By Ryan Howes
What’s happening in the world of twentysomethings? Current external stressors aside, how do they feel about this decade of their lives? Is it a time to party and hang with friends? Or is it time to build a family and a career? Or something in the middle?
University of Virginia professor and author Meg Jay says that twentysomethings have been sold an erroneous message by our culture: that the 20s don’t count, and you don’t have to work on developing your adulthood until your 30s. As a result, they’re missing out on some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Jay is the author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now and Supernormal: The Secret World of the Family Hero. The former has sold more than 500,000 copies and has been published in more than a dozen countries. Her related TED talk, “Why 30 Is Not the New 20,” is one of the most-watched to date and has been viewed more than 10 million times. She recently shared some of her story and advice for therapists with us.
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Ryan Howes: How did you become interested in working with twentysomethings?
Meg Jay: I’ve spent my whole adult life in college towns, surrounded by twentysomethings, so over the past 20 years I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. The work started, though, during my clinical psych training at Berkeley, when I was introduced to research on adult development. Like most people, my first reaction was, “What’s that? I thought adults were already developed.”
Berkeley is where the Mills Longitudinal Study is housed. It’s one of the longest-running studies of female development out there. I did my PhD on some of that data. Most people don’t think about how everything between 20 and 100 is adult development, but it is, and in that sense, the 20s are a critical period. They’re a chance to get in front of what’s coming.
Now I work with people in their 20s because, to me, that’s where all the action is. As adult milestones shift closer to 30 than to 20, it’s exciting to have the opportunity to get ahead of it all—to help people think about what kind of partnership they want before they make a commitment, or to help them think about what kind of work would sustain them before they settle into a career. These are the years when we make life’s most foundational choices. I call them the defining decade.
RH: How and why do you think the 20s became perceived as a throwaway decade?
Jay: I’m a Gen-Xer. I went into my 20s hearing and believing that “30 is the new 20,” meaning if all the important stuff happens in your 30s then there’s no need to think about it until later. The analogy that I use for twentysomethings—especially ones who went to college—is this: if you know you have a paper due on April 1st, then you’ll probably start getting serious about it on March 30th. And then if your professor says, “Your paper is now due on May 1st,” you probably won’t say, “Fantastic. I can use this extra month to write a better paper.” You’ll say, “Great, now I’ll worry about it later.” It’s the way people think about time. They need to feel some sort of urgency to get going. So, yes, adult milestones are happening later than they used to, but that makes our 20s a developmental sweet spot, rather than a developmental downtime.
There’s also some irrational exuberance around the idea that I can have my cake and eat it too: I can enjoy myself in my 20s and wait 10 years to start my life. That seems pretty reasonable until people start bumping up against the biology around having kids or against people in the workforce who started earlier and are farther ahead.
RH: What role do biological concerns play?
Jay: More women than ever are having kids at 40 because of wonderful advances in reproductive medicine. But that’s not going to work for everybody, and it’s not the only part of parenting to consider. So it makes sense to educate young people about their bodies, and to ask them about their hopes and dreams for family, so they can make choices that they feel good about down the line.
Recently, I was doing a family-planning exercise in one of my classes, and I asked a student how many kids she thought she wanted. She said, “Three.” I said, “Okay, what’s the oldest you want to be when you have number three?” She said, “37.” “Okay, 37,” I went on, “and how do you want to space them?” And she said, “Probably three years apart.” I said, “That’s 37, then 34 and 31. Do you want to have a partner or be married?” “Definitely,” she said. “How much time do you want to have with your partner before these three kids come along?” “Oh, like three years, so we can be solid before kids are in the picture.” And I said, “Okay, so that’s 28 you’d be getting married,” which is actually the national average. “Do you want to know this person before you get married?” “Well, yes, for at least three.” So we did the math and realized she’d be meeting or looking for her partner by around 25.
As you can imagine, the whole classroom was erupting in laughter and panic. But the point is not to race out and partner with someone before you’re ready; it’s to look at the timing of all the things you want and to realize some of it may not be as far off as you think. Most twentysomethings have spent their lives planning in semester-sized, 17-week chunks. I help them think about planning in a five-to-20-year chunks. They need practice with that.
RH: What advice do you give people in their 20s?
Jay: For most twentysomethings, worries about work come before worries about love. So the first piece of advice I give my clients is to use their 20s to get some identity capital. I’m not saying they need to know what career they’re going to have forever or commit to a job just for the sake of it. But I do argue that they need to spend their time wisely. Time is a twentysomething’s most valuable resource. That’s what they have that you and I don’t. This is the time to try something new, get an internship, go to grad school, travel the world—anything that adds value to who you are. That’s the difference between gaining identity capital and just killing time. Most twentysomethings ultimately wind up in jobs they haven’t even heard of yet. So now is the time to get into a field and figure it out. Just get out there and make good use of your time.
To that, a lot of clients say, “Okay, fine, but how do I do that? How do I get my first piece of identity capital?” One way is by understanding the strength of weak ties, which is the idea that most of the new things in our lives will come from people we barely know. The term networking has bad connotations for most twentysomethings so, instead, I talk to them about the science of how information spreads. Weak ties are almost always where that first good job comes from, or where the new apartment or even the potential partner comes from—and it’s okay to use them.
I also talk to my clients about picking your family. Up until our 20s, we’re told, “You can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends.” But then guess what? You do pick your family when you partner with someone and create a family of your own. It might seem traditional, or not progressive, to care about creating a family. But, whether they’re gay, straight, BIPOC, white, left, right, most twentysomethings want to partner with somebody, at least eventually. Owning that is not such a bad thing. I tell my clients all the time, “I have a PhD from Berkeley in clinical psych and gender studies, and feminists want families, too. There’s nothing wrong with being as ambitious about love as you are about work.”
RH: I’d imagine, it’s kind of scary for them, isn’t it?
Jay: It is, but think about it this way. Let’s say you’re worried about whether you’ve saved enough for retirement. Then you go to a financial planner who says, “Oh, don’t worry about it. You’re young. You’ll be fine.” That doesn’t actually make you feel better. Or maybe it does for a few seconds, but then you’re worried again. Instead, you want that person to say, “Okay, I’m taking your worries seriously. Let’s see. How much have you saved? When do you want to retire? What kind of retirement do you want to have? Let’s figure it out.” Like with people who struggle with anxiety, reassurance is not helpful. What’s helpful is facing what’s making us nervous and finding a way to work it out.
RH: So you’re helping twentysomethings make a plan. But it has to be a flexible plan, right? Because life happens.
Jay: Yes, it does. In fact, earlier this year, I taught The Defining Decade on Semester at Sea. It turns out, our voyage was moving through Asia right about the time the coronavirus was too. So just when I was helping students practice thinking ahead and making plans about work and love, our travel plans were continually being disrupted. It was a bit of a living laboratory about how plans can be organizing and galvanizing—and how you’ve got to be able to pivot.
That actually reminds me of my favorite metaphor about working with twentysomethings. An old supervisor of mine used to say that working with twentysomethings was like working with airplanes just after takeoff. Our 20s are an up-in-the-air and turbulent time, but they’re also a time when a single course correction or a slight pivot can make a big difference in terms of where you end up. That’s the best part about working with this age group. It’s a time when a little bit of help can go a long way.
RH: What else should therapists be aware of when working with this population?
Jay: First of all, not a day goes by that I don’t receive an email from somebody who says, “Can you be my therapist, or can you recommend someone in my area who focuses on twentysomethings?” So therapists should know there’s a need out there. More and more young adults are interested in talking about their lives. They’re realizing, “I don’t have to be clinically depressed or have a diagnosable condition to seek help from someone.” They’re interested in finding people who know something about the developmental challenges they’re grappling with.
My advice is to find out in granular detail everything you can about what the typical week in the life of your twentysomething client’s life looks. A lot of therapists like to unpack the past, but the 20s are a dangerous age to do that because important time is passing you by. So help these clients really unpack the present. Don’t be afraid to ask what time they go to bed, who they’re sleeping with, if they watch porn, what their screen time is like, how work is going, what friends they’ve seen that week. Just be curious about exactly what’s going on right now. The choices they’re making in the present might have something to do with the past, so that will come up and be relevant. But these choices will greatly affect their future, so that’s where the work has to start.
RH: Your newest book, Supernormal, deals with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Is it a twentysomething book, too?
Jay: Supernormal is not explicitly a twentysomething book, but secretly it is. It has to do with the 10 most common adversities that people grow up with and what comes next in terms of adult development. So many of my young adult clients are wondering, “How can my adult life be better than the one I had growing up? How can my partnership be better than my parents’? How can I be a better dad than the one that I had?”
When we talk about ACEs, we’re usually focused on how to help kids who are living with them. But the double-edged sword of the ACE work is that, the more people learn about it, the more those who grew up with ACEs think, “Oh my gosh, I’m done for.” They feel different or damaged or abnormal. Supernormal is about reframing that. It points out how incredibly common it is to grow up with ACEs—it’s not abnormal—and how what people manage to achieve after that can be quite supernormal.
Ryan Howes, PhD, ABPP, is a psychologist, writer, musician, and clinical professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California.