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Making The Most Of Your Twenties: Meg Jay Answers Your Questions

James Duncan Davidson

Psychologist Meg Jay has a message for 20-somethings: marriage, work and kids often happen later, but you can start planning now. In her book, The Defining Decade, Jay argues that our twenties are a developmental sweet spot that comes only once. She also says the cliche "30 is the new 20" trivializes this transformative period. Jay calls on 20-somethings to embrace adulthood in what for many is the defining decade of their lives.

Meg Jay was featured on the TED Radio Hour episode: The Next Greatest Generation?

I feel I'm not where I should be compared to other 20-year-olds. In terms of prioritizing, where is a good place to start?

You're struggling with the old compare and despair, or making what are called "social comparisons." Social comparisons tend to make people feel bad because, usually, we make "upward social comparisons"; we see how our lives stack up against those who seem to have it all.

In grade school, it might have been reassuring to look around and see everyone moving lockstep together — advancing one grade at a time, starting to drive at the same time, going to college at the same time — but around age 20, people's lives start being less comparable. We begin to move in different directions and at different paces and that is what individuality is all about. It does not make sense to compare your path with all other 20-year-olds.

That said, I do think there is something to be learned from the social comparisons we notice ourselves making. Are you envying something you would like to have for yourself, and does this say something about where you should start? Can you think less about what others are doing and think more about your vision for yourself? Identify two things you would like to have accomplished in one year or in two years, and compare your progress to your own goals.

There is no formula but, developmentally speaking, almost all 20-year-olds want to be engaged with work or school that they find meaningful and in which they excel — so that's almost always a good place to start. Most also want to feel wanted; they want friends and/or lovers who value them and, this alone, can help you feel less off-track because you'll have the support of people who like who you are so far.

Personal financial planning seems to be lost in the planning stages for many millennials I know. Is this just a part of delaying adulthood? And how should 20-somethings address this? How should they start engaging with things like credit reports, retirement, IRAs, and other financial lingo that many are unfamiliar with?

This is a fantastic question and one that more 20-somethings — and 30-somethings and 40-somethings — ought to consider. Not surprisingly, I think it is unwise to kick the financial can down the road but my main reason for saying that may surprise you.

Here is the reason you usually hear, and it is absolutely worth understanding: small, early investments grow exponentially. Think of the tortoise and the hare. Saving $500 a month starting at age 25 would give you a million dollars at age 65 because of the wonder of compound interest. If you started saving at age 35, you'd need to set aside $1000 a month to get that million. If you start at age 45, you'd need to set aside more than $2000 a month for that million, and so on--not to mention that a million dollars will not be enough to retire on, certainly by the time you retire.

But I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, you're broke now (which I was in my twenties so I get it) and I'll be flush with cash later when I make it big (which maybe you will but maybe you won't) so this is something that is just going to have to wait.

Here is where we get to my main reason for encouraging 20-somethings to engage with their financial futures: brain development. The habits you instill in yourself while your brain is wiring up in your twenties will be with you for a lifetime. Now is absolutely the time to find out about your credit rating and to find out how to monitor that on a monthly/yearly basis.

Now is absolutely the time to practice living within a budget. Now is absolutely the time to eliminate credit card debt so that you can learn to live within your means (educational debt is a different story). Now is absolutely the time to set up automatic monthly transfers from checking to savings, even if it is just $10, so that you can set the norm that not all of your money is for spending.

Two concrete suggestions for engaging with experts on this topic: Check out where you can start engaging with the concepts and the lingo and take action. For budgeting, I like Elizabeth Warren's book, All Your Worth. Everyone should know the 50/20/30 rule of budgeting.

Last but not least, facing up to your finances is empowering. Don't let money feel like a monster under your bed you are scared to peek at.

I come from a traditional Italian family. They've all done great things, but have gone down the same path: career, marriage, kids, white picket fence. That doesn't seem enough for me. I'm not sure the traditional life is what I want. I want to actually do something that makes a difference. Right now I'm taking steps toward a start-up, but I still aim to please my parents with a steady 9-5 job. Is it normal for me to be terrified of normalcy right now?

Of course it is normal to be afraid of normalcy! (Wait a minute. See, everyone wants to be at least a little bit normal....)

In my book, The Defining Decade, I talk about a woman who, like you, wants her life to be different. This is not a surprise because we live in a culture that prizes individuality, thinking differently and customization. The chapter where I tell this woman's story is called "The Customized Life" and, in it, we talk about using her customized bike as a metaphor for the life she wants. She wants her life to be different and original and something of her own making, not some brand-name, store-bought, mass-produced bore. I get that. I respect that.

In our conversations about how to achieve that, building intentionally bit-by-bit, one piece at a time, one job or one relationship at a time, we also make note of the fact that in this process she does not reinvent the wheel. Her very cool, very fitting customized bike has some standard parts, like wheels and a seat and handlebars. So don't be afraid of the fact that along the way you may need to make moves in your twenties or take jobs in your twenties that may not feel incredibly original or fantastic, but they may be just one part of a life that will ultimately be original and fantastic.

And, whatever you build for yourself should please you, not your parents. What makes parents happy is seeing their children happy.

I'm 32, female, single, no kids, with a great job. I have no complaints but society says that my personal resume should look different. Should it? How much do we need companionship and offspring?

I think a better question than "How much do we need companionship and offspring?" is "How much do I need companionship and offspring?" It sounds like you already answered that one for yourself, and that is where the best answers come from.

You call on 20-somethings to take charge of their lives and reclaim their adulthood. But what if I didn't do that? How should 30-somethings reclaim adulthood?

Fortunately, all of the same advice still applies. Listen to my TED talk, read The Defining Decade and don't think I'm not talking to you. Maybe your defining decade will be 30 to 40. Time may be a bit more of the essence but that can be good. Often our 30s are when we really feel the urgency to go out and get the lives we want. If what you're really asking is whether it is too late for you, then the answer is absolutely not. I wrote a book and gave a talk for 20-somethings because those are the years when we start grappling with questions about work and love and I wanted people to have good information as soon as possible. And let's face it, if I wrote a book or gave a talk titled "Something to Think About Sometime Between 20 and 40", then no one would tune in until 39. That's human nature...

We — 20-somethings — go from internships to internships trying desperately to land full-time jobs in the careers that we want, but it seems like more of us are in temporary jobs today than ever before. How should we plan and create the life we want when so much about our lives is temporary?

You are asking about the flip-side of "the customized life" that I talked about above. It is absolutely true that while most 20-somethings are relieved and excited about the fact that their lives probably won't consist of choosing a job at 21, sitting at the same desk for forty or more years, and then retiring with a pension and a gold watch, most also feel an overwhelming amount of uncertainty about their futures.

You can still plan and create the life you want but now that planning and creation is up to you. It is the new normal that adults will have several jobs in their lifetime, and sometimes several jobs at once. Rather than seeing this as unstable, remember that this also allows you to be creative and agentic. There's no risk of you stepping into the wrong job at 21 and being stuck there until 65. Go one job at a time and be sure there is value in each job you take so you'll have more and more identity capital to take on the road.

I have liked every job I have ever had OR I have liked where it was taking me. Now I am self-employed and work in several different capacities — I see patients, I write books, I consult, I give talks — according to my own schedule. I don't work for a big company with a retirement plan so I have to be in charge of my own financial future. The projects or jobs may be temporary but my expertise — my identity capital — is not.

If it makes you feel any better, life has always been temporary and uncertain, we are just more aware of it now. That can cause us to make the most of the opportunities and the time we do have.

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