16 Jun 2021

Why 30 will never be the new 20

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:08 pm on 16 June 2021

Does it really matter how you spend your 20s? 

If you treat the decade as "developmental downtime" you miss an opportunity to get a head start at life, argues Dr Meg Jay, author of the groundbreaking book The Defining Decade.

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Photo: Pexels / Cottonbro

The years between 20 and 30 can be a "developmental sweet spot" in which to explore jobs, relationships, locations and yourself, she tells Jesse Mulligan.

"Our brain is actually creating our adult self in our early 20s and beyond … this is the best chance that probably you'll ever have to change who you are and how you think and how you operate."

Young people who use their 20s as a time to start exploring who they are and what they want put themselves at an advantage, Dr Jay says.

"Our 20s are an amazing time to get in front of all of these big choices and changes that are around the corner. What we're going to do for work, where we're going to live, how or whether we're going to partner, whether we're going to have kids in the picture."

Dr Meg Jay

Dr Meg Jay Photo: Supplied

Build 'identity capital' one experience at a time

We all experience 'present bias' - the tendency to be more interested and compelled by the now rather than the later - but today's young people are especially prone to it, Dr Jay says.

It's a real cognitive shift to look ahead in terms of years and decades when you've spent years thinking of time in "semester-size chunks", she says.

One way to get a sense of forging your own path is to view each new course of study or job experience as a piece of 'identity capital' you are accumulating in order to eventually arrive at an authentic identity, she says.

"What you learn getting that first [piece of identity capital] will teach you - what's the next one that I think I need or think I want?"

Explore the 'strength of weak ties'

Most 20-somethings hang out exclusively with others who are like themselves but it's actually the people you don't feel so close to who can be most transformative in your life, Dr Jay says.

It is usually via the people we've met along the way and only have 'weak ties' to that we really get our eyes opened to new possibilities.

"These are the people who are going to be a source of new information about jobs or apartments or new people to date or just new ways of thinking that might be useful to us."