Defining your 20s

11 Apr

I wanted to hate this book.  The title seemed a little intense and you’d-better-hurry-up-before-it’s-too-late for my taste.  But it was a trusted alumna who lent it to me so I can it a try.

Before I started reading it, I asked her why she liked it so much and she told me about the “Do the Math” chapter, in which a twentysomething in therapy complains about the lunch crowd at the restaurant where she waitresses.  She tells the therapist that those lunch crowd lawyers aren’t better than she is, to which the therapist replies that surely they are no different – except that the lawyers went to 3 years of law school and graduated, passed the bar, and work hard every day on their practices.  In other words, they have actually accomplished the things – over many years and with sustained effort – that the waitress is still only thinking about.

Meg Jay is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia.  She specializes in working with people from 20-35 and her book comes out of her years of practice and observation about the so-called extended adolescence era of contemporary young adults.  The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them now  describes the pervasive feeling many young adults experience, of being adrift in their own lives, while at the same time being told they should be having  the time of their lives.  It explores the notion that important things (career type jobs, marriage, children, grad school…) can be put off “until later” and that one’s twenties are merely for hanging out, not working too hard, not taking relationships too seriously.

Jay describes one woman who expressed a desire to be married, have children, and be a lawyer but who was not actively pursuing any of these.  She was in her late twenties and seemed content to have all that happen “someday later.”  When Jay pushes her about when she would ideally be married, a mother, and a lawyer, the answer for all three is by age 33 or so which is within the next 5 years.  It’s at this point – when forced to express her desires and lay them out on a timeline – that the young woman realizes she has no time to waste.

Jay is not talking about my generation but I understand the “rolling admissions” idea of how things will “work out.”  It took me a long time to find my path and go with it.  Partly because of this and partly because  I work with high-achieving UVA students, as a campus minister I try to contradict the consistent messages many of my students receive from professors that if they don’t go to grad school right now, they’ll never go, it’ll be too late, etc.  I try to offer a wider perspective and to take into account the personal growth and necessary adventures (traveling, volunteering with the Peace Corps) that eventually contribute to “real jobs” and more permanent career paths.

Even so, I think Jay’s timeline “do the math” approach is helpful.  Certain things do fall into place more or less on their own, while others require planning.  Sometimes young adults don’t have enough experience to tell the difference.  Jay herself recognizes the wider perspective I value with what she calls “identity capital,” the things we do and the skills we develop that are interesting and transportable and really say something about who we are.  When a client mentions that since she needs to find a paying job before she makes her next big school or career jump and she’d like to work in a coffee shop, Jay points out that the coffee shop job communicates mellowness and having fun but doesn’t say much else about her.  Jay offers a glimpse into her own story, sharing with the young woman about her years working for Outward Bound between school and grad school.  During that time she was challenged and became more confident.  When she went to interviews for grad programs the first thing everyone asked about was Outward Bound.  Though it was not in the field she wanted to study and it didn’t offer a large paycheck, that job and what it signified gave her identity capital that several years serving coffee would never have provided.

In the area of love, Meg Jay insists that there is no such thing as just biding your time or having fun.  The common defense that young adults give, that it’s not time to be serious or settle down, sets them up to misunderstand what it is they are doing now.  Wisely, Jay says there is no such thing as just having fun, that what young adults are really doing is training themselves in poor relationships.  What you practice is what you learn, so if you aren’t trying to get better at being in a relationship, then you won’t.  Instead, you’ll get better at floating along and settling for less than you want or deserve.  This is a helpful antidote to the widespread mantra that it’s what one does after college or once you find a serious relationship that matters.  It all matters.

Part of campus ministry is helping to define college as a place and space for spiritual growth, too.  Making sure that this important part of life is not left out of the definition or saved up for some fuzzy future time.  Part of campus ministry is asking good questions without necessarily offering answers, asking questions that cast new light on old problems or worn-in assumptions.  Part of campus ministry is to help students see and claim their own stories within God’s story.  We believe that this claim can help them make better next steps in their lives.

So does this book.  And it leaves me wondering how those of us who spend 4 years with students might write the companion spiritual book to this one.  What are the myths that need reframing?  What are the questions of faith we can’t afford to save until later on in life?


Deborah LewisDeborah loves hiking, cooking, reading, and a good strong cup of coffee. She believes that a rainy day is one of God’s great gifts and that When Harry Met Sally can never be seen or quoted too many times.  When she is not throwing pottery on the wheel, she also enjoys writing, sometimes for the online magazine catapult.   She is an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and serves as director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Virginia.  She has been in campus ministry for 12 years and shares the journey with her husband and stepson.  She also blogs at


One Response to “Defining your 20s”


  1. Defining Your 20s | Snow Day - April 11, 2013

    […] thoughts on these questions and more in my new post up today on the National Campus Ministry Association blog.  I’d love it if you’d […]

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