If you look ahead to your 20s as a student or get your measure of this decade from pop culture, the 10 years in which you launch your adult life seem like a blast. But, as any 20-something can tell you, this impression of footloose independence and exciting romantic exploration can be misleading.
The reality of the decade is, it’s often a bit of a stressful b***.
Most young people face serious career, dating and financial worries and the panic-inducing sense that the decisions you make in your 20s will weigh heavily on your future. So it’s easy to understand why 20-somethings struggling to get a precarious perch on adulthood might soothe themselves with thoughts that this is just a 10-year training wheels period that doesn’t really count.
But be warned: experts say that that thought—and several related ideas—is a lie. Make sure you’re not telling yourself these fibs:
Lie #1: These years don’t matter
If you’re telling yourself that your 20s are for self-exploration and fun and don’t really matter, you’re leading yourself astray, according to psychologist Dr. Meg Jay. She’s the author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now, and as she recently told Big Think, American 20-somethings:
…are living with a staggering, unprecedented amount of uncertainty. Many have no idea what they will be doing, where they will be living, or who they will be within two or 10 years. They don’t know when they’ll be happy or when they will be able to pay their bills. They wonder if they should be photographers or lawyers or event planners.…
Uncertainty makes people anxious and distraction is the 21st-Century opiate of the masses. So too many 20-somethings are tempted, and even encouraged, to just turn away and hope for the best.
Is reading this description—young adults who respond to sky-high uncertainty levels by telling themselves this life period isn’t really important—like looking in the mirror? Then it might be time to admit that this is the principal lie we tell ourselves about our 20s.
In reality, Dr. Jay says, “our 20s are the defining decade of adulthood. Eighty percent of life’s most defining moments take place by about age 35. Two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens during the first 10 years of a career. More than half of Americans are married or are dating or living with their future partner by age 30.”
In other words, these years DO matter.
Lie #2: Now’s the time for a career identity crisis
Several lies spring from this central one, particularly when it comes to our careers. It’s natural to be unsure about your future career goals when you’re in your 20s, but don’t let that uncertainty develop into a full–fledged career identity crisis that keeps you from starting something now.
“The biggest myth is that the 20s are a time to think about what you want to do. That doesn’t work. You basically know what you want. Just start, and get the best job you can get,” Dr. Jay told Forbes.
Will you change direction? Sure, probably many times. But getting started on something is a better way to determine what suits you than abstract pondering. It’s also important for building skills, confidence and a valuable network.
Lie #3: I just want to have fun
But what if what if the best job you can get is pretty dreary? Given that you’re probably still without many adult responsibilities, like a mortgage or dependents, it’s tempting to imagine the misery you’ll experience in that entry-level gig and decide you’d rather minimize commitments and maximize fun. Maybe later when you’re ready or you find a cooler opportunity, you’ll focus on slogging it out at the office.
Besides wasting valuable career-building time (see lie number two), this approach also often badly overestimates how much you’ll enjoy goofing off. Sure, travel can be thrilling, and everyone loves a great night out, but after a pretty short time, the satisfaction most of us get out of these things wears thin. And then where are you?
As Cracked recently explained in a post that offers wisdom sugar-coated with humor, saying that you’re just not ready to settle down is often an excuse that will bite you in the butt later. Partying is definitely fun, writes John Cheese, but eventually “you start to mature and realize that every second you spend living like that is a second you haven’t spent building your career or securing your retirement or building a legacy. And the longer you put it off, the more of a head start you give your competition for the perfect job or the perfect spouse.”
And, it turns out, you probably won’t even hate that cubicle job as much as you imagine you will (assuming you’re using it to get somewhere you want to go in life). “Some people underestimate the satisfaction of working, thinking they’ll be miserable in a cube. The 20-somethings that do work are happier than those who don’t or are underemployed,” Dr. Jay points out.
Is it possible you’re taking your 20s too lightly? Or should the decade be mostly fun?
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM, among others.