Twentysomethings: The Defining Decade?

So I was driving home from work the other night listening to my guilty pleasure, Wisconsin Public Radio, and the topic for the evening really stunned me.  The radio host, Joy Cardin, was speaking with Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist who specializes in adult development especially twentysomethings.

Dr. Meg Jay (photo courtesy

Dr. Jay is the author of The Defining Decade:  Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now.  Dr. Jay works as an assistant clinical professor at the University of Virginia and keeps a private practice as well.  Interacting with so many college students and recent graduates, she noticed the hits and misses my generation was making time and time again.

When asked why she wrote the book, Dr. Jay said she’s trying to make an impact on the 50 million twentysomethings who are looking for guidance in their lives while still being treated like an adult.

So why are the twenties so defining? 

  • 80% of life’s most defining moments take place before the age of 35.
  • 70% of lifetime wage growth happens in the first 10 years of a career.
  • More than half of us are married or living with our longterm partners.
  • Our fertility rates peak in our twenties.
  • And our brains do their last growth spurt in our twenties.

If you had the same reaction I did, you’re probably thinking, “Sweet God, it’s all over!  I may as well dig myself a hole and drop my unwritten manuscript, my birth control pills, my skinny jeans, and my passport in it and then cover it with my aging, unaccomplished, infertile, decrepit self!” 


Fear not!  Dr. Jay says Never Give Up. 

But she does emphasize that my generation is in the midst of some crucial crossroads and the decisions we make now CAN AND DO impact the rest of our lives.

(image courtesy

She talks about “identity capital” which she defines as the collateral you build up so when you go in for an interview the person looks at your resume and says “Oh that’s interesting, tell me more about that!” We know we’re in an economic crisis right now.  The job market is not ideal.  The Veteran Generation is staying employed longer in need of more stability, and yet year after year more college graduates are flooding the market.  We’ve got all four generations competing and cohabiting the workforce.  Ages 20 – 70+.

Many of us twenty year olds opted for an alternative route.  I’m sure all of you know someone who decided to take time off, travel the world, date around, etc.  Dr. Jay’s concern with some of these routes is that for those individuals they’re having a harder time trying to get back on track whether it’s the job field or family planning.  Employers start to look at your resume and think “hmm, you really haven’t done too much” and the person that stands out is the twentysomething who jumped right in and planned their career path just like an adult, setting goals or achieving higher degrees, whatever it might be.

And in regards to family planning, she does want twentysomethings to be aware of fertility information.  Women’s fertility peaks at 28.  What she tends to hear from the twentysomethings she counsels, is so many of them spend time in cohabitation with a partner or spouse for 4-5 years before they realize that maybe that relationship should have only lasted a year.

Now, I for one, will totally say that family planning is a personal choice!  And Dr. Jay agreed.  What she wants is for us to have the facts about fertility so we are thoughtful in planning who our partners are as well as when we want to start having children because the health risks are increased the later into the 30’s you are.

You were saying something about hope?

Yes!  Our generation is also at it’s peak for adaptation.  If there is something you are unhappy about in your life, or you’re wanting to make some changes, then do it!  We have the capability to transform and to rise to the occasion.  Our habits can change as well as our personalities.

When I graduated from college, I started to have anxiety attacks.  I panicked about “what I wanted to do with the rest of my life!”  I fell in suit and took the first full time job that came my way.  I worked all the time, and barely got together with my friends.  You know what, I got really sad and really bored real fast!  It’s been an ongoing process to change.  While I’ve done well for myself career wise (Note: I work as a sales manager for commission areas of a large department store.) I also quickly learned that what made me happy was writing and travel, and if I was going to get that back in my life that meant change!

So, a year and a half ago, I started blogging!  And I met amazing writers and readers online!  And through them, got involved with some writing contests and critique groups.  Next, I saved up my money and used my vacation time to attend writing conferences and travel around the world.  I just blogged all about my recent trip to South Korea:  favorite spots, food, and hiking.

See, there is hope!  And it’s never too late!  My dear friend Marcia Richards and I started up the Life List Club several months ago, and I think I came into it with this exact idea.  That all of us can define the decade we’re living in!  If we want to, and we make changes, and we risk things and we TRY!

So what are you waiting for?!  What’s on your life list?

What do you think about Dr. Jay’s theory and your 20’s being the Defining Decade?  Are you currently in your 20’s?  Would you do differently if you could back?  What advice do you have for parents raising a 20-somthing?

Jess Witkins claims the title Perseverance Expert.  She grew up in a small Wisconsin town as the much younger youngest sibling of four, she’s witnessed the paranormal, jumped out of a plane, worked in retail, traveled to exotic locations like Italy, Ireland, and Shipshewana, Indiana, and she’s eaten bologna and lived to tell about it!  She deals with it all and writes about it!  Come along on her midwest adventures; Witkins promises to keep it honest and entertaining.  She blogs regularly at Jess Witkins’ Happiness Project.  Go ahead, SUBSCRIBE, you know you want to.

Follow on Twitter:  @jesswitkins


48 responses to “Twentysomethings: The Defining Decade?

  1. I’m 54, and I didn’t start to make good choices until about seven years ago! Though I do regret parts of my first marriage (when I was 21), I did have my son, so don’t like to regret that too strongly. I might make a few different decisions if I could go back, ONLY if that didn’t change where I am right now. Career choices – eh. Had my best job when I was in my 40’s. Now I’m writing and editing and I think that is what I was meant to do. And being a grandmother, which totally rocks. By the time a child is in their 20’s, I don’t think it’s up to the parents any more. You do the best you can for 18 years, then it’s on them. And you hope you taught them well. My only child is career Air Force, a good husband, and a great father, and I am VERY proud of that.

    • That’s an awesome outlook Karen! I’m of the same mindset as you in that even if I make a mess of something, I learn from it and it shapes who I am today, so there isn’t much I would take back.

      I also love your point about treating your kids as adults in their 20’s because it is a wake up call to adulthood when graduation is over and you’ve got “real life” ahead of you. It’s scary, exciting, and you do need a plan, at least for some short term goals to get started. Sounds like your son did exactly that! You should be proud. 🙂

  2. Wow. I can certainly see, in my own life, and now in the lives of my adult children, that those life-defining moments do happen most in that decade. Is it because we settle, panic, fall into a comfortable rut of ‘good enough’?


    There is a biological clock on fertility for women, which in turn puts a clock on finding a mate, and finding a career because if your gonna procreate you’ll need to feed those little buggers.

    Bravo to those of us who carry the adventure torch into the thirties and beyond. Those who lose a spouse, survive the devastation, raise their family and find the courage to start over. Bravo to those who change careers or start a business. Bravo to those who, after many years of believing a dream was only wishful thinking, made that dream a reality, whether it be skydiving, braving rapids, or publishing a book.


    I’m sharing this post, and Dr Jay, with my adult children. Thanks Jess.

    • LOL. I laugh because at the end of her interview, Joy asked Dr. Jay what advice she had for parents raising 20-somethings and she said, “Oh, just nonchalantly leave a copy of my book in their mailbox.” 😀

      Love your kudos to those in their 30s, Sherry! It’s never too late to redefine your life. I love that Dr. Jay has given scope to the planning piece though. What we do and don’t settle for in life does shape us immensely.

      • 30s? Was I that specific? I’m in my forties, embarking on a new career, with the fifties on the near horizon. Don’t know about you, Jess, but I’ve no intention of slowing down until I at least double the decades I have under my belt!

  3. No, no, no. I wasn’t who I “AM” yet in my 20s. True, I married (but the wrong guy), had both my children by 29 (the RIGHT kids!), had my graduate degree by then, but I still was not formed into who I am until my mid-30s. I don’t think any of us are in this day and age (as opposed to century ago, when women had children in their teens). And please,I still have ‘defining moments’ at 60 (oh god, yes, that’s what I am now), and I still change routine, grab at joy, push against unhappiness, and find new glory in life every day. As you and your readers will – every day of your lives!!!!

    • Thanks for sharing your journey with us Roughwriting1! I think every decade should be defining. And I’ll bet the 20’s did help you make decisions in your 30’s. Anytime a person is parenting it pushes them to grow more themselves, remember to play, and find joy where it comes.

      Happy to hear you’re still living it up large in your 60’s! I hope I am one day too!

  4. At age 62, I have a hard time believing all those statistics, though for some, I’m sure it’s true, and if this book encourages twentysomethings to make the most of that decade in their life, then it’s a great thing.

    When I get together with my college classmates now (and I know I’m prejudiced), I think we’re all more beautiful (at least in spirit, but even physically), more interesting, and more engaged in living than we ever were in our twenties.

    This is a great conversation, though. For me, EVERY age has been wonderful, and I hope the take-away is to embrace every moment in a wholehearted way.

    • I wish I could’ve figured out how to post the whole podcast on here cause I loved listening to the callers from every age group share their stories. Glad to hear that so many of you are loving life large in your 60’s! Maybe it’s the new twenties?!

  5. I’m 43, and while my career isn’t going to be much envied, I’m happy with the path I took in my 20s–grad school and the Peace Corps and marriage. But I know I’d have a better career if I’d been more confident and could have figured out how to have a career. Now I hope to be a published author–and worry that since the world focuses on the young, I’m as successful as I’m ever going to be.

    • First, have you read Kristen Lamb’s blog?

      Start there and you’ll be introduced to so many amazing up and coming and successful writers of every decade! Good for you for still working towards your dream and not settling. I think it’s awesome you did the peace corp! I considered it a lot in college, as well as americorp and an internship in New York working on papers about Margaret Sanger. If it involved activism, I was probably researching it. Instead, I went into sales and became the Cause Marketing Director for the store. LOL. All of us land in different places, but it’s what we do when we get back up that matters!

      So nice to meet you Mapelba! (Is your name a Wicked reference? I just read that book last year.)

      • Thank you for the link! I will take a look.

        It’s funny because I never considered the Peace Corps until my grad school advisor suggested it. Peace Corps was one of the best/most difficult experiences of my life! And you know, it is never too late to join.

        Margaret Sanger! That sounds cool.

        Also, while I love Wicked and all things Oz, my name is really a combination of my names: MArtaPELrineBAcon. That it is close to Elphaba was just luck. If you liked Wicked, by the way, you should read the sequels.

        Nice to meet you too. 🙂

  6. Fascinating post, Jess! I just turned 25 a couple of months ago, so this is timely for me. If I compare myself now with the person I was when I entered grad school at 21, I can say that I’m far less naive, that my emotional maturity has definitely increased, and that I’ve learned a lot about what it means to trust my instincts and follow my gut. In the last four years, I’ve made friends and lost toxic ones, fell in love and had my heart broken, struggled over my choice to pursue a PhD and ultimately accepted it, and best of all, realized that to be a full and healthy human being, I needed to pursue my writing passions. The likelihood of getting married and having kids before I’m 30 is actually really slim, given my profession (academia), and so I want my 20s to be the decade when I can focus on my own personal development.

    With that said, I am having an amazing time watching my mom, who is in her early 50s, blossom into a new stage of vitality and self-discovery now that she’s an empty-nester and retired. I am looking forward to all of the changes, growth, and new adventures that the twists and turns of the life path will be.

    • Wow, Lena! you are exactly what every parent hopes their children to be…feeling in control, having a path to follow and already feeling successful. You’ve made great choices for yourself and have the world by the tail right now! Good for you!

    • I couldn’t agree more with Marcia! That’s awesome how you’ve connected with your mom as you both continue learning. I wish my mom was doing the same, and in smaller ways she does at times.

      For 25, you do present yourself very professionally and motivated. I love hearing about all your links and posts on FB! Keep up the hard work!

  7. I’m in my 40s. I made a lot of big decisions in my 20s, some I wish I hadn’t, but then again they all led me to where I am now. I definitely think I did not have all the wisdom I needed to be making those decisions though.
    Great topic!

    • What do you wish you’d known then? I wish I’d taken some personal finance classes. LOL. Trying to catch up a bit now. 5 more months and my student loans are PAID OFF! Holla!!!

  8. Wow, I think you just inspired a blog post, Jess! I do think we, especially women, have to consider the things we really want in life as soon as possible. I think a lot of folk assume that making a career is the hard part and the option to have babies will always be there. Truth is that having babies doesn’t come easy for everybody. Sure, there are lots of ways that medical science can help (though not everybody wants to avail themselves of all that high tech fertility can offer) and adoption/fostering are beautiful options…but we shouldn’t ignore the desire to be a mother. It used to be that women were pressured to get married right away and start having babies. Now, it feels very much the opposite. A woman who would rather have children before another career are often made to feel inferior. And the idea that we can have it all, all the time, is a myth. Sometimes we do have to make choices…at least in the order in which we do things.

    Not saying that one choice is better or worse than the other, by the way…just that we need to realistically look at our life goals.

    • Well I’m not surprised you thought of something more to write, Sonia! Sometimes I think we share a brain. Must be all that zombie tv we watch. Mmm braaaaains! 🙂

      But your points are very true and I hadn’t thought about my fertility being an issue until this show. I know there are risks, but my mom had me when she was 39. And my sister was 32 when she had her first child. Now that she wants a second, the health risks are much higher. And adoption as you say is a beautiful choice, but not everyone has the finances to adopt or fits all the credentials. My sister and brother in law can’t because he’s already over the age limit! Isn’t that bizarre? All I can do now is plan the best I can and hope my choices will be successful down the line or at least learning moments.

  9. Pingback: Do Your 20s Define Your Life? « Sonia G Medeiros

  10. For myself, thank goodness I didn’t make too many life-changing decisions in my early 20s. Mid-to-late 20s, however, I did change location, meet my hubby, and start having kids. Now in my 40s, I have a much better perspective. I’ve taken to thinking of my life as seasons. I was in the school season for years (got my bachelor’s and master’s), the newlywed season, the parenting season, and now the writing season. Those all bleed together, but for instance, when my kids were little, I don’t think I could have devoted much time to writing. Now that they are older, I can.

    I have a 40 After 40 list — a list of forty things I want to do that I drafted after I turned forty years old. It’s my reminder to keep dreaming, keep living, and keep going. I still have a lot of life left, and I’m going to make the most of every season.

    Great post!

  11. This is a great post and great comments coming through too.
    I’m in my 50’s and if I could talk to my 20something self I’d remind her that one of her expectations was to have children. Now single with no children I must do a 50 after 50 list!
    I have a career I didn’t expect, drafted my first novel 2 years ago and have wonderful friends, many of whom are in their 30’s. Life’s great, just different to what I expected.

    • You know, some of the stories/memoirs that are my favorite are about people who started with one dream and along the way it morphed into a totally different dream that ended up being even better.

  12. How dreadful to be turning 30 I think the defining moments of one life are behind you! Every decade has its joys and opportunities.

    By the time I was 20 I was at university, and had had my heart broken.
    By 30 I was married with small children.
    By 40 I was divorced, remarried, acquired 2 stepchildren and a one-legged mother-in-law, and was writing a book about therapeutic work with children.
    By 50 my parents had died; and I was widowed. With 4 daughters to get through uni. And a PhD to finish. So I was working my socks off.
    By 60 the girls had flown, so I’d given up work to go round the world on my own. And written a book about it.
    I’m 62, still travelling, still writing, and have wonderful grandchildren. If anyone had told me, in my 20s, that all this would happen, I’d not have believed them.

    • Wow. What a story. Thank you for sharing it with us!

      I’ll bet your resilience and hard work in life is an inspiration to your family. Where are you traveling to now?

      • I’m just back from Nepal. I trekked in the Himalayas, went to the birthplace of Buddha, and had a closer encounter with a tiger than was strictly necessary – and so walking in the jungle is something I will now leave to 20 year-olds!

  13. Interesting! I can see the truths in this, as a 28 year-old. I feel fortunate to have the opportunities to make decisions and fulfill my (our) own goals and dreams. While we have reached some bumps in the road, all have been beyond our control and have forced us to look outside of what we thought we wanted, and where we can go from here. In the end, it has made us a much stronger unit. Bring on the 30s!

  14. Excellent piece Jess! Sorry I missed you yesterday. I didn’t have a clue when I was in college. But looking back, I would say they were the best years of my life.

  15. Pingback: See CJ West. See Jillian Dodd. See Jillian Play With CJ’s Abs. « Jess Witkins' Happiness Project

  16. At age 69, I’m about to have my first book e-published. If I could give any advice to 20-somethings, it would be to open their ears and listen to the voices of experience. I was not nearly so smart in my 20s as I thought I was, and I could have benefitted greatly from listening to parents, in-laws, aunts & uncles and other voices of experience.

    My first grandson is about to enter those 20s, and I hope he is more open to seeking wise counsel than I was. I think he is, and if so, he’ll beneft from it.

    • I wish I hadn’t been scared to take a computer class. I could use it now that I’m blogging! LOL

      Good luck to your grandson, David! If he has you in his life, he’ll learn lots!

  17. I visited yesterday but wanted to mull over the topic, so now I’m back…In my experience, 20-somethings are still somewhat unaware of the possibilities and, to use Julie’s expression, seasons of life. My mom says that you learn to love and accept every age you experience. It’s true. Though at 26 I didn’t believe it. I also didn’t imagine myself growing old or being anything but happy.
    At 59, I’m finally where I want to be–with a dream of a husband, happy grown kids, beautiful grandkids, pursuing a creative career and time to do it well. I was married at 24, had my kids at 29 and 35, so I had time to experience a fun single life and a few years with my husband before kids. As far as your 20s being a defining decade, in some ways that’s true. If you get married young, or have children with no husband, don’t go or don’t finish college, develop addictions….all those things determine certain elements of your future.
    I agree with David that it would be beneficial to young people to heed the advice of their elders…or at least consider it as an option.
    The thing to remember is that you always have the option to make any life situation the best it can be and every decade can be full of fun based on your definition of fun at each age.

    • You know, you’re so right. My grandparents have all passed years earlier and I wish I had more time to know them. To learn their stories. I know that my sense of hard work and my sense of humor came from them. I wish I had gotten to find out what their 20’s were like. If I know a little about my grandmas, I bet they kicked their heels up once in awhile. 😉

  18. Karen McFarland

    I totally identify with what David and Marcia said and according to your post, I should just start digging my grave! LOL! My life is over! NOT! Seriously, I am so glad I am not in my twenties Jess. Been there, done that. And it’s tougher than ever before on so many levels. Each age has its own struggles. Although what unites us all right now is our horrible economy. People of every age are struggling in the job market. I’ve never seen it like this ever. That said, I think that our age does not define who we are. 🙂

    • I definitely think that’s the clincher fact right there. The job market is really tough right now. I have friends who are dedicated and passionate individuals with degrees, but then they apply to a place in their field and are told over 200 other people have already applied. Myself included, we’re not even getting interviews. Dr. Jay says it’s all about networking now and knowing someone in the business is how so many people are getting the interviews. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, good or bad as it is.

  19. Jessica, I LOVE this post!

    I might have to write a post based on this post because I just had a conversation with my sister (who is 27) about so many of these issues and it just brings it all back for me.

    As Marcia said, the 20’s are a time when you keep getting smacked upside the noggin over questions you didn’t even know to ask yet. Great job, Jess. 🙂

  20. I have always tried to make the best choices I could, knowing what I knew at the time. Sometimes those choices were limited by health or monetary issues, but even now I feel like those choices led me to where I am now, and I am so happy to be here. I do wish I would have started writing sooner, but that’s okay. I have to believe there are positives for starting when I did. Attitude is everything when it comes to happiness, and I think you are so right. We have to be willing to take risk and stretch ourselves to reach those goals/dreams.

    • Dito, Lara. I wish I’d taken classes in computers and finance to better prepare for the job market and personal savings. And I wish I’d never stopped writing. It was really hard to get back into it. I doubted everything I did. Sometimes, I still do, and it’s a year later. But that’s why I love the people (writers and readers!) of the Life List Club and the rest of writing community. You are my cheerleaders and sounding board!

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