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“30 is Not the New 20” & Why It’s OK for Twenty-Somethings to Waste Time

*A story I wrote in my twenties was just published here, in Front Porch Journal!*

I recently read a blog post that mentioned psychologist Meg Jay’s TED talk on why 30 is not the new 20. For some reason, it irked me, but I couldn’t figure out why. After all, most of what Jay said was reasonable: Hey people, she said, stop telling twenty-somethings that their life can start at thirty because then they think they can wait tables and date assholes for a decade because these years “don’t count.”

To all that I say, well, duh. Of course you should make your twenties count. You should try to make every day of your life count, no matter what your age. And it makes sense that your twenties, when you may not yet have a marriage or kids or other responsibilities, could be a good time to work on yourself and who you want to be. OK, Jay, I agree.

And yet, I was annoyed.

Maybe because a part of me was worried. Had I wasted my twenties? After all, I dated an awful lot of assholes. I worked for three years as a part-time orthodontic assistant – a job I don’t even include on my resume. I partied a lot. I watched My So-Called Life episodes over and over on my computer when I could have been reading books or working on stories.

Maybe Jay’s talk made me feel sort of bad about myself:  if I had only been more focused when I was in my twenties, maybe now I’d have something to show for myself .

“I wish Eva would be more serious,” my grandmother said a few weeks before she died. At the time, I was twenty-seven. I was working at the orthodontic office, going out a lot, and “dating” a dude who lived in a tepee in someone’s backyard and came to my apartment to take showers. I never knew she said this until a few weeks ago, and when my mom told me, it stung.

In my twenties, I did things like this.

In my twenties, I did things like this.

Not that all I did in my twenties was party. I also got my MFA in fiction writing. And I taught math for five years.

For two of those years I taught middle school math and had to deal with parents push-push-pushing to get their kids in algebra. This is the new trend – to start algebra earlier and earlier. The reasoning is that if kids take algebra in middle school, they’ll be able to make it to calculus by senior year, which parents (erroneously) think will get their kids into good colleges.

The problem with starting algebra earlier is brain development. Algebra relies on logical, abstract thinking skills that develop during adolescence. Studies have shown that for a large number of students, taking algebra before high school actually results in worse performances, not just in algebra, but in math classes down the road like geometry and pre-calculus (Urbano).

I currently write middle school math curriculum, and the learning goals for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade are all pretty much the same: fractions, decimals, basic geometry, etc. I can understand why people think, oh, let’s stop wasting time and get the kids started on algebra. But the people who say this are obviously not familiar with middle school kids. Middle school kids are busy paying attention to their friends and figuring out the social scene. They are busy obsessing about the opposite sex and worrying about their changing bodies. It’s a wonder we’re able to teach them anything at all during this stage. So it’s probably best to hold off an an important course like algebra until their prefrontal cortexes have matured a bit and they’re actually ready to learn the information.

Me, in my twenties, with middle schoolers.  Yes, I sometimes wore a side-ponytail at school.

Me, in my twenties, with middle schoolers. Yes, I sometimes wore a side-ponytail at school.

Meg Jay also mentions brain development in her talk, but she doesn’t go into much detail. All she says is that the brain is going through it’s last bit of changes in the twenties. And that’s true. The “adult” brain isn’t fully matured until somewhere around twenty-five (and some neurologists say by the early thirties.) Jay makes this sound like if you want to make changes to who you are, better do it before your brain has gelled into place.

The thing she doesn’t explain is how exactly the brain is changing. The part of the brain involved in keeping emotional and impulsive responses in check only begins to mature in adolescence, as does the thinking skills involved in decision-making, analyzing cause and effect, and considering different people’s perspectives.  That means, the brain is still developing in these areas during our twenties.  In other words, teens and twenty-somethings are often more emotional, impulsive, irrational, and self-involved because their brains haven’t finished maturing.

Upon hearing this, parents often have an ah-ha moment (that’s why my son/daughter is like this!), and I had one, too. Ah-ha, I thought, this is why I did all those crazy things in my twenties. This is why I dated crazies and played around.  I wasn’t quite ready for a serious boyfriend or a serious career.

And now we’re starting to hit on my annoyance with Jay. She acts like it’s so easy for twenty-somethings to just get serious and make their time count. Does she think they don’t care about making the most of their lives? Chances are they do care, but they’re still figuring out what exactly they want.

*  *  *

 Speaking of math, my boyfriend has a Masters in Applied Mathematics and spends a lot of time working on problems that one definitely needs mature abstract-thinking skills to understand. Sometimes he’ll pace around the apartment, eating Triscuits, or he’ll lay on the couch playing solitaire on his i-pad. “I know it looks like I’m not doing anything,” he says. “But I am. My brain is working.”

I understand. This is the way it goes with with writing sometimes, too. I get a lot of my ideas while taking walks or reading books or lying on the floor stretching. It might not look like I’m doing anything useful, but my brain is working on something, and I often don’t even realize it.

Maybe that’s the way it is with our twenties.

I had enough experiences in my twenties to fill a lifetime of books. And that’s not all the decade was good for. I also worked quite a bit on writing during my twenties. I wrote two novels, in fact. They were both terrible. I don’t think my pre-frontal cortex was mature enough for novel writing (I’m still not sure that it is.) But they taught me something about who I am as a writer, and I’m sure they strengthened some important part of my brain.

*  *  *

I was unfocused in my twenties, I’ll admit it. But I learned a lot during my wanderings and shenanigans. I realized I didn’t want to be an actress or a secretary or an orthodontic assistant. I learned that most important aspects of a relationship are reliability and communication, not hotness and how well he can dance.  And just recently I realized that I don’t want to be a teacher and that I want writing to be more than just a hobby. I couldn’t have gotten serious any earlier, because it took my entire twenties to figure out what to be serious about.

Meg Jay’s right that 30 is not the new 20.  But she’s wrong to say you should hunker down immediately and try to “get serious” at age twenty-two. Think about those kids who take algebra too early and suffer on down the road. What about the twenty-somethings who make huge life decisions before they’ve had a chance to play around and consider what they really want.  Perhaps this is why people who get married in their early twenties have a higher rate of divorce than people who marry later.  Perhaps this is why people come out of college with degrees that they don’t end up using.

At twenty-four, I nearly went back to school for a Masters in Math because I “didn’t know what else to do with myself.” It took me the entire decade of my twenties to figure that out.

So sure, maybe to Grandma it looked like I was partying and wasting time, but inside, my twenty-something brain was maturing. I was learning what I don’t want – and what I do. Every day of my twenties counted because there were always important things going on beneath the surface.

For the ultimate in adolescent brain development, watch Lena Dunham's Girls.  Here is the scene where her gynecologist says, "you couldn't pay me to be 24 again."

For the ultimate in adolescent brain development, watch Lena Dunham’s Girls, about a group of twenty-somethings. Here is the scene where the gynecologist says, “you couldn’t pay me to be 24 again.”


Starting Algebra Too Early?   Urbano, L., 2012. Starting Algebra too Early?, Retrieved August 23rd, 2013, from Montessori Muddle:

The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain

The Teen Brain:  Still Under Construction

Casual Sexual Encounters In Your Twenties


About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

5 responses »

  1. AMEN!! Thank you. That TED video bothered me a lot too, and I’d like to tell you why.

    At age 20, I got married, bought a house, and went to school full time while working a full-time career-related job. This went on for six years before the marriage collapsed, I realized how much I hated my job, realized that my mortgage was holding me down when all I really wanted was to see the world, and that THERE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS IN LIFE than figuring out your career and family paths so early on. I think 20-somethings should have the opportunity to learn these lessons without going through painful divorces and financial housing-market related issues. They should have the time to figure out who they are, as you said, and what they really want out of life. It takes time.

    I’ve just gone and got my master’s degree, but it was secondary – a vehicle to live in a foreign country for a year. Work is merely a vehicle. Relationships are not the be-all end-all. Just discovering life, growing, and being flexible to change are what matter, to me. Now that I’m almost 30 (29 in a few days), I know that. 🙂

    • I would argue that the bold and difficult steps you took towards having the life you want are exactly what Meg Jay is championing. She’s not saying that everyone needs to know exactly what they want to do at 22, she just suggesting that people don’t waste those ten years. Here are her exact words from the video:

      “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.”

      You figuring out that seeing the world is more important than paying for a mortgage sounds like you’re investing in your identity capital and exploring rather than procrastinating.

  2. This hit home with me. At 31, I feel like I am just finally starting to figure out who I am. You and I had very different 20-something years, but I think both ways helped us figure out what matters to us in our lives. Of course, I’m definitely still working on it, but I feel much better equipped than I was 5 or 10 years ago to do so.

  3. I’m 37, and I partied a LOT in my twenties. I was a lot like you in general–decent job, paying my bills, but dating assholes and, well, I have my fair share of photos like the one you posted here. I also went back to school at night while working a full-time office job so I could switch to the field I really wanted to be in (software development), but yeah, I can completely imagine my grandma saying something similar about me when she died (I was 25).

    I guess it’s an age thing, but kids took pre-algebra in 7th grade and algebra I in 8th pretty commonly when I was growing up. Then there was Geometry in 9th and algebra II (I think now this is combined with trigonometry and called pre-calculus?) in 10th. Trig was 11th and Calc was 12th. I’ll admit, pre-algebra confused the hell out of me when I took it in 7th. Algebra I was fine (I aced it), but when I decided to take Algebra II a year early in 9th (along with the geometry that was normal for that year), it was really, really hard.

    I was supposed to be super-smart but I still struggled with some of the algebra (the classes after it were fine for me), so I don’t doubt that researchers’ findings must be true. Maybe that’s WHY they regularly teach it later now–other kids must have struggled a lot more.

    At 37, I do sometimes wonder if I “wasted” those years in my twenties. I didn’t travel outside the country, and I don’t have much concrete to show for it, although my early office jobs did build my experience and base salary (because when I was in my 20s, the tech industry was rock solid… until it wasn’t). I did amateur modeling and partied and made friends that weren’t great for me in the long run but taught me a lot about people.

    And then in my 30s, I “got serious,” married myself to my career, and realized that being too serious isn’t always worth it, either. If I hadn’t had my crazy 20s as a baseline, I wouldn’t have had anything to fall back on while I desperately tried to determine (again!) who I was, this time while in a management position (which I’ve since resigned) and with a husband and tiny newborn. I realized I wanted to write, even though at this point it’s not for a living.

    tl;dr: Even once our brains DO mature, we don’t stop making mistakes, or forgetting and re-learning who we are. You can be serious all your life, but I don’t think life is all about being serious, either. Even once you’re past your dating assholes and partying years, you can carry a part of who you were then inside. Because someday, you might need it.

    (I really enjoyed this post)


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