Meg Jay: Is 30 Really The New 20? Psychologist Meg Jay has a message for twenty-somethings: just because marriage, work and kids happen later, doesn't mean you can't start planning now. She tells twenty-somethings how they can reclaim adulthood in the defining decade of their lives.
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Is 30 Really The New 20?

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Is 30 Really The New 20?

Is 30 Really The New 20?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. Our show today is about 13 to 33-year-olds - Millennials, sometimes called selfish or infantile or lazy. But what if they're actually on the cusp of being the next greatest generation? A generation defined by huge, world changing events - 9/11, the Arab Spring, the election of Obama and the economic collapse - something that's forced them to be more resourceful and nimble and creative. And they may have to start getting it together a lot faster, which brings us to Meg Jay who is not a millennial, she's a psychologist.

MEG JAY: And I specialize in 20-somethings.

RAZ: So that's like a very specialized specialization.

JAY: Yes, it is.

RAZ: But nobody really cares a whole lot about 20-somethings 'cause they're just, like, bums and they're lazy. They're just leeches and parasites and they just live off the fat of their parents.

JAY: Well, and that's the problem. That's what we're hearing and it's just not true. It's an incredibly important time, developmentally.

RAZ: OK, so if you're in your 20s, you might want to listen really closely to your radio right now because, according to Meg Jay, your 20s - those years are your defining decade, the turning point in discovering a lot of things about yourself. Here's how she starts her TED Talk.


JAY: When I was in my 20s, I saw my very first psychotherapy client. I was a PhD student in clinical psychology at Berkeley. She was a 26-year-old woman named Alex. Now Alex walked into her first session wearing jeans and a big slouchy top. And she dropped onto the couch in my office and kicked off her flats and told me she was there to talk about guy problems. Now when I heard this, I was so relieved. My classmate got an arsonist for her first client. And I got a 20-something who wanted to talk about boys. This, I thought I could handle. But I didn't handle it. With the funny stories that Alex would bring to session, it was easy for me just to nod my head while we kicked the can down the road.

Thirty is the new 20, Alex would say. And as far as I could tell, she was right. Work happened later. Marriage happened later. Kids happened later. Even death happened later. Twenty-somethings, like Alex and I, had nothing but time. But before long, my supervisor pushed me to push Alex about her love life. I pushed back. I said sure, she's dating down. She's sleeping with a knucklehead. But it's not like she's going to marry the guy. And then my supervisor said, not yet, but she might marry the next one. Besides, the best time to work on Alex's marriage is before she has one. That was the moment I realized, 30 is not the new 20. Yes, people settle down later than they used to, but that didn't make Alex's 20s a development downtime. That made Alex's 20s a developmental sweet spot and we were sitting there blowing it.

RAZ: How long have we known that this period is actually really significant?

JAY: You know, I would say it's been within the last 10-15 years. And part of what my work is about is helping 20-somethings understand - this is really the critical period of adult development, much in the same way that the first 5 years are the critical period of childhood development.


JAY: We know that 80 percent of life's most defining moments take place by age 35.

That's when more than half of Americans will marry their partner or find their partner.


JAY: We know that the first 10 years of a career has an exponential impact on how much money you're going to earn. We know that the brain caps off its second and last growth spurt in your 20s as it rewires itself for adulthood, which means that whatever it is you want to change about yourself, now is the time to change it.

RAZ: So in your 20s, that happens, your brain is actually rewiring?

JAY: Yes, it's rewiring itself for the demands of adult life.

RAZ: So this is all happening in your frontal lobe.

JAY: That's the part that gets beyond black and white thinking and is able to tolerate gray areas.

RAZ: The part of the brain that can imagine the future.

JAY: That balances emotion with reason.

RAZ: And then, in your late teens...

JAY: ...The brain is basically saying I'm here to learn about adulthood. Show me what I need to know. We sprout thousands and thousands of new neurons. And neurons that fire together, wire together. And that process goes on from the teens through the 20s. If you can take that changing brain and put it in an enriching environment, so allow that 20-something to invest in adult roles in the workplace or in adult like-relationships, it feeds back into the brain.


JAY: Leonard Bernstein said that to achieve great things you need a plan and not quite enough time. Isn't that true? So what do you think happens when you pat a 20-something on the head and you say, you have 10 extra years to start your life? Nothing happens. You have robbed that person of his urgency and ambition, and absolutely nothing happens. When a lot has been pushed to your 30s, there is enormous 30-something pressure to jumpstart a career, pick a city, partner up and have two or three kids in a much shorter period of time.

RAZ: OK, so you're hearing this and you're thinking, what do I do? Well, here's a story of a patient Meg worked with who she calls Emma. How did you first meet her?

JAY: How did I meet her? Well, she came into my office and she said she was having an identity crisis.


JAY: She said she thought she might like to work in art or entertainment, but she hadn't decided yet. So she'd spent the last few years waiting tables instead.

She was living with a boyfriend, not someone who she was particularly attached to or in love with, but because it was cheaper. And she told me that this young man was more interested in showing his temper...


JAY: ...More than his ambition. And as hard as her 20s were, her early life had been even harder. She often cried in our sessions, but then would collect herself by saying you can't pick your family, but you can pick your friends.

She came in one day and she hung her head in her lap and she just sobbed.


JAY: She'd just bought a new address book and she'd spent the morning filling in her many contacts. But then she'd been left staring at that empty blank that comes after the words "In case of emergency please call." Now in that moment, it took everything I had not to say, I will. But what Emma needed wasn't some therapist who really, really cared. Emma needed a better life and I knew this was her chance. First, I told Emma to forget about having an identity crisis and get some identity capital. Do something that adds value to who you are. So now is the time for that cross-country job, that internship, that start-up you want to try. I'm not discounting 20-something exploration here, but I am discounting exploration that's not supposed to count.

Second, 20-somethings who huddle together with like-minded peers limit who they know, what they know, how they think, how they speak and where they work. That new piece of capital, that new person to date almost always comes from outside the inner circle. New things come from what are called our weak ties, our friends, of friends, of friends. Last but not least, Emma believed that you can't pick your family, but you can pick your friends. I told Emma the time to start picking your family is now. The best time to work on your marriage is before you have one and that means being as intentional with love as you are with work. So what happened to Emma? Well, we went through that address book and she found an old roommate's cousin who worked at an art museum in another state. That weak tie helped her get a job there. That job offer gave her the reason to leave that live-in boyfriend. Now five years later, she's a special events planner for museums. She's married to a man she mindfully chose. She loves her new career. She loves her new family and she sent me a card that said, now the emergency contact blanks don't seem big enough.

So what's wonderful about that critical period in your 20s is that you're poised for transformation and change. It's an incredibly easy time to change yourself and especially for 20-somethings who aren't happy with how their lives have gone, this is really life's greatest do-over.

RAZ: Psychologist Meg Jay. She wrote a book called "The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter." Her full TED Talk is worth checking out and if you're in your 20s, my apologies in advance for every relative who will now e-mail you the link to this talk. Anyway, as Meg Jay, I think, sort of suggests, being your 20s can kind of suck because up to that point, your whole life has been mapped out - high school, then maybe college and then you're 22 or 23 and you're out. The safety net's gone and the world is like, go figure it out.

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