Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20 (2)
Okay, now that sounds a little flip, but make no mistake, the stakes are very high.
When a lot has been pushed to your 30s, there is enormous thirtysomething pressure to jump-start a career, pick a city, partner up, and have two or three kids in a much shorter period of time. Many of these things are incompatible, and as research is just starting to show, simply harder and more stressful to do all at once in our 30s. The post-millennial midlife crisis isn't buying a red sports car.
It's realizing you can't have that career you now want. It's realizing you can't have that child you now want, or you can't give your child a sibling. Too many thirtysomethings and fortysomethings look at themselves, and at me, sitting across the room, and say about their 20s, "What was I doing? What was I thinking?" I want to change what twentysomethings are doing and thinking. Here's a story about how that can go.
It's a story about a woman named Emma. At 25, Emma came to my office because she was, in her words, having an identity crisis. She said she thought she might like to work in art or entertainment, but she hadn't decided yet, so she'd spent the last few years waiting tables instead. Because it was cheaper, she lived with a boyfriend who displayed his temper more than his ambition. And as hard as her 20s were, her early life had been even harder. She often cried in our sessions, but then would collect herself by saying, "You can't pick your family, but you can pick your friends. Well one day, Emma comes in and she hangs her head in her lap, and she sobbed for most of the hour.
She'd just bought a new address book, and she'd spent the morning filling in her many contacts, but then she'd been left staring at that empty blank that comes after the words "In case of emergency, please call ..." She was nearly hysterical when she looked at me and said, "Who's going to be there for me if I get in a car wreck? Who's going to take care of me if I have cancer? Now in that moment, it took everything I had not to say, "I will.
But what Emma needed wasn't some therapist who really, really cared. Emma needed a better life, and I knew this was her chance. I had learned too much since I first worked with Alex to just sit there while Emma's defining decade went parading by. So over the next weeks and months, I told Emma three things that every twentysomething, male or female, deserves to hear.
First, I told Emma to forget about having an identity crisis and get some identity capital.
By "get identity capital," I mean do something that adds value to who you are. Do something that's an investment in who you might want to be next. I didn't know the future of Emma's career, and no one knows the future of work, but I do know this: Identity capital begets identity capital. So now is the time for that cross-country job, that internship, that startup you want to try. I'm not discounting twentysomething exploration here, but I am discounting exploration that's not supposed to count, which, by the way, is not exploration. That's procrastination. I told Emma to explore work and make it count. Second, I told Emma that the urban tribe is overrated.
Best friends are great for giving rides to the airport, but twentysomethings who huddle together with like-minded peers limit who they know, what they know, how they think, how they speak, and where they work. That new piece of capital, that new person to date almost always comes from outside the inner circle. New things come from what are called our weak ties, our friends of friends of friends. So yes, half of twentysomethings are un- or under-employed. But half aren't, and weak ties are how you get yourself into that group. Half of new jobs are never posted, so reaching out to your neighbor's boss is how you get that unposted job. It's not cheating. It's the science of how information spreads. Last but not least, Emma believed that you can't pick your family, but you can pick your friends.
Now this was true for her growing up, but as a twentysomething, soon Emma would pick her family when she partnered with someone and created a family of her own. I told Emma the time to start picking your family is now. Now you may be thinking that 30 is actually a better time to settle down than 20, or even 25, and I agree with you.
But grabbing whoever you're living with or sleeping with when everyone on Facebook starts walking down the aisle is not progress. The best time to work on your marriage is before you have one, and that means being as intentional with love as you are with work. Picking your family is about consciously choosing who and what you want rather than just making it work or killing time with whoever happens to be choosing you. So what happened to Emma?
Well, we went through that address book, and she found an old roommate's cousin who worked at an art museum in another state. That weak tie helped her get a job there. That job offer gave her the reason to leave that live-in boyfriend. Now, five years later, she's a special events planner for museums. She's married to a man she mindfully chose. She loves her new career, she loves her new family, and she sent me a card that said, "Now the emergency contact blanks don't seem big enough. Now Emma's story made that sound easy, but that's what I love about working with twentysomethings.
They are so easy to help. Twentysomethings are like airplanes just leaving LAX, bound for somewhere west. Right after takeoff, a slight change in course is the difference between landing in Alaska or Fiji. Likewise, at 21 or 25 or even 29, one good conversation, one good break, one good TED Talk, can have an enormous effect across years and even generations to come. So here's an idea worth spreading to every twentysomething you know.
It's as simple as what I learned to say to Alex. It's what I now have the privilege of saying to twentysomethings like Emma every single day: Thirty is not the new 20, so claim your adulthood, get some identity capital, use your weak ties, pick your family. Don't be defined by what you didn't know or didn't do. You're deciding your life right now. Thank you.