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From appalled to applauding: Reactions to Meg Jay’s controversial talk about 20-somethings

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Meg Jay’s talk on 20-somethings from TED2013 has started some very intense conversations online. Here, excerpts. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Monday’s TED Talk, “Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20,” has been a runaway hit: five days later, it has nearly 600,000 views and almost 200 comments on alone. Commenters of all ages have offered personal anecdotes, helpful resources and a fair dose of criticism, many writing about the hope and/or confusion and/or fear that the talk brought up for them. Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20 Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20 People are watching — and people are reacting.

Clearly, clinical psychologist Meg Jay has struck a nerve. As writer Thu-Huong Ha pointed out on the TED Blog earlier this week, the talk’s focus on the millennial generation has plenty of company at the moment (hello, TIME Magazine) — but still the conversation is far from over. So what’s going on? What makes “spend your 20s thinking ahead” such a provocative and polarizing message?

It’s only a sensible piece of advice, but what it ultimately gets at is much deeper. As Jay wrote in a live discussion with the TED community on Wednesday, “Making the most of your life is a scary topic when you think about it.” No matter how old you are, there’s never anyone to tell you for certain whether you’re doing it right. When someone points to nagging worries, it generates both angst and appreciation.

Below, some of the comments from TED’s online community, staff and extended network, expressing their wise and varied insights on this talk:

“I don’t regret for a second that I followed Phish instead of corporate America in my 20s. I’m glad I spent my formative adult years being filled with bliss. I have colorful memories and life experiences that give me a richness beyond money. Value your 20s, don’t spend it getting corralled into being part of the herd!” – Elisa Allechant, commenting on Jay’s talk page

“I’m a former higher education administrator and I was appalled at the dependency of college kids. Parents babied their children to the point where they didn’t learn important life skills. … Quite frankly, I think 20-somethings need to take responsibility, be held accountable and not need Mommy and Daddy until they are in their 30s. It’s pathetic.” – Adrianne Hanusek, commenting on Facebook

“For me, Jay is really dealing with some of the most fundamental questions of philosophy: What is the good life? And how do I live it? … I think an essential part of the good life is finding satisfaction with your qualities as an individual notwithstanding relative achievements. Doing that requires perspective and doing that requires accruing experiences for their own sake.” – TEDxTalks Manager David Webber, responding to Jay’s talk via email

“They say old people are ‘set in their ways.’ I think the implication from her talk is that this process is hugely rooted in your 20s. That’s where a somewhat self-aware person can change habits, mannerisms, how they treat people, etc. I think that’s what a lot of people miss the boat on. I started working at the local store at age 16 [and saw that] employees all fell into only two categories: young kids needing to make a quick buck, and unhappy adults who seemed dreadfully stuck where they were. Most of these people had higher aspirations. When did most of them begin working at this store? You guessed it, in their 20s. They settled for something less, thinking it was just temporary. Maybe if they had done some of the things Meg Jay was talking about, they wouldn’t still be there today.” – Ryan Ganzenmuller, commenting on Facebook

“In this economic climate, all too often the efforts made in this decade are rendered all for naught because of some financially catastrophic event or another. The absence of job security has had many twentysomethings bounce from one short-term assignment to another. … For me and many others, 30 being the new 20 is a philosophy of survival and regrowth, not some excuse for putting off our responsibilities.” – Omar Spence, commenting on Jay’s talk page

“There always was, is and will be a pressure of the 20s and it is indeed the defining time, at least professionally. Twentysomethings can complain of that as long as they like, say it is not fair, blah blah — it is not going to change. Most worthy employers will not have sympathy if you have not achieved anything by age 30 … If you can’t have fun and build your career and relationships while doing that — well, too bad. Up to you what will be your priority.” – Alyona Trubitsina, commenting on Facebook

“This is really not a problem in China. From the moment you graduate, you are under the pressure to get an apartment, a car and finally a girlfriend and a wife. … Young people are pushed in way too early to their 30 age.” – 向彬 李, commenting on Jay’s talk page

“It seems like twentysomethings are always told how great their age is and that they shouldn’t worry about major goals; Meg instead chooses to proceed with a challenging message that I think only the few open-minded individuals can truly enjoy and reap the benefits of.” – Alex Katzen, commenting on Facebook

“As a 25-year-old woman, I find Meg Jay’s approach to relationships, love, and work to be vastly oversimplified. So much beauty and enrichment lie in the unexpected events that we cannot prepare for, if we can allow room for those events to unfold and influence the path we are taking — whether we are teenagers or senior citizens. In other words, if we plan and plot too heavily in our 20s, we may not experience as many serendipitous developments, connections and opportunities for growth.” – TED’s Projects Coordinator Cloe Shasha, responding to Jay’s talk over email

“I’m 24. I blew the last two years living with my parents pointlessly sending out resumes. No social life. I’ve finally got an unpaid internship doing what I want, but every day I think about my life passing me by. Advice from me to other college grads: Sending out resumes is pointless! Network, network, and network some more! That’s the only way to do it.” – Michael Baxter, commenting on Jay’s talk page

“I enjoyed your book! However, I felt the book was targeted to a very specific demographic — upper/middle class economic status, well-educated, looking for a heterosexual relationship. What are your thoughts on this?” – TED’s Customer Support Specialist Becky Chung, commenting  during Jay’s live chat with the TED community

Jay responded to this question, and gave honest and compassionate responses to many others as well, in a TED Conversation earlier this week.  She wrote in response to Chung’s challenge, “I actually disagree. Research shows that people in all income brackets get new jobs through weak ties; that’s good advice for everyone. Both gay and straight adults do want marriages/partners/families; in fact, that’s what marriage equality is all about. And the concept of identity capital can be liberating for those who can’t afford college or who don’t do well in school; one good piece of identity capital or one lead from a weak tie can trump someone with a 4.0 from an Ivy who doesn’t know how to get in the game.”

What’s certain is this: For twentysomethings and former-twentysomethings alike, the questions touched on in the talk are worth discussing. The surrounding conversation has been incredibly genuine and mature, and in Jay’s opinion, this is hardly by-the-by.

“People underestimate how interested twentysomethings are in the topic. Part of the cultural myth is that they don’t care,” says Jay, defending this generation that often gets a bad rep. “It isn’t just parents emailing me their thoughts, it’s twentysomethings themselves.”

In spite of the discomfort and uncertainty that the talk raised for some viewers, it seems to be truly forcing self-examination – an important step towards living with intent. And one of the beautiful things about these reactions is how they’ll change over time. TEDx Post-event Coordinator Tahlia Hein says that her thoughts on the topic have changed in a span of four short years.

“If you had asked me at 23 what I thought, I’d have probably said that she had no real appreciation for being young. I would have said that those freeing experiences are an invaluable part of what it means to be young,” she says. “Now [at 27], I think I was half right: They are invaluable, but there is no such thing as the mythical ‘young.’ There’s just life.”