The Defining Decade - Why your twenties matter

Tired of lying in sunshine, staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find, ten years has got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
—Pink Floyd, Time

Take control before thirty

Life does not end at thirty but it does have a categorically different feel. A spotty résumé that used to reflect twenty-something freedom suddenly seems suspect and embarrassing. In all areas of development there is a critical period. The twenties are that critical period of adulthood.

A person’s identity is not to be found in behavior… but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going. —Anthony Giddens, sociologist

The twenties are the most uncertain and some of the most difficult years of life. An adult life is not built out of eating, praying and loving but out of person, place and thing. Achieving these roots provides stability.

Almost invariably, growth and development has what’s called a critical period. There’s a particular period of maturation in which, with external stimulation of the appropriate kind, the capacity will pretty suddenly develop and mature. Before that and later than that, it’s either harder or impossible.
—Noam Chomsky, linguist

80% of our most significant events take place by age thirty-five. In the thirties we continue or correct for the moves made during our twentysomething years.

Building a career

Uncertainty will always be part of the taking-charge process. —Harold Geneen, businessman

An identity or career cannot be built around what you do not want. Shift from a negative identity based on shoulds to a positive identity based on goals. Goals direct us from the inside whereas shoulds are paralyzing judgments from the outside.

Not one person has asked for my GPA since I graduated… you can’t think your way through life. The only way to figure out what to do is to do something. —Helen, ex-student of Meg Jay

You cannot pull a great career out of a hat in your thirties, you have to start in your twenties. At that point a degree from a university followed by too many unexplained retail and coffee-shop gigs looks backwards.

Craft a story that makes sense to take around to job interviews. Job candidates who tell a good story about who they are and what they want leap other that do not. Amid the CV details, a protagonist needs to appear. Tell your story then change the story to control the next step.

The best is the enemy of the good. —Voltaire, writer/philosopher

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time. —Leonard Bernstein, composer

To achieve at work, focus on learning and getting results instead of gaining gratification from feeling superior. Twentysomethings who don’t feel anxious and incompetent at work are usually overconfident or underemployed. Realizing potential requires recognising how individual gifts and limitations fit with the world around us.

The power of weak-ties

The urban tribe is overrated. Twenty-somethings limit themselves if they only socialise with their strong-ties (like-minded peers). Mark Granovetter explains in The Strength of Weak Ties that while our restricted speech enables us to communicate economically with strong-ties, using it hinders our ability to communicate with people further afield. With weak ties we have to make our case more fully.

He that hath once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged. —Old maxim via Benjamin Franklin, now the Benjamin Franklin Effect

True interconnectedness rests not on texting best friends at midnight but reaching out to people that make a difference in our lives even though they don’t have to. Ask your weak-ties for letters of recommendation, suggestions or introductions, or well-planned informational interviews.

Picking the right partner

Other things may change us, but we start and end with family. —Anthony Brandt, writer

85% of Americans marry by the age of forty. It is an inevitability for the majority of us and provides a bridge to another family (with associated support). At thirty everything that was OK at twenty-nine suddenly feels awful and, in an instant, we feel behind. The best time to work on a marriage is before having it so the choice of partner is crucial.

Consider what part you are rehearsing to play in your current relationship. Being available for booty calls is not practising for a loving lifelong relationship.

[Society] is structured to distract people from the decisions that have a huge impact on happiness in order to focus attention on the decisions that have a marginal impact on happiness. The most important decision any of us make is who we marry. Yet there are no courses on how to choose a spouse.
—David Brooks, political and cultural commentator

Compatibility comes from compatibility in the Big Five personality traits. These are 50% inherited. People split up because things do not change, because of their inherent differences and the presence of neuroticism in the relationship. In retrospect the differences were there all along. Online dating can provide potential partners that are pre-selected by Big Five similarity.

Living together

Teen marriages are the most unstable of all unions. After twenty-five age does not affect divorce rate, however partners who marry older not be able to grow together as they are set in their ways.

Couples who live together before marriage are less satisfied and more likely to divorce. This is called the cohabitation effect. When researches asked why cohabitate, woman say better access to love, and men say easier access to sex. Cohabitation causes incompatible partners to stay together due to lock-in — “I stayed with Carter because I couldn’t afford a new couch.”

Couples who live together before marriage after becoming engaged, who combine their lives after making a clear and public commitment, are not any more likely to have distressed or dissolved marriages than couples who do not cohabitate before marriage.

Having a family

52% of twentysomethings identified their top priority as being a good parent. Then was marriage at 30%, a high-paying career at 15%, freetime at 9% and being famous at 1%. Most twentysomethings want to have happy families.

Five years of partying or hanging out in coffee shops is traded for five more years with sons and daughters. Twentysomethings who live beyond time usually are not happy.

The management of fertility is one of the most important functions of adulthood. —Germaine Greer, feminist theorist

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut whereby we decide how likely something is based on how easy it is to bring an example to mind. You may know of someone who became pregnant at 42 but they had per-cycle odds of 2%. Woman at thirty are half as fertile as their twentysomething selves.

How our minds change

We are born not all at once, but by bits —Mary Antin, writer

Identity capital is our collection of personal assets, formed from investments we make in ourselves that we assemble over time.

The more you use your brain, the more brain you will have to use. —George A. Dorsey, anthropologist

The frontal lobe is where we learn to tolerate shades of gray instead of searching for black-and-white solutions. It fully matures between the ages of twenty and thirty. During these years, personalities change more than at any other time and there is the most opportunity to become the people we aspire to be.

When we try to do something new, we don’t know what we’re doing. That’s the biggest challenge. —Jeffrey Kalmikoff, designer

Pruning is used by the brain to refine its neural network, discarding neglected neurons to increase efficiency in used functions. It occurs once in childhood and repeats again in a second critical period starting in adolescence and ending in the twentysomething years. More vivid memories come from early adulthood than any other developmental stage.

Handling criticism

Blown about by every wind of criticism. —Samuel Johnson, writer

When twentysomethings have their competence criticized they become anxious and angry. They are tempted to march in and take action. They generate negeative feelings toward others and obsess about the why.

The way older adults are typically wiser than young adults is knowing what to overlook. With age comes a positivity effect: we become more interested in positive information and our brains react less strongly to negative information.

See also