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Understanding Why the Twenties are a Defining Decade

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In my previous article, we discussed what happens when a twentysomething hits a quarter-life crisis. But what’s holding us back from engaging with twentysomethings about a quarter-life crisis? Although I’m not an expert in twentysomething psychology, I often wonder why this is the case. And I believe that there are two significant reasons why. First, the twentysomething years really matter. Second, they matter to everyone. Today, we will look at the first of those two reasons.

Your Twenties Matter

It really is that simple: having this conversation with twentysomethings has the potential to make a positive impact on everyone you meet. If that sounds like too grandiose of a claim, be assured this is not just my opinion. Here are some numbers for you that clinical psychologist Meg Jay shares in her Ted Talk:

  • Eighty percent of your most defining moments happen by the age of thirty-five.
  • The first decade of your career has an “exponential impact” on how much money you will earn in your lifetime.
  • More than half of Americans are in a relationship with their future partner or spouse by the age of thirty.
  • The human brain completes its final growth spurt in your mid-twenties, after which, changing your habits and personality is significantly more difficult. 
  • Female fertility peaks around the age of twenty-eight, and the medical options for boosting fertility later in your thirties and even forties are expensive and physically challenging.

There is no doubt about it: your twenties contain so many key moments and decisions that will impact you for the rest of your life. The last thing you should do is waste them unknowingly. Here are a few more, less data-driven items that I would add to the list purely from observation:

  • Your friends in your twenties will determine your community and support structure.
  • Where you live in your twenties will determine your lifestyle.
  • Who you date in your twenties will contribute to if, when, and whom you’ll marry.
  • How you and your partner make decisions about intimacy and children in your twenties will determine what form your family will take.
  • What jobs you have in your twenties will open and close doors for your future career.
  • What financial decisions you make in your twenties will secure or threaten your future.

I’m guessing you are aware of all of that, but perhaps more importantly:

  • How your character develops in your twenties will determine if you have peace of mind in your golden years.
  • How you view success in your twenties will lead to true happiness, or not.
  • Whether you are a good person in your twenties will solidify your reputation for the rest of your life.
  • If you take care of your soul in your twenties will determine if you have the capacity to care for others well.

Practical Advice and Character Development

Yes, we want twentysomethings to make good, practical life decisions and find success in their careers, social standings, and finances, but if that’s all we focus on when we talk to them, then we are truly doing them a disservice. We need so much more to truly make life beautiful. And yet, during the time of their lives where they can set themselves on a good course, most of the advice we give to young adults is only about the practical.

At least just as much of our focus ought to be on what journalist David Brooks calls the “eulogy virtues” as is on the “résumé virtues” when we talk to twentysomethings about how to live their lives well. That is why we need to help young adults deal with both. We need to discuss practical questions about education and career, as well as questions of one’s character, and explain how success in both areas are not necessarily at odds with each other.

Tackling these together is important because if you spend your twenties checking boxes off of a to-do list—graduate from college, get a job, find a spouse, buy a house—then you may miss the opportunities to check on the condition of your soul. The hard part is that these moments are not always obvious, in fact, they usually are only seen in hindsight.

Make The Most of Your Twenties

Meg Jay said in her book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now, “To a great extent, our lives are decided by far-reaching twentysomething moments we may not realize are happening at all.”

While nothing we’ve discussed so far about the importance of your twenties should be breaking news, it actually goes against the predominant narrative about this decade. Jay calls it the “thirty-is-the-new-twenty culture” which tells young adults that their twenties don’t really matter, that it is an extension of your teen years. The twenties have been labeled an “extended adolescence” or “emerging adulthood.”

While those labels may accurately describe what is happening to young adults in their twenties, we should not accept it as a prescription of what a person’s life ought to look like in what is, as the title of Jay’s book says, their defining decade.

In my next article in this series, we’ll look at the second reason mentioned above— the twentysomething years matter to everyone.

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