They’ve been called the Twixters, Choisters, pre-adults, adultescents, the stuck generation and the lost generation, playing out an extended adolescence or an emerging adulthood or their odyssey years. They are the 20-somethingsthat graduated into one of the worst economies in decades, saddled with some of the highest debt burdens. According to a new report, half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, scraping by with low-wage service jobs. Those who are working earn less than their 1970s counterparts, when adjusted for inflation.
They are moving back home, going back to school or embracing unpaid internships as the new starter jobs. They are marrying later and starting families later still. They are told to wait it out. They have time. The 20s are for having fun anyway. Real life starts later.
But it doesn’t. It starts now, and they are falling behind.
“I’ve had hundreds–maybe thousands–of clients and students who’ve been misled about how important this decade is,” says Meg Jay, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in adult development and the author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–and How to Make the Most of Them Now. “In a lot of ways, 20-somethings are not taken seriously. Your 20s really, really matter. You are deciding your life right now, and it will have enormous impact across years and generations to come.”
According to Jay, 80% of life’s most significant events take place by age 35, making the 20s a “developmental sweet spot.” Two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first 10 years of a career. So those who wait until their 30s to get going in a “real” job will never catch up.
“The biggest myth is that the 20s are a time to think about what you want to do,” notes Jay. “That doesn’t work. You basically know what you want. Just start, and get the best job you can get.”
Reveling in a decade-long identity crisis will not result in better-adjusted adults, she says. Research shows that 20-something unemployment is associated with heavy drinking and depression in middle age—even after becoming regularly employed. Meanwhile, 20-somethings who are underemployed for just nine months tend to be more depressed and less motivated than their peers—even their unemployed peers.
Working as a bartender or coffeehouse barista may have some romance for those screw-The-Man, I-refuse-to-be-chained-to-a-desk types, but Jay says many young people underestimate the satisfaction that comes from joining the working world. The loathed yuppie cube-dweller is on average happier than her still-figuring-it-out brethren, she says.
And while the choice conundrum (what should I do if I can do anything?) may leave some paralyzed, “not making a choice is a choice,” warns Jay. “These 20-somethings think they are keeping their options open, but they are actually closing doors.” Resumes start to look thin, their peers begin surpassing them and, without real-world experience, they’re no closer to a direction.