Think what you do in your first decade as a professional doesn’t really matter? Here’s why you shouldn’t tell yourself that fib.

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 and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM, among others.


  1. 3 Lies You’re Telling Yourself About Your 20s | Now That's Leadership 2.0 |

    […] 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.  […]

  2. Alison Elissa Coaching

    I really enjoyed Dr. Jay’s book. Another, slightly denser read on the twenty something decade is “Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck”, by Robyn Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig. It compares and contrasts different generation’s experiences with their twenties.

    One of my favorite quotes from the book- “The fact of having to choose mates and careers and friends in the twenties, the fact that doing so is really hard, the fact that closing doors goes against our nature- all these truths have applied to young people for generations,” Robyn writes.

  3. Alternative Badassery

    I have to partially disagree with #2. I’m 26, and had a full-blown quarterlife crisis late last year–and it eventually made my life way better. Some of us don’t “basically know what [we] want.” Really, we don’t. At least not on a conscious level, which I think is key. It’s OK to do some research, evaluation, exploration…and THEN act/try things out/stop philosophizing (this is the part I agree with). I had a skewed perception of myself, and a limited view of what “career” could mean. By taking some time to learn about my personality and about the idea of challenging traditional career-related expectations, I was able to see the new direction–a much better fit for me–I needed to go.

  4. Pete Berger

    Lie #4: You are something special (as told by your loving mother).

  5. Indiayaatra

    nice post and Very impressive because We all are telling lie himself every day.

    Cheap air ticket to India

  6. jrandom421

    Lie #5 I can start saving money when I get that really good paying job

  7. bsaunders

    There’s a lot of territory between “goofing off” and spending one’s early 20s focused on retirement and a “legacy” (whatever that means)! It makes good sense to spend some time away from the influence of parents and school to discover what one’s real interests are. Even if years get wasted, it is easier to compensate for wasted years at age 23 than to reclaim oneself from an ill-chosen career, marriage, or entire way of life at age 53.

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    […] After listening, I couldn’t help asking where are the women who want to debate these issues on a personal level, over a drink? I seem to be alone in articulating my worries about children and career down the pub, with most of my female friends simply saying, “well I don’t worry about that yet”, or “it will turn out alright in the end”, or “I don’t have a relationship that would support having children yet”. Research shows that 80% of life-changing decisions are taken before the age of 35 […]

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