for them to find their own path.

    The point at the end of the day is Meg Jay’s message isn’t for many 20-somethings, it is for those who need help to move forward 1-way or another.

    • Rachel Saunders commented on May 16 2013

      Totally agree. My issue with this talk is that I’m never sure who she is talking to…most 20 year olds I know who aren’t ‘talking life seriously’ love their life, and their experiments/crazy or lame jobs are all a part of their growth. She should clearly specify WHO this talk is for, because it doesn’t apply to most 20 somethings I know.

  • commented on May 13 2013

    I love this commentary on this talk. Though I think her intentions are good, I am not entirely a huge fan of the whole “I screwed up my twenties. Don’t do what I did” tone of the talk. As a current twenty-something, I find it extremely hard to balance huge decisions with the fact that I am still extremely young. Though I wish it was as simple as “taking advantage of your twenties”, sometimes life just moves faster than you expect, and decisions you didn’t even consciously knew you were making happen anyway.