Our Roaring 20s: 'The Defining Decade' Troubled by her 20-something clients' lack of direction, clinical psychologist Meg Jay decided to write a book about those formative years. In The Defining Decade, she argues that those years are by far the most crucial in our adult development.
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Our Roaring 20s: 'The Defining Decade'

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Our Roaring 20s: 'The Defining Decade'

Our Roaring 20s: 'The Defining Decade'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

And I am standing on the corner of 22nd and I Street, N.W. in Washington, D.C. We are on the campus of George Washington University. And we're out talking with 20-somethings about the expectations they have for their lives for the next few years.

For many people, the 20s are a decade to explore, to investigate different options. In a few moments, we'll hear from Meg Jay. She's an author who has written a book called "The Defining Decade," about how the 20s are far more important in terms of shaping our lives than we might think. We'll hear from her in a few minutes. But first, we wanted to talk with 20-somethings about what they're thinking about this time of their life. Is this a defining decade for them?

PETER DOPULOUS: I'm Peter Dopulos(ph). I'm a sophomore at George Washington University.

MARTIN: Peter doesn't really have a firm idea about his future right now. He's thinking about becoming a teacher.

Do you have a Plan B, like if the teaching thing doesn't work out?

DOPULOUS: No. Not at all. There - no.



ROBERT RENALDI: In eight years I'll be the age that my parents where when they had me.

MARTIN: This is GW student Robert Renaldi. He's 20 years old.

DOPULOUS: I can't imagine being mentally or financially prepared in eight years to start a family. But I feel like I need to.


MARTIN: We walked over to a local restaurant where a lot of students and recent grads hang out. There we found Emily Hofstetter.

EMILY HOFSTETTER: Hi, I'm 20 and I'm from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

MARTIN: She works here part-time as a hostess to help pay for school.

HOFSTETTER: I'm an English and theater double major. I'm totally willing to do the whole theater and waitressing thing if, you know, as long as I can call myself a theater person first. It's hard. With the economy the way it is, you kind of just have to roll with it and do whatever you do. But I guess you never know.


MARTIN: Inside, sitting at the bar with some friends, is 23-year-old Garazi Zulaika. She currently works at the Department of Justice in what she describes as a real job. But while she's got a plan mapped out for her career, she says planning out a personal life doesn't work.

GARAZI ZULAIKA: I think that, you know, when you're little you have timelines. You say like I want to be married by this age. I want to have a kid two years later. I want to have this stable career, and then it just doesn't work out that way. I'm 23. I'm going to grad school. I'll be pulling out like $100,000 a month and paying that back is a long-term commitment. Knowing when I'll be able to afford to have a house or a marriage or a child is just not something I can foresee today.

MARTIN: So no rush.



MARTIN: These are the voices of young 20-somethings. For people in their mid- to late-20s, the pressure to make big decisions about work and relationships gets more intense, as do the consequences of those choices.

Clinical psychologist Meg Jay of the University of Virginia calls this chapter of life "The Defining Decade," and that's the title of her new book. We recently spoke with Jay about what exactly she thinks is so critical about this particular time. Her response:

DR. MEG JAY: Everything.


JAY: We know that...

MARTIN: That's a lot.

It's a lot, get ready. We know that 80 percent of life's most defining moments happen by age 35. We know that 70 percent of lifetime wage growth happens in the first 10 years of a career. We know that more than half of Americans are married or living with or dating their future partner by 30. Our personalities change more in our 20's than any other time. Our fertility peaks. Our brain caps off its last growth spurts.

So our 20s are a time when the things that we do and the things that we don't do are going to have an enormous effect across years and even generations. And too many 20-somethings don't know this.

We should say that 20-somethings, that whole demographic, it's a diverse group. And, you know, there people who are married homeowners in their 20s.

JAY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: There are people with successful careers or the seeds of a career. But as far as you have been able to tell in your research, are there any patterns traced to a person's childhood that shape how he or she will navigate their 20s?

No, and that is what I really love about working with 20-somethings. Some people have it easier than others, of course. But if there's ever a 10-year period when you're going to transcend your childhood, it's going to be the 20-something years. So I've worked with clients from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who drum up one good letter of recommendation, and then they head off to a great school or a great job.

I've worked with clients with the saddest family histories, who grew up chanting: you can't pick your family but you can pick your friends. And then in their 20s, they transform their lives by picking and creating good families for themselves. On the flip side, I've seen 20-somethings who've had every advantage, but who blow it and fall very far from where they grew up. So the 20s are really an inflection point when life is up for grabs.

You have a private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. And you have a lot of 20-something clients, patients, I wonder what are they telling you behind closed doors. What is today's average 20-something concerned about? What's keeping them up at night?


JAY: Facebook.

MARTIN: Facebook.


JAY: You know, 20-somethings are worried. They're anxious. They're worried about whether life is going to work out for them. Whether it's going to work out as well as they thought it would or they hoped it would when they were kids, whether it's going to work out as well as it's working out for the next person. But the thing to do about that is to realize that my 20s are really the time to make my own certainty, and to make sure that, yes, my life is going to work out because I'm starting to put the pieces together in an intentional way.

MARTIN: So, you know, when you're giving advice to 20-somethings who are feeling kind of stuck, is it just about being able to look to the future and not get bogged down in the present?

There is a lot of that. Twenty-somethings are very prone to what's called present bias. So are all humans, which is what procrastination is about, and oil consumption and overspending. It's when we think about the now and we don't think about the later. I think thinking about later is very scary for 20-somethings, because they don't have a lot of experience doing that.

So, a lot of what I do with clients is not give them advice as much as ask very pointed questions about what is it that you want? Where would you like to be in five or 10 years? Do you want to get married? Do you want to have kids? What do you want your job to be? What do you want your life to look like?

These are questions that no one asks 20-somethings because they know it scares them. But deep down, 20-somethings want people to ask them these questions because they know they need to figure it out.

OK. We'll leave it there. Meg Jay is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia. Her new book is called "The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter - And How to Make the Most of Them Now." She joined us from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Meg, thanks for speaking with us.

JAY: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

MARTIN: And all the free advice.

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