Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Defining Decade: Why Your 20s Matter


For the past several years, I have been doing a great deal of counseling and life coaching with young adults in their 20s. I also now have three young adult children in this phase of life. I think this age group gets a lot of bad information from the media and popular culture. I really like them to focus on what's important developmentally to set a strong foundation for their lives. I've recently read a treasure of a book, which I would recommend for any young adult in their 20s,or anyone who has an adult child in this decade of life. The book is The Defining Decade: Why Your 20s Matter --and How to Make the Most of Them Now, by psychologist and University of Virginia assistant clinical professor Meg Jay, Ph.D. ( Hachette Book Group, 2012).

Here's a taste of Jay's excellent and direct style:

"Your twenties matter. Eighty percent of life's most defining moments take place by age thirty-five. Two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first ten years of a career. More than half of us are married, or dating, or living with our future partner by age thirty. Personality changes more during our twenties than at any time before or after. The brain caps off its last growth spurt in the twenties. Female fertility peaks at age twenty-eight."

Jay's research-based book goes directly in the face of a lot of bad information that the post-college set gets. Thirty is not the new twenty. For example, she doesn't like to see twenty-somethings have meaningless hook-ups and not begin the process of learning strong relational skills. As Jay points out, just because you wait to start a love relationship later doesn't necessarily mean the relationship is any higher quality. After 30 or 35, Jay points out, the choices can narrow, and it can feel like you are playing musical chairs, feeling pressure to take any seat available. That's not the best way to pick a life partner, which is one of the most important decisions anyone can make.

Jay encourages people in their 20s to become intentional in their career moves. Finish your education. Work hard. Confidence will come with 10,000 hours or so at your chosen profession, so have realistic expectations. You will not be CEO by year's end. Pay your dues.  Learn from your mistakes. Jay compares new college grads to leaves that can be unsettled and blown about by any criticism at work. Dig deep, she advises, and get back to work. Have confidence in knowing that after you have worked at your career for 20,000 or 30,000 hours, you will become like a tree with strong roots, so that when you are criticized or feel badly about a mistake it won't uproot you. It's normal to feel insecure in a new career, especially as you may be the only person in your age group in your office.

Know what you want, and politely ask for it. Don't expect others to be able to answer what you should be doing career wise. You might need some career testing to figure it out, which is usually well worth the money. Don't make the mistake of staying in a part-time or temporary job too long before figuring out how you get on the right track. Many kind adults are happy to meet and talk with you, and will remember clearly how that felt to be a new college grad trying to get started with a career. Jay compares twenty-somethings to planes ready for takeoff, and that right after takeoff any little change can alter the course, while later on after the plane lands it is less likely to be redirected.

Our job in our 20s is building an identity and a feeling of mastery as an adult: creating a career we enjoy that can support us financially, developing our self-esteem, developing a sense of agency, building post-college friendships,and learning how to be in an intimate relationship. There is a sense of being less of a group than when in college, and more on your own. Parents also need to step back, not hover, and allow this maturation and individuation process to happen: emotionally, financially, and relationally.

Jay has a funny chapter on social media's impact on those in their 20s called "My Life Should Look Better on Facebook," which explores how many young adults feel worse after following their peers on Instagram, Facebook, etc. Twenty-somethings have to get past living to impress others, and stay focused on their own path.

In choosing love relationships, about half of young adults have lived through their parents' divorce. There is a legacy of divorce emotionally, where most adult children of divorce are fearful of not living through another divorce, and sometimes delay dating or getting serious with anyone as a way to delay dealing with that fear. With this one decision about who you marry, Jay likens it to "walking over to the roulette wheel and putting all your chips on red 32. With one decision, you choose your partner in all adult things. Money, work, lifestyle, family, health, leisure, retirement, and even death became a three-legged race."

In choosing a partner, Jay encourages young adults to consider "The Big Five" Personality Factors that have been researched. In addition to sharing common core values, it is helpful to be at the same end on most of these continuums:

1. Openness (low to high)
2. Conscientiousness (low to high)
3. Extroversion (low to high)
4. Agreeableness(low to high)
5. Neuroticism (low to high)

The Big Five are how you live, and they are thought to be 50% inherited and are not likely to change.

Jay points out that many women ignore dating seriously in their 20s and then feel somewhat panicked at the age 30 transition, as friends begin marrying and changing their Facebook relationship status. Perhaps we should look at the 20s differently in the relational area.

The author is also very direct with young women about the limits of fertility. While Hollywood celebrities may be extending childbearing into their 40s, most women can't. There are many women, including some I've counseled, who are grieving at 40 that they forgot to have a child, or kept telling themselves they would deal with it later. While men might be able to wait until after 40, it might not be smart, either. What if you have toddlers AND aging parents? What if the aging process makes it harder to be active with small children? What if you aren't there to finish raising your children?

I highly recommend this informative and thought-provoking book to anyone in their 20s. Don't throw away this important decade-- it's setting the essential foundation for the life you want to create. Make the most of it by being intentional about yourself  and your goals.

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