Defining the generation in the defining decade

The Defining Decade

After seeing several bloggers post about “The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter–and how to make the most of them now” by Meg Jay, I finally broke down and ordered the book off of Amazon.

Meg Jay is a clinical psychologist who specializes in adult development, so she definitely knows what she’s talking about. In her book she gives advice on jobs, relationships and how 20-somethings’ minds and bodies develop as they age. She ties in advice with anecdotes from previous 20-something clients, which makes for a quick and interesting read. This book was just delivered to me on Saturday and as of Sunday I had read over half of it. Everything just seems so relevant!

But enough promotion; let’s dig into this little morsel. The title of this book is pretty self explanatory. The years we spend in our 20s is the decade that will ultimately define who we become. It sounds daunting, but it really isn’t so bad.

Since we Millennials are currently taking on this all-powerful decade, I think it’s interesting to look at what defines our generation. After all, where we are headed depends at least somewhat on where we came from, right?

Throughout the book, Jay describes situations that factor into Gen Y’s young adult thinking process. Here are a few that stood out to me:

We are defined by the media

The media itself defines us in many ways. We are selfish, tech-savvy, entitled, unconventional, childish, and a million other things. But by define, I don’t mean how we are described, I mean how we are sculpted.

Our 20s are made to seem like the best years of our lives. According to pop culture, this is by far the most desirable age group to be in. This is what Jay has to say about it:

Popular culture has an almost obsessive focus on the twenties such that these freebie years appear to be all that exist. Child celebrities and everyday kids spend their youth acting twenty, while mature adults and the Real Housewives dress, and are sculpted, to look twenty-nine. The young look older and the old look younger, collapsing the adult lifespan into one long twentysomething ride.

Here’s a picture to really emphasize this point:

Everyone wants to be in their 20s

There’s only one 20-something in this photo. Yup, you guessed it! Jennifer Lawrence, right, is 22. Modern Family’s Ariel winter, left, is 15 (yeah, 15!) and Sofia Vergara, center, is 40.

With so many people longing to be in their 20s, those of us who are actually in this age group are led to believe that this will be the pinnacle of our lives; this is when we peak. But if this is as good as it gets, why is it so difficult? Why aren’t we happier?

The truth is, everyone wants to be in their 20s but those of us who actually are. This seems to be the only person who actually gets it:


We are defined by our parents

Yes, our parents help to mold us as people. But I’m not referring to my parents and your parents specifically; I’m talking about the generation that parented our generation. This would be the Baby Boomers for most of us, with some early Gen Xers thrown in there.

Baby Boomers, in general, started a settled down, family lifestyle within their early 20s. A 23-year-old today might be single, underemployed and living with their parents. But a 23-year old 30 years ago was likely married, had a full-time job (or a spouse with a job) and maybe even had a kid or two.

Because of this, Jay says that adults from our parents’ generation want to prevent their own kids from settling down too soon. They want their kids (Gen Y), to enjoy their lives before starting a family:

Parents … are so intent on protecting their kids from their brand of the midlife crisis–their regret over settling down too soon–that these parents fail to see an entirely new midlife crisis is afoot. The postmillennial midlife crisis is figuring out that while we were busy making sure we didn’t miss out on anything, we were setting ourselves up to miss out on some of the most important things of all.

By important things, Jay means experiencing meaningful jobs and relationships. The foundation of our future. In addition to this new midlife crisis, Millennials also tend to have a quarter-life crisis.

Baby Boomers are described as a “coming of age” generation. They spent their adolescence in the ’60s and ’70s, after all! Their generation tends to be more liberal and forward thinking than the generation of their parents. This may be what hatched the “You can be whatever you want to be!” parenting style.

Our generation was raised with unlimited encouragement. We were the first to receive participation trophies. We were told we could aspire to anything. We were encouraged to follow our dreams.

Now, let’s not blame mom and dad. They were doing what they thought was best! Baby Boomers couldn’t have predicted that we would be starting our careers during one of the worst economic times in history. They also couldn’t have known that “You can do anything!” would actually paralyze us with choices rather than make us feel good about ourselves.

Keanu Reeves meme

Keanu Reeves brings up a good point. This is something that many 20-somethings are actually struggling with. We are afraid that if we make one decision, rather than choosing one option, we are eliminating hundreds of options. Jay talks about this in her book, but if you don’t have it check out this wonderful blog post on the same topic by Career Avoidance 101.

We are defined by our peers

The media is telling us that our 20s are the best years of our lives. Our parents are telling us that the world is our oyster, and that we should spend time being young before settling down. So now there are thousands of us out there living abroad, working as camp counselors in awesome states, and basically just living it up. And everyone gets to see this lifestyle on social media. Which makes non-adventurers feel like this:


People think they need to start living a more adventurous lifestyle because that is what all of their friends seem to be doing. Getting married or having an office job anytime within your 20s is lame according to our generation. Being single and finding ourselves though odd jobs is what’s trending.

We’re all trying to grow and reach our potentials, and many have grown to believe that settling down is settling. Here’s what Jay has to say about it:

Working toward our potential becomes what developmental theorist Karen Horney called a search for glory when, somehow, we learn more about what is ideal than about what is real. Maybe we feel the cultural press to be an engineer before we find out what exactly that entails. Or our parents tell us more about what we should be like than what we are like. Or Facebook suggests that our twenty something lives ought to look a lot better than they do. Scrambling after ideals, we become alienated from what is true about ourselves and the world.

So what’s the problem?

Now we know a little more about what affects Gen Y’s outlook on life, so what is the major issue? We want to be single in our 20s, but married by 30. We don’t want to work that desk job in our 20s, but we want to have that dream job when we’re 30. That’s the problem.

According to Jay, we want to remain kidults (an actual term for our generation) and then do all of our growing up in an instant. We want to walk over a bridge singing Hakuna Matata and magically become the adults we’ve always pictured ourselves some day being.

Hakuna Matata

Well guess what? Disney characters can’t even do this. Simba had to face a challenge even after his growing up sequence; he had to kill his uncle and save Pride Rock. Lucky for us, we don’t need to kill any family members. But if you want to be married by 30, you need to date and work on serious relationships in your 20s. If you want that dream job, you need to get experience from a desk job.

If you want to be at a certain stage in your life in 5-10 years, you need to start working toward it now. During your 20s.

What do you think? Do you agree with Meg Jay, or do you see Millennials differently?


17 thoughts on “Defining the generation in the defining decade

  1. This is a GREAT post and I cannot explain how much I agree with every word. It makes so, so much sense. And I totally think it’s true that everyone thinks the twenties are the best, most ideal time of life, except those of us who are there. Which makes me feel even more pressure to enjoy it a lot more than I currently am!

  2. Thanks for writing this! Our generation has so many expectations on what we are supposed to do in our twenties. It is too easy to get overwhelmed and lost as we travel through life. Social media does not make it any easier! I was the person in college looking at my friends’ statuses about all of their travels while I was struggling to pay bills to just “live.” It was frustrating. It took a lot of self analyzing to look at what I’m doing “right” in my life, and what goals I have for myself. Even though I know I will make more changes in the future, at least at the moment I feel content.

    • I feel the same way. I’m content, but then I see what other people are doing and think, “Should I be doing that?” And then I get restless until I take a closer look at my life and my goals and realize that I’m fine where I am for now. Constantly evaluating yourself and your aspirations can get exhausting, but it’s a good thing.

  3. hmmm…may have to get this book as well. I definitely think one of my main problems is I’ve always felt terrified and overwhelmed by all the “choices” that seem to be in front of me. I can barely bring myself to pick one because omg what if the other one was better! As the day of my college graduation grow nearer and nearer, I find myself looking forward to taking a year or two off before grad school in order to just make sense of what I’m doing.

  4. This is excellent, Lauren! You cover SO much ground in one readable post; very impressive. Dr. Jay’s book is terrific (anybody using straight-up psych in a popular book earns my praise!) and you pull the key kernels out well.

    You mention “everyone wants to be in their 20s but those of us who actually are.” You can add me to the small roster of people who wouldn’t go back! The twenties were way too confusing of a time, and I felt little to no guidance in how to find my sense of self. I honestly wouldn’t wish it on anyone. (Which is why I write my blog, I suppose, to help make the twenties a more productive and less painful process!) That said, my happiest memories to date are from my twenties. Hands down. And they’re not from big “adventures” – they are just muted little moments like taking our dog (who was our baby) out to discover a new nearby park. Now he’s passed away and our lives are too busy with a real child to drive to find new parks. Not to be depressing or anything…! 🙂 What I think I mean is that in the midst of the confusion and searching of the twenties, there’s plenty of opportunity for joys, small and big. If you can keep sight of those moments, it’s all much more manageable. Which I suppose is the story of life no matter our age.

    All in all, nice work! I eagerly shared this post on Twitter (BTW, do you have a handle?) Thanks also for the shout out; you are too kind.

    • Thanks, Rebecca! I know, I was thinking about breaking this post into multiple pieces after seeing how lengthy it was getting, but then I just decided to go for it, haha.

      You bring up an excellent point. Yes, this time is confusing, but challenging times often leave us with the best/most meaningful memories. Your memories of your dog remind me of the things my boyfriend and I do with our cat, who is also our baby right now. But yes, it’s important to just breathe and enjoy the moment, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. It’s funny how the little things seem to make the best memories. Maybe we put too much pressure on remembering those huge moments in our lives. Thanks for the reminder!

      A lot of this book actually reminded me of your blog. I think I read that you were looking into turning your blog into a book, and you definitely should! You have great insight that a lot of 20-somethings can relate to/benefit from. Just my 2 cents 🙂

      • Thank you for this comment, Lauren. I have to admit that after I read The Defining Decade I thought, “well there goes my book!” Now I’m trying to figure out how to build from what Jay has to say instead of repeating her…which isn’t simple, of course. It really means a lot to me to hear that you think I still have something worthwhile to say, even after reading Jay’s book. I can’t tell you how much I needed to hear that at this very moment in time.

  5. This is such an interesting article, and the more I think about it, I realize that I have forgotten how stressful and confusing being in your twenties can be. It would be great to be that youthful age again but I don’t think I want to relive the confusion of defining who I am. This is an excellent article, Lauren.

    • Thanks, mom! It really isn’t so bad, but yes, once I get things figured out (career-wise, at least) I don’t think I’ll want to be in this state of confusion again. At least not for a while.

  6. I like the comment about parents “They also couldn’t have known that “You can do anything!” would actually paralyze us with choices rather than make us feel good about ourselves.” and I think it goes beyond parents, which may be what you mean. I tend to think that as our society becomes more open-minded and more options are viable, it can be more confusing for us. I think that the traditional idea of settling down and moving to the suburbs could be paralyzing, but at the same time, it gave a clear path. Now that, generally speaking, we don’t all need to have kids before we are 30, that uncertainty can be overwhelming.

  7. I’m so glad you ordered the book! I hope my constant obsession with this book was part of your inspiration 😉 You capture the lessons from this book so well. I enjoy how you add some humor to the lessons. I especially love the Simba reference. Simba and I go way back… we’re so close that I’m debating on getting a tattoo of him! Great job capturing key points all twentysomethings need to know. And I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

    • Hey, Katie! Yes, it was actually your posts that made me finally buy the book 🙂 Haha, Simba was my first crush (probably because he was voiced by JTT), so I will encourage the tattoo. Would it be one like the Rafiki painting? I saw that as a tattoo once and it was pretty cool.

      Thanks! And thanks for the inspiration. You do a really good job of breaking the book down on your blog.

      • Yes! That’s exactly what it would be! But it would be in white ink and kind of small. It’s meant to be a reminder for me, but ideally I want the baby simba in white and then when UV ink is tested more then I would get the mane in UV so you can see him grow over time 🙂

        But that has nothing to do with the content of this post haha I’m glad my post helped your to buy it. That’s actually a big compliment. 🙂

  8. Pingback: Post-grad life: Welcome to the cave | Life on a Branch

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