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The Defining Decade

Why Your 20s Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now

By Meg Jay
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The Defining Decade: Why Your 20s Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay

Drawing on a wealth of personal stories and fascinating facts, The Defining Decade (2012) argues that, contrary to popular belief, 30 is not the new 20. Author Meg Jay uses her vast experience as a professional psychologist to advise twentysomethings on such issues as choosing a partner, starting a family, picking a career, and generally making the most of one’s 20s. Jay also argues that the years between 20 and 30 are the time to establish serious goals and, because the adult brain is at its most pliable then, to begin to take steps toward reaching them.

Key idea 1 of 11

The jobs we have in our twentysomething years help us to earn personal assets and individual resources.

Even if you’ve been grinding away since you left school or college, it’s unlikely you’ll have the job of your dreams by the time you’re in your 20s.

Given that situation, imagine you were faced with the choice of, say, working in a coffee shop or taking a more unusual job, like translating comic books. Which would you choose?

If you chose the comic-book translator job, you’re on the right track. Experience in unusual jobs constitutes our identity capital – our collection of personal assets – and this matters a great deal to prospective employers.

Of course, identity capital does include such conventional things as college degrees, jobs, test scores and so on. But it also includes more personal things, like the way we speak and our problem-solving abilities. We can only expand this identity capital by exposing ourselves to new experiences and opportunities.

Also, an unusual job – like comic-book translator or canoe instructor for troubled teens – often opens doors to better jobs, as employers today are more interested in your unique experience than your formal qualifications.

So, when trying to decide which short-term job to take, choose the one that appears to offer the greatest identity capital.

However, you have to also consider that a long stretch of underemployment – say, working as a dog walker when you’ve got a PhD – can lead to depression. Moreover, future prospective employers might view this long period as one of inactivity.

In fact, as one study showed, twentysomethings who were underemployed for as little as nine months tended to be more depressed and less motivated than even their unemployed peers. In other words, accepting underemployment can result in you abandoning your goals and feeling unworthy of better employment.

But, from an employer’s perspective, a stretch of unemployment is no better than one of underemployment, because they – like many people – tend to associate being jobless with heavy drinking and depression.

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