Think about how you spend your life. Think about what you give your energy to, what you spend most time doing. It’s during our 20s that we meet the people who end up having the strongest influence on how lives unfold in the future. We find ourselves in circumstances that determine the years ahead. So in her book The Defining Decade, Meg Jay says it really is a decade that defines our lives.
Our generation experiences this decade more in a crisis mode when compared to older generations, because think about it, for hundreds of years, twenty-somethings moved directly from being sons and daughters to being husbands and wives. But nowadays a lot of us have a time period during our 20s where we are no longer in our childhood homes but don’t yet have families on our own, and we don’t really know what to make of this free time.
This is super west-centric, by the way, but that’s the world Meg Jay studied and it’s also what I know so keep that in mind.
The frustrating thing is that our world fetishizes twenty-somethings and puts a huge pressure that these are supposed to be the best years of our lives. Popular culture is obsessed with 20s as if these years are all that matter. Older people try to look younger and the younger people try to look older so that we can all stay in our 20s forever because it seems to be the decade of glory. But like, why doesn’t it feel that way?
What’s your reaction when you hear that 30 is the new 20? Mine is “I hope not!” Because it’s confusing, it’s challenging, and it is intense! Because of all the stressful angles of being a twenty-something, Meg Jay says that we tend to “waste” or at least not make good use of our defining decade because we drift like leaves in the wind.
Yes, by the way, she is a buzzkill in some pages, but she also gives us a roadmap of what we should be focusing on and considering while making decisions in our 20s and it starts with commitments.
Part 1: Commitments
Meg Jay says that if we don’t feel like we are getting ahead or getting along in our 20s, we feel frustrated, angry, alienated, and stressed. So how are we supposed feel like we’re getting ahead? Well, we don’t necessarily have to have the best job ever, but knowing that we are working towards it feels good. Working toward financial security or stable relationships make us more positive, confident and responsible than those who don’t.
She talks about how one of her patients told her that the older he gets the less he feels like a man, and she tells him that he isn’t giving himself much to feel like a man about. (Buuuuurn)
Study shows that increased goal setting in our 20s lead to greater purpose, mastery, well-being and all the good stuff in our thirties. Because our goals declare who we are and who we want to be. That’s how we structure our lives, so they become the building blocks of what our adult personality will be like. Assuming we’ll commit to those goals.
Because when you commit to something, you learn how to be cooperative and this changes our personality. She says stable relationships reduce social anxiety and depression because it helps us practice interpersonal skills, it gives us an opportunity to practice being flexible. When we become someone’s partner, we learn how to manage our emotions and resolve conflicts. We find new ways to feel good in the adult world.
She also says that we feel more settled when we settle down, but I’m not sure if this is always a good thing. Stable relationships and commitments act as an anchor when nothing else is certain in your life, you feel somewhat secure because like at least you know who you’ll spend you life with. But are you sure you’re not sticking to this path because you’re scared of the unknown? Just saying that it’s human tendency to hold onto something even if it doesn’t really make sense for us. So I agree that commitments teach us a lot, but we should make sure that what we commit to brings out the best in us.
Part 2: Loooove
“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness” – Sigmund Freud
The book mainly focuses on love and work when it comes to commitments and we’re gonna start with love, because it’s love. Today’s twenty-somethings spend more time single than any other generation in history. And this gives us a chance to basically live it up between living with our parents and being responsible for our own families. But Meg Jay says that we should be more intentional with our relationships.
Because she says that twenty-somethings don’t take their relationships seriously or more like we don’t think we are allowed to. And around 30, marriage gets pressing. She uses the analogy of musical chairs, which I think is hilarious, but basically everyone is dancing and having fun in their 20s and once you hit 30 the music stops and you get married to the nearest chair because you don’t wanna be the only one left standing when everyone else is sitting.
This is obviously not the best way to choose a life partner. Even though marriage seems like something you won’t have to deal with for another lifetime for most 20-year olds, she reminds us that the relationships we have during our 20s prepare us for marriage, because we learn how to handle our emotions and how to handle people. So we shouldn’t see these relationships only as fun connections and good times but more like opportunities to learn how to be a good partner and what you need from your partner.
The chapters about marriage in this book are intense, by the way. She says that we pick our family and it’s scary, it’s not romantic. This decision affects your whole life, and it’s not enough that it works here and now, but is should also work there and then. And that we will be forever tied to our spouses even if we get a divorce. We get intertwined with every aspect of their life. And that’s huge.
So how can we ever choose someone? Meg Jay says pretty much how we make every other decision: weigh the evidence and listen to yourself. Listen to what matters and not every single thing that makes you anxious or dissatisfied. Because we’ll never know with certainty, and what we need in marriage changes over time anyway. She also says that marriage is a commitment, and not a guarantee. (Ouch)
But, Lev Tolstoy says: “What counts in making a happy marriage is not much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibilities.” That’s more like it!
Part 3: Work work work work work (in Rihanna’s voice pls)
The other huge commitment we usually make during our 20s that affects are whole life is what we choose to do for a living. Studies show that the work we do as a twenty-something has a disproportionately big influence on our career success in the long run. But most of us go through this trial and error phase before finding what makes sense to us. Honestly, nobody I know really knew what they wanted to do in early 20s, that’s why most of us studied economics. What people are doing now is usually something they haven’t even heard of in undergrad.
But Meg Jay tells us to take risks, try wider range of jobs, experiment with work, because once we find something that excites us, we need to commit to it for at least a decade if we want to be really good at it. And she says that our generation wants to be exceptionally good at what we do, meaning most of us don’t see our jobs simply as something that pays the bills but more like an aspect of our lives where we can prove ourselves and feel confident and good.
At the same time, most of us don’t feel confident at what we do, but Meg Jay is like, “why would you be confident? You don’t have the experience, you just started your career.” She says that twenty-somethings who don’t feel anxious or incompetent at work are usually overconfident or underemployed. Real confidence comes from experiences, when you live the moments of success, and solve problems when things get difficult. There is no other way, we just have to keep doing it.
That’s why Meg Jay says that the real challenge of the 20s is the work itself. We have to do that thing for 10.000 hours to become an expert and that requires patience, especially when you don’t feel confident at all. Also, she says that people who are underemployed during their 20s are more depressed than the unemployed ones, but unemployment in your 20s is associated with heavy drinking and depression in the middle ages even after becoming regularly employed.
So it seems like finding a job that challenges us in our 20s is super important in the long run. And for work success to lead to confidence, she says that the job must require effort and it should be done without a lot of help. And it cannot go well every single day. She says that resilient confidence comes from succeeding and surviving failures, not from avoiding them.
Part 4: Finding your direction
So she puts this huge pressure on us to find the perfect job where it’s hard enough to choose a direction. She says it’s like airplanes, for a plane from New York the difference between landing in San Diego or Seattle depends on a slight change in course right after take off. But once a plane is nearly in San Diego, it has to make a big detour to direct it to Seattle. Which means, even a small shift can radically change where we end up in our 30s and beyond. Things we do and don’t do will have an enormous effect on the years ahead.
I think what frustrates us the most is the uncertainty. One of Meg Jay’s patients says it’s like being in the middle of an ocean, you can swim in either direction but you can’t see the land in any side so you have no idea where to swim. So you don’t swim. But in that case you assume that there is no past or no future, there is nothing that you want. I don’t think that’s true. We are usually told that we are standing in front of a boundless array of choices and that we can be anything we want to be in this life. But we spent more than two decades shaping who we are, so we don’t actually have unlimited options.
Meg Jay gets a bit savage around this point in the book and says when our friends are the same it feels ok, and our parents saying we are the best or that the sky is the limit is actually not helping. She doesn’t even like the way we dream. She says some of us dream too small and some too big. She says we need to recognize how our particular gifts and limitations fit the world around us to figure out our real potential. And reaching our potential most probably won’t happen until we are in our 40s or 50s. So 20s are about showing your potential rather than proof.
Do you feel the terror that goes along with saying “my life is up to me.” It is scary to realize that no one can really rescue you and you can’t just wait around, you have to do something. Meg Jay says: “Not knowing which direction to take is resistance to admit that possibilities are not endless,” so when you’re confused you don’t have to take charge because you hide behind the feeling of being lost. She basically calls us to take responsibility for our lives. We can’t think our way through life. The only way to figure out what to do is to do something!
Meg Jay goes on being a buzzkill by saying the urban tribe is overrated. She criticizes sitcoms and movies for exaggerating the value of these makeshift families. She knows that these friends are important, but she also says that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to likeminded peers because they help us survive, but not thrive. They bring us soup when we are sick, but they probably won’t be the ones to dramatically change our lives for the better.
Those who will are usually our weak ties. She says most new job opportunities come from people who we only occasionally or rarely see. She calls this the strength of weak ties and weakness of strong ties: People we don’t know that well bring unique value where close friends hold us back. She means these friends have a little to offer other than support because they usually don’t know any more about jobs or relationships than we do. We are all struggling and trying to figure out a way that works for us.
And this makes sense because weak ties know people and things that we don’t know. She says “Information and opportunity spread farther and faster through weak ties than close friends because weak ties have fewer overlapping contacts. Weak ties are like bridges you cannot see all the way across, so there is no telling where they might lead.” Because we don’t necessarily think the same or have access to the same information, new things almost always come from outside your inner circle. In my experience these weak ties were people I randomly met outside, or through my alumni network, or even social media.
Part 5: Years ahead
We are learning the language of adulthood through meaningful relationships and jobs. In time we’ll learn to get along and get ahead and become happier and more confident with who we are. Remember how we were likened to leaves in the wind? Any criticism blows us away and we feel as good as the last thing that happened. Our boss says something nice and we are happy, our crush say something bad and we are done. But in time, we’ll grow into trees.
The wind that blows us can be more serious, getting fired when you have kids and a mortgage must be way worse, but there is this confidence that comes from experience that you know problems can be solved or at least survived. We become more emotionally stable and less tossed around by life’s ups and downs.
And we learn what to overlook. We become more interested in positive information and our brain starts to react less strongly to negative information. We basically start giving less shit once we survive our 20s. Hang in there!
“The future isn’t written in the stars. There are no guarantees. So claim your adulthood. Be intentional. Get to work. Pick your family. Do the math. Make your own certainty. Don’t be defined by what you did or didn’t do. You are deciding your life right now.” – Meg Jay