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TED2013

Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20

February 28, 2013

Clinical psychologist Meg Jay has a bold message for twentysomethings: Contrary to popular belief, your 20s are not a throwaway decade. In this provocative talk, Jay says that just because marriage, work and kids are happening later in life, doesn’t mean you can’t start planning now. She gives 3 pieces of advice for how twentysomethings can re-claim adulthood in the defining decade of their lives.

Meg Jay - Clinical psychologist
In her book "The Defining Decade," Meg Jay suggests that many twentysomethings feel trivialized during what is actually the most transformative — and defining — period of our adult lives. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
When I was in my 20s,
00:12
I saw my very first psychotherapy client.
00:14
I was a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at Berkeley.
00:18
She was a 26-year-old woman named Alex.
00:21
Now Alex walked into her first session
00:26
wearing jeans and a big slouchy top,
00:27
and she dropped onto the couch in my office
00:30
and kicked off her flats
00:32
and told me she was there to talk about guy problems.
00:34
Now when I heard this, I was so relieved.
00:38
My classmate got an arsonist for her first client.
00:42
(Laughter)
00:45
And I got a twentysomething who wanted to talk about boys.
00:47
This I thought I could handle.
00:52
But I didn't handle it.
00:55
With the funny stories that Alex would bring to session,
00:57
it was easy for me just to nod my head
00:59
while we kicked the can down the road.
01:01
"Thirty's the new 20," Alex would say,
01:04
and as far as I could tell, she was right.
01:06
Work happened later, marriage happened later,
01:09
kids happened later, even death happened later.
01:11
Twentysomethings like Alex and I had nothing but time.
01:15
But before long, my supervisor pushed me
01:20
to push Alex about her love life.
01:23
I pushed back.
01:26
I said, "Sure, she's dating down,
01:27
she's sleeping with a knucklehead,
01:30
but it's not like she's going to marry the guy."
01:32
And then my supervisor said,
01:36
"Not yet, but she might marry the next one.
01:38
Besides, the best time to work on Alex's marriage
01:42
is before she has one."
01:46
That's what psychologists call an "Aha!" moment.
01:49
That was the moment I realized, 30 is not the new 20.
01:53
Yes, people settle down later than they used to,
01:56
but that didn't make Alex's 20s a developmental downtime.
01:58
That made Alex's 20s a developmental sweet spot,
02:03
and we were sitting there blowing it.
02:06
That was when I realized that this sort of benign neglect
02:10
was a real problem, and it had real consequences,
02:14
not just for Alex and her love life
02:18
but for the careers and the families and the futures
02:20
of twentysomethings everywhere.
02:23
There are 50 million twentysomethings
02:27
in the United States right now.
02:29
We're talking about 15 percent of the population,
02:31
or 100 percent if you consider
02:35
that no one's getting through adulthood
02:37
without going through their 20s first.
02:39
Raise your hand if you're in your 20s.
02:43
I really want to see some twentysomethings here.
02:45
Oh, yay! Y'all's awesome.
02:47
If you work with twentysomethings, you love a twentysomething,
02:49
you're losing sleep over twentysomethings, I want to see —
02:53
Okay. Awesome, twentysomethings really matter.
02:56
So I specialize in twentysomethings because I believe
03:00
that every single one of those 50 million twentysomethings
03:04
deserves to know what psychologists,
03:08
sociologists, neurologists and fertility specialists
03:11
already know:
03:15
that claiming your 20s is one of the simplest,
03:17
yet most transformative, things you can do
03:19
for work, for love, for your happiness,
03:23
maybe even for the world.
03:25
This is not my opinion. These are the facts.
03:28
We know that 80 percent of life's most defining moments
03:33
take place by age 35.
03:36
That means that eight out of 10 of the decisions
03:38
and experiences and "Aha!" moments
03:42
that make your life what it is
03:45
will have happened by your mid-30s.
03:47
People who are over 40, don't panic.
03:50
This crowd is going to be fine, I think.
03:52
We know that the first 10 years of a career
03:55
has an exponential impact
03:57
on how much money you're going to earn.
04:00
We know that more than half of Americans
04:02
are married or are living with or dating
04:04
their future partner by 30.
04:07
We know that the brain caps off its second
04:09
and last growth spurt in your 20s
04:12
as it rewires itself for adulthood,
04:14
which means that whatever it is you want to change about yourself,
04:17
now is the time to change it.
04:21
We know that personality changes more during your 20s
04:24
than at any other time in life,
04:27
and we know that female fertility peaks at age 28,
04:29
and things get tricky after age 35.
04:34
So your 20s are the time to educate yourself
04:37
about your body and your options.
04:40
So when we think about child development,
04:44
we all know that the first five years are a critical period
04:46
for language and attachment in the brain.
04:50
It's a time when your ordinary, day-to-day life
04:53
has an inordinate impact on who you will become.
04:57
But what we hear less about is that there's such a thing
05:01
as adult development, and our 20s
05:04
are that critical period of adult development.
05:06
But this isn't what twentysomethings are hearing.
05:11
Newspapers talk about the changing timetable of adulthood.
05:14
Researchers call the 20s an extended adolescence.
05:18
Journalists coin silly nicknames for twentysomethings
05:22
like "twixters" and "kidults."
05:25
It's true.
05:28
As a culture, we have trivialized what is actually
05:30
the defining decade of adulthood.
05:34
Leonard Bernstein said that to achieve great things,
05:39
you need a plan and not quite enough time.
05:41
Isn't that true?
05:45
So what do you think happens
05:48
when you pat a twentysomething on the head and you say,
05:49
"You have 10 extra years to start your life"?
05:51
Nothing happens.
05:55
You have robbed that person of his urgency and ambition,
05:57
and absolutely nothing happens.
06:01
And then every day, smart, interesting twentysomethings
06:04
like you or like your sons and daughters
06:08
come into my office and say things like this:
06:11
"I know my boyfriend's no good for me,
06:15
but this relationship doesn't count. I'm just killing time."
06:17
Or they say, "Everybody says as long as I get started
06:22
on a career by the time I'm 30, I'll be fine."
06:25
But then it starts to sound like this:
06:29
"My 20s are almost over, and I have nothing to show for myself.
06:32
I had a better résumé the day after I graduated from college."
06:36
And then it starts to sound like this:
06:41
"Dating in my 20s was like musical chairs.
06:44
Everybody was running around and having fun,
06:46
but then sometime around 30 it was like the music turned off
06:49
and everybody started sitting down.
06:52
I didn't want to be the only one left standing up,
06:54
so sometimes I think I married my husband
06:57
because he was the closest chair to me at 30."
06:59
Where are the twentysomethings here?
07:03
Do not do that.
07:05
Okay, now that sounds a little flip, but make no mistake,
07:09
the stakes are very high.
07:12
When a lot has been pushed to your 30s,
07:14
there is enormous thirtysomething pressure
07:16
to jump-start a career, pick a city, partner up,
07:19
and have two or three kids in a much shorter period of time.
07:23
Many of these things are incompatible,
07:27
and as research is just starting to show,
07:29
simply harder and more stressful to do
07:32
all at once in our 30s.
07:35
The post-millennial midlife crisis
07:38
isn't buying a red sports car.
07:40
It's realizing you can't have that career you now want.
07:43
It's realizing you can't have that child you now want,
07:48
or you can't give your child a sibling.
07:51
Too many thirtysomethings and fortysomethings
07:54
look at themselves, and at me, sitting across the room,
07:57
and say about their 20s,
08:01
"What was I doing? What was I thinking?"
08:03
I want to change what twentysomethings
08:09
are doing and thinking.
08:10
Here's a story about how that can go.
08:12
It's a story about a woman named Emma.
08:15
At 25, Emma came to my office
08:19
because she was, in her words, having an identity crisis.
08:21
She said she thought she might like to work in art
08:26
or entertainment, but she hadn't decided yet,
08:29
so she'd spent the last few years waiting tables instead.
08:32
Because it was cheaper, she lived with a boyfriend
08:36
who displayed his temper more than his ambition.
08:38
And as hard as her 20s were,
08:43
her early life had been even harder.
08:45
She often cried in our sessions,
08:47
but then would collect herself by saying,
08:50
"You can't pick your family, but you can pick your friends."
08:52
Well one day, Emma comes in
08:56
and she hangs her head in her lap,
08:58
and she sobbed for most of the hour.
09:00
She'd just bought a new address book,
09:04
and she'd spent the morning filling in her many contacts,
09:05
but then she'd been left staring at that empty blank
09:09
that comes after the words
09:12
"In case of emergency, please call ... ."
09:14
She was nearly hysterical when she looked at me and said,
09:18
"Who's going to be there for me if I get in a car wreck?
09:21
Who's going to take care of me if I have cancer?"
09:24
Now in that moment, it took everything I had
09:28
not to say, "I will."
09:31
But what Emma needed wasn't some therapist
09:33
who really, really cared.
09:36
Emma needed a better life, and I knew this was her chance.
09:37
I had learned too much since I first worked with Alex
09:43
to just sit there while Emma's defining decade
09:46
went parading by.
09:49
So over the next weeks and months,
09:53
I told Emma
09:54
three things that every twentysomething, male or female,
09:56
deserves to hear.
10:00
First, I told Emma to forget about having an identity crisis
10:03
and get some identity capital.
10:07
By get identity capital, I mean do something
10:10
that adds value to who you are.
10:13
Do something that's an investment
10:16
in who you might want to be next.
10:18
I didn't know the future of Emma's career,
10:22
and no one knows the future of work, but I do know this:
10:24
Identity capital begets identity capital.
10:28
So now is the time for that cross-country job,
10:32
that internship, that startup you want to try.
10:35
I'm not discounting twentysomething exploration here,
10:38
but I am discounting exploration that's not supposed to count,
10:41
which, by the way, is not exploration.
10:46
That's procrastination.
10:49
I told Emma to explore work and make it count.
10:52
Second, I told Emma that the urban tribe is overrated.
10:58
Best friends are great for giving rides to the airport,
11:03
but twentysomethings who huddle together
11:06
with like-minded peers limit who they know,
11:09
what they know, how they think, how they speak,
11:11
and where they work.
11:15
That new piece of capital, that new person to date
11:18
almost always comes from outside the inner circle.
11:20
New things come from what are called our weak ties,
11:24
our friends of friends of friends.
11:27
So yes, half of twentysomethings are un- or under-employed.
11:30
But half aren't, and weak ties
11:35
are how you get yourself into that group.
11:37
Half of new jobs are never posted,
11:40
so reaching out to your neighbor's boss
11:43
is how you get that un-posted job.
11:45
It's not cheating. It's the science of how information spreads.
11:48
Last but not least, Emma believed that
11:53
you can't pick your family, but you can pick your friends.
11:55
Now this was true for her growing up,
11:58
but as a twentysomething, soon Emma would pick her family
12:01
when she partnered with someone
12:03
and created a family of her own.
12:05
I told Emma the time to start picking your family is now.
12:08
Now you may be thinking that 30
12:14
is actually a better time to settle down
12:15
than 20, or even 25,
12:18
and I agree with you.
12:21
But grabbing whoever you're living with or sleeping with
12:23
when everyone on Facebook starts walking down the aisle
12:26
is not progress.
12:29
The best time to work on your marriage
12:32
is before you have one,
12:34
and that means being as intentional with love
12:36
as you are with work.
12:39
Picking your family is about consciously choosing
12:41
who and what you want
12:44
rather than just making it work or killing time
12:46
with whoever happens to be choosing you.
12:49
So what happened to Emma?
12:53
Well, we went through that address book,
12:55
and she found an old roommate's cousin
12:57
who worked at an art museum in another state.
12:59
That weak tie helped her get a job there.
13:03
That job offer gave her the reason
13:05
to leave that live-in boyfriend.
13:08
Now, five years later, she's a special events planner for museums.
13:10
She's married to a man she mindfully chose.
13:14
She loves her new career, she loves her new family,
13:18
and she sent me a card that said,
13:20
"Now the emergency contact blanks
13:23
don't seem big enough."
13:25
Now Emma's story made that sound easy,
13:28
but that's what I love about working with twentysomethings.
13:31
They are so easy to help.
13:34
Twentysomethings are like airplanes just leaving LAX,
13:36
bound for somewhere west.
13:40
Right after takeoff, a slight change in course
13:42
is the difference between landing in Alaska or Fiji.
13:46
Likewise, at 21 or 25 or even 29,
13:51
one good conversation, one good break,
13:56
one good TED Talk, can have an enormous effect
13:59
across years and even generations to come.
14:02
So here's an idea worth spreading
14:07
to every twentysomething you know.
14:09
It's as simple as what I learned to say to Alex.
14:12
It's what I now have the privilege
14:14
of saying to twentysomethings like Emma every single day:
14:17
Thirty is not the new 20, so claim your adulthood,
14:22
get some identity capital, use your weak ties,
14:25
pick your family.
14:29
Don't be defined by what you didn't know
14:31
or didn't do.
14:34
You're deciding your life right now.
14:35
Thank you.
14:39
(Applause)
14:40
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Meg Jay - Clinical psychologist
In her book "The Defining Decade," Meg Jay suggests that many twentysomethings feel trivialized during what is actually the most transformative — and defining — period of our adult lives.

Why you should listen

Lately it feels as if 25 is just a bit too young to get serious. In her psychology practice, and her book The Defining Decade, clinical psychologist Meg Jay suggests that many twentysomethings have been caught in a swirl of hype and misinformation about what Time magazine calls the "Me Me Me Generation." The rhetoric that "30 is the new 20," she suggests, trivializes what is actually the most transformative period of our adult lives.
 
Drawing from more than ten years of work with hundreds of twentysomething clients and students, Jay weaves science together with compelling, behind-closed-doors stories. The result is a provocative, poignant read that shows us why, far from being an irrelevant downtime, our twenties are a developmental sweetspot that comes only once.  Our twenties are a time when the things we do -- and the things we don’t do -- will have an enormous effect across years and even generations to come.

Jay is a clinical psychologist who specializes in adult development, and in twentysomethings in particular. She is an assistant clinical professor at the University of Virginia and maintains a private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia.  She spent her own early twentysomething years as an Outward Bound instructor.

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