30 is Not the New 20, Says UVA Professor


Dr. Meg Jay: One of my favorite quotes is by American Psychologist Sheldon Kopp: “The unlived life isn’t worth examining.” Too many 20somethings have been led to believe that their 20s are for thinking about what they want to do and their 30s are for getting going on real life. But there is a big difference between having a life in your 30s and starting a life in your 30s. Even Erik Erikson, the father of the identity crisis, warned that young adults who spent too much time in “disengaged confusion” were “in danger of becoming irrelevant.” If you want to be more intentional at work and in love, try working in a field you’re curious about. Try dating someone who is different from that last person who turned out to be a disaster, and try conducting yourself a bit differently while you’re at it. Sure the 20s are for experimenting, but not just with philosophies and vacations and substances. The 20s are your best chance to experiment with jobs and relationships. Then each move can be more intentional and more informed than the last.

Dr. Meg Jay is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia who has a book out about why your twenties matter so much. In sum: When you are in your thirties, you want to be living your life, not still figuring out how to get your adult life started. Your twenties are for figuring as much stuff as you can, she says, and answering a bunch of questions on your list of priorities, things like: Do you want children, and if you do, by what age would you like to have them? Okay, so you have a job that you don’t love, but it’s paying the bills—by when would you like to leave this job and move on to something else?

Basically, Dr. Jay doesn’t like it when young people say they’re just going to let life take them wherever it takes them. She wants them to think about what they want, and to start making decisions about how they’re going to get there.

Of course, we live in a time when it is very difficult for a lot of people to get a job. So, what about that, Dr. Jay? She says people in the jobless group who want to get in the employed group should focus on looking for opportunities outside of their inner circle. Jobs are going to be coming from “weak ties,” she says, or from people you don’t know too well, i.e. your roommate’s friend who started a business. What she means is that the way to get new job leads is to meet new people, which you won’t do if you’re hanging out with the same people every week.

Though this is all good and fun, I want to add a little something here about how it’s not the end of the world if you are a 30-something who didn’t figure things out in your twenties. I have friends and relatives who reinvented their careers or finally got their acts together later in life, and they’re living very full lives right now. And I still can’t stress enough about how important it is to have mentors who can help you figure out your career and what you want in life.

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31 Comments / Post A Comment

wearitcounts (#772)

thank you for that reassuring last paragraph, mike dang. because i read the beginning this and i just kept thinking OHMIGURRRD I’M 28 AND I HAVE NO ANSWERS TO ANY OF THOSE QUESTIONS WHAT DO I DOOOOO.

Mike Dang (#2)

@wearitcounts “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.”

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@wearitcounts Although, 30′s are “later in life”? Waaaahhhh!!!

wearitcounts (#772)

@Mike Dang you just quoted my ALL TIME FAVORITE BOOK. so many points for mike dang today. SO MANY POINTS.

@WaityKatie i knoooooow. excuse me while i mourn my youth.

sockhopbop (#764)

@wearitcounts Right? I actually couldn’t even read the excerpt because I was worried it would give me a panic attack (I’m 29). I just skipped down to Mike’s part because I assumed it would be more balanced and not terrifying. (And it was!)

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@wearitcounts I’m getting busy picking out a casket.

wearitcounts (#772)

@WaityKatie i’ll save you a seat at bingo.

selenana (#673)

@wearitcounts I actually play bingo. Is it over?

wearitcounts (#772)

@selenana hahaha no i will play bingo with you RIGHT NOW for real

kellyography (#250)

@wearitcounts I pretty much thought exactly what you said about the last paragraph. No idea about what I want to do, not qualified to do any of it once I figure it out. Terrifying.

wearitcounts (#772)

@kellyography what these comments have taught me so far is less fear, MORE BINGO. billfold bingo league, anyone?

CubeRootOfPi (#1,098)

Random, jumbled thoughts:
(1) The problem with the traditional 20s/30s experience is that it creates artificial deadlines and timeframes for experiences – i.e. the 20s are for having fun but the fun stops once you hit 30. If you don’t go out a lot and “live life,” then you’re a failure. If you don’t [insert imposed requirement here, e.g. have kids] by [AGE], then you’re a failure. I mean, there are some basic things (e.g. being financially independent unless there’s good cause), but I’ve seen enough people make huge, life-altering decisions that don’t look like it will end well just because they feel that they must get it done by 30.

(2) People’s priorities may change! I get Dr. Jay’s point in that people can’t just fritter their lives away while complaining that they wished they knew what they wanted, but what you think you want earlier in life may be different than what you want later in life. So her advice is really to be present in your life, see if it’s working for you and make changes if necessary – it’s not just a 20s thing.

arrr starr (#69)

I spent most of my mid-twenties freaking out that I hadn’t planned better and worried that my career was stalling because I had the “not sure what I want to do” attitude up until that point. I took whatever jobs I could get through “weak ties,” temped in the hope of getting a full time offer, and mostly applied for (and interviewed for, and got) jobs that seemed like what I was qualified for rather than jobs in industries I wanted to work in.

and at age 30 now, it’s worked out. I really like my job, feel like it’s growing into a long term career even though it was something I would have never thought to do at age 20. I know where I’m headed personally, I like where I live and where I’m going. There’s only so much age 20 me knew about what age 30 me would be like, and trying different things rather than picking one path and embarking on it as hard as I could, is absolutely what told me that.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@arrr starr I was the opposite (on a strict career-track from early college on) and I wish I had taken more time in my 20′s to go with the flow and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Because what I thought I wanted at 18-25 is so different than what I want now, at 36. Yet I’m stuck in this career forever (or at least the next 15-20 years) due to a combination of experience and debt. Isn’t that why midlife crises (used to) happen?

arrr starr (#69)

@WaityKatie I’ve come to realize it’s one of those things that goes both ways. As much as part of 25 year old me wished that I had gone for a consulting track position or something out of college or studied computer science/engineering and gotten a job as a programmer, one of the things I really like about getting older is gaining the perspective to realize that there are always going to be paths not taken and there’s no One True Path that is going to be superior at all stages. By fantasy measures, sure, I could have done things differently, but given the constraints of reality things are pretty good.

oiseau (#1,830)

I’m in my twenties and “figuring things out” and it sucks! I just want to know what I’m supposed to do already! I can’t wait until I’m in my thirties and am somehow magically content with my life. ugh

honey cowl (#1,510)

@oiseau YES.

oiseau (#1,830)

@oiseau I think we should go back to the medieval way of life where there was probably 1000% less uncertainty about what you’d become and basically life was thrust upon you and you didn’t have to pick through all the CHOICES of modern day existence! I would probably spend my existence weaving tapestries, popping out children, and preparing for war. GREAT! I’LL TAKE IT! Either that or I’d be a peasant woman ekeing out a starving existence. Or possibly dead after my first pregnancy at 13 or from the plague. WHATEVER!

Seriously we are so spoiled in this day & age, and yet everyone seems so unhappy. I’m educated enough to know about everything I’m missing out on. I’m worldly enough to constantly feel isolated. I keep trying on new lifestyles in my head for myself and then discarding them after thinking they’re stupid. Where will I end up? WHO KNOWS! I can barely take the fucking suspense!

MuffyStJohn (#280)

I am as Type-A, life-planning as they come, and while I have the broad strokes down (e.g., industry I want to work in, the kind of family I want and when I want to have it), I feel a helluva lot farther away from having it all figured out than the 18 months between today and my 30th birthday. Like a lot of people my age, figuring these things out took a lot of time, I got off to a late start, and then my career path was brutalized by a shitty economy. I’m on track now (I think), but there’s no way I’m going to be where I want/thought I would be at 30, or even 32, or maybe even 40. Doing all this “figuring out,” laying all the groundwork, and knowing that you’re still at the mercy of economic forces far outside your control makes it difficult to ever feel fully secure in your plans, makes us second guess ourselves, and definitely makes it hard for people my age to get our careers rolling, let alone get ahead. Dr. Jay touches on this uncertainty a bit in her interview but I don’t think that it is a factor that can be underplayed here, and I am certain that it contributes to a lot of 20-somethings floundering about how they should be approaching their futures.

The best laid plans of mice and men, etc.

Don’t worry guys, I just googled her, and Dr. Jay looks like very much like a person I wouldn’t want giving me advice about living life in any decade at all. She is also the lady that thinks:

“Drawing from research and from her own experience working with young adults, Jay argues that there is actually something internal to the practice of living together that can put a future marriage on shaky grounds.”

I also tried to find her on yelp, since she specializes in 20-34 year olds in therapy. No dice. My take is that this is a person who does not really practice, and wanted to get rich. Fastest way? Write an overgeneralizing book about what the youth is doing wrong, with convenient conservative undertones.

wearitcounts (#772)

@Jake Reinhardt also when i read “dr. jay” in my head it’s still julius irving.

Stuff like this just gives me anxiety attacks. You can spend most of your 20s figuring things out and feel like you’ve gotten to a place where you know what you want and where you’re going, then it can all get flipped on its head without warning, so, life. You know? It’s complicated no matter how you go at it.

I’ve never felt threatened by 30 or any specific age, but I do sometimes feel crushed by feeling like I’ll NEVER have anything figured out (let alone ‘it all’) no matter how much time I’ve been on the planet or how much experience I have.

Nick (#1,548)

“And do you know a funny thing? I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.” (Richard Yates, The Easter Parade)

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@Nick Yates always has an appropriate quote for any situation.

Yes! It’s like the great secret of life that adults never really admit when you’re growing up. No one has anything figured out! But they can’t tell you that when you’re a kid or you’d be REALLY freaked out. You just have to find out like everyone else.

cherrispryte (#19)

I keep coming back to this post and reading a few lines and then getting too anxious/sad and leaving and then coming back again.
I just turned 28 and I am more confused re: “my future” than I have ever been in my entire life.

wearitcounts (#772)

@cherrispryte noooo read mike dang’s last paragraph!!! it fixes everything!! also the comment about how dr. jay is kind of not legit. also helped. also apparently we’re getting a bingo league together so you should plan to join that too.

Brunhilde (#78)

Since I had my entire concept of my future completely wiped out from under me when I was 28, I’m just rolling along not giving a fuck in my 30′s. Whatever, I’m doing the best I can with what I have, and things are a bit of a rollercoaster, but it’s getting better. And it might all go away again! I think I’ll weather it better this time.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

“can’t wait ’til I’m 30 which will be soon”
Mike Dang’s best tag.

carolita (#869)

good lord, I didn’t begin to figure things out till I was 37! But then, I did a lot of stuff up till then, I wasn’t lazy. And yes, when I began to figure it all out and came back to the states after over a decade abroad, I was pretty irrelevant. But that’s not the end of the world. It was actually a great thing for me. It meant I had nothing to lose. It’s great to be 37 and have nothing to lose, sometimes (I don’t claim to speak for people with six figure college debt, or a few kids). Ten years later, I’m really getting down to business! It’s great! I have no regrets. Don’t be scared. Just don’t be lazy.

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