Wasting Your 20’s With a Purpose: How to Use Extended Adolescence to Your Advantage

Once the staples for most people in their 20's, major life events like buying homes, getting married, having children, and buckling down in careers have been pushed until their 30's. With a decade of extra time, are we just wasting our lives?

It’s not uncommon these days to hear people bemoaning our current society’s tendency towards extended adolescence. From the archetypal ‘man-child’ of Judd Apatow movies to people wiling away years in relationships that they don’t see going anywhere, there’s a cult built around the idea that ‘30 is the new 20’, that as long as you’re in your 20s you don’t need to worry too much about settling down, sorting out a career, getting a mortgage, or finding a partner that you seriously expect to spend the rest of your lift with. God knows I have a tendency to buy into this myself. To the utter dismay of my parents, I walked away from a moderately well paid marketing job after only 5 months to pursue a career as a freelance writer. I went from gainfully employed to barely self-employed. 9 months later, my mum is still asking me when I’m going to start thinking about my career again – where a career job is essentially anything that’s full-time and well paid.

I like to think that I made the right decision. I may now have even less spending money than I did as an impoverished student, and have come to accept a slightly damp and moldy apartment as a permanent fixture in my life, but I’m very happy that I’ve ignored the ‘career job’. There’s a risk of this going wrong, however. Dr. Meg Jay gave a TED talk attacking the idea that 30 is the new 20. As a therapist, she drew attention to the plight of 20-somethings wasting away a pivotal decade in their life under the guise of exploring themselves, those waiting tables because they can’t decide what job they really want, those staying with partners they don’t love because they’re just killing time, and those essentially seeing their 20s as an extended adolescence – a free decade to spend having fun and trying new things, waiting for real adult life to begin at 30. As Jay points out, this sort of attitude has nothing to do with exploring oneself – it’s just plain old procrastination, on a grand scale.

So where’s the balance? We’re a generation that studied through and graduated into an economy yet to recover from recession, facing mass un- and under-employment, and the very real prospect of renting for the rest of our lives, with mortgages an unattainable dream for many. With all that in mind, who can blame us for putting the career off a bit? With a mortgage off the cards, and ‘proper’ jobs thin on the ground, what other options do we have? I’d be a hypocrite if I condemned those who are putting careers off ‘til their 30s (if ever), but is it really the smart approach?

So far I’ve painted a picture of exploring your 20s out of some grim economic necessity – you can’t get a well paid job, so you stop worrying about your career. Without that income, you can’t afford a mortgage, so you rent. You can’t afford kids, so they’re the last thing on your mind. And without kids on the horizon, there’s suddenly an awful lot less pressure to get married or find a long-term partner. But are there good reasons to enjoy an extended adolescence even if you do have other options? I bloody hope so, because that’s exactly what I’m doing.

The beauty of the extended adolescence is in exploration. It’s the chance to explore yourself. Not in that bullshitty ‘take a year out and backpack around Asia’ sense, but real exploration. Trying different things that you might enjoy, and figuring out what you really like, and what really sticks. We don’t have to dive into the first job we get out of college and stay in that career for life. It’s much more acceptable now to dart between 5 different career paths in your 20s before you find the one that you love.

It’s also much more acceptable to try to carve out your own path. Starting your own business is no longer the exclusive preserve of the middle-aged with a couple of decades’ worth of savings under their belt. As long as you can maintain a basic income to sustain yourself, now’s the time to set up your own blog, to develop an app, to start your own company. You’ve got the time to experiment, to try new things, and, importantly, to get them wrong. You can afford to devote a couple of years to a business that ultimately fails and just chalk it up as a learning experience. You have a world of opportunities available to you, so make the most of them.

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The Judd Apatow man-child stereotype exists because so many people waste that opportunity – they settle into under-employment because it’s easy, they put off career and relationship decisions because they simply don’t want to deal with them yet, and they generally sit about, wasting their time and their youth.

What about renting, rather than buying a house? Again, there’s a great opportunity here. Renting means that you can move often, trying out different types of accommodation, in different areas. You can live alone, or with friends. You can try the suburbs or the trendiest bit of town. Heck, you can move city, state, or country, without anything to hold you back.

And your love life? There’s nothing wrong with not expecting to find the love of your life just yet, and there’s nothing wrong with treating your love life-like your work life. Try new things. Try relationships with different sorts of people, and see what works. Find out what suits you, and what you might want for the rest of your life. Just don’t waste time by sticking with a relationship that isn’t working, all because ‘it’s only your 20s’. Exploring your preferences isn’t about wasting time in relationships that are going nowhere. It’s about trying different things to find a relationship that isn’t just going somewhere, but will actually last the distance.

Extended adolescence can be an absolute blessing. Without the pressure to rush into a career, relationship, or mortgage, you can take the time to find what’s right for you. With a bit of luck, that might mean avoiding a mid-life crisis, the panic that you missed out on great things by committing yourself to a career or relationship too quickly. What you need to avoid is simply pushing that pressure back by 10 years, so that you waste your 20s only to find yourself rushing into major life decisions at 30, without having done any work to really help yourself make those decisions.

Whether by accident or design, modern Western life is well suited to devoting your 20s to trying new things, and if you use that time to develop yourself or identify what it is that you really want to do with your life, then that can only be a good thing. The Judd Apatow man-child stereotype exists because so many people waste that opportunity – they settle into under-employment because it’s easy, they put off career and relationship decisions because they simply don’t want to deal with them yet, and they generally sit about, wasting their time and their youth. It’s possible to have a brilliant time in your 20s, to explore new things, to avoid stuffy office jobs, to live life hard and fast, and to generally make the most of your reckless youth – all while taking proactive steps to make sure that you enjoy the rest of your life just as much.

A London-dwelling philosophy graduate with a penchant for films, gaming, and technology, with the occasional bit of tennis thrown in there.

  • James Taylor

    Great post mate! Having lived my thirties in my twenties, I’m now experiencing the adventure, exploration, and self-learning of my twenties in my thirties! You’re spot on in your post – thanks for the inspiration!

  • kriem

    It would have been great to have seen some bit about starting to save money as you “dart between 5 different career paths” and “generally make the most of your reckless youth.” Perhaps this is alluded to in the proactive things our generation can do to enjoy the rest of our lives, a la Dave Ramsey mantra that “if you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”

  • Aaron

    Personally I find this article hard to agree with. I am 23, married, full time career and closing on house in two weeks. I have a retirement fund, two paid off cars, and insurance that is not my parents. All this to say is not because I spent time exploring, but rather I went for what I want, took risks and it paid off faster than “extending my exploration.” None of this is said to brag or say how good I look, but rather a defense of growing up, becoming a man and taking responsibility for your life. If you can do all this while being self-sufficient then more power to you, but if you are doing all of your exploring with home base being mom and dad’s basement then it is probably best to grow up and own being an adult.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      That’s fantastic, but the stats suggest you’re in the minority. This isn’t to say what you’ve accomplished isn’t incredible, but just not very common. This article is for the other folks, suggesting if they are living this way, at least make it beneficial. If you don’t mind me asking what field are you in?

      • Aaron

        Hey Andrew, I work for a church, so I do not make extravagant money. We choose to live within our means and focus our money on things we value.

        And I agree with making it beneficial, I don’t think marrying later in life is wrong, renting over owning, or searching out new career opportunities is bad. My normal is different than other people’s normal. What I have a hard time with is a 20 something living with Mom and Dad and claims “that he is just trying to figure it out.” I see young adults everyday just wasting their potential. Millennial have a lot to give and as a whole I do not think we are living up to our full potential. Get up, out and make a difference in your world.

        • http://www.brndbl.tumblr.com/ Ryan Donnell

          I don’t think the author is telling us to be lazy at all. He is saying, use what you have right now to figure out what you truly love. The economy is really what is hurting a lot of people, not just with loans, etc but with opportunities. They aren’t “wasting away,” it is just we all have different paths. Working at a Church, I am sure you know we all have a different calling in life.

    • LillyN

      I’m 22 years old and have only just figured out what I want for my career. I’m dependent on my parents until I get a job, but they have always pushed me to never give up – I also wish I could be independent already. However, not everyone’s career paths can be easily found or traveled (especially to start it) and I think this article is for those who are still searching and figuring it out, so that they don’t stay lost forever in the search. I’m glad you were so lucky to find everything you needed to start your career and marriage – it gives me hope that I don’t have to be 30 to have all these things – which I feel is almost what the article suggests.

  • Robert

    I agree with Aaron. Just because you can have a reckless 20s, doesn’t mean you should. I also started early in life and look at it as having a head-start on my peers.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Bouncing off of my comment to him, this isn’t to condone living recklessly at all. The reality is the post grad period in our lives has been extending for some time. The time it takes to get a job, the time it takes to get a job that pays well, the time it takes to be able to afford a home, or children, has taken longer and longer. Because of this many people just bounce along. We’re suggesting if you’re going to live through a period like this at least make it beneficial.

      • Sean

        I agree with Andrew. I have been working since college six years ago, but I find that this economy is very difficult despite the fact. The opportunities are not as avavailable as they once were. Someone that is married and owns a house at 23 is in the minority. And thats awesome for them, but because I’m 28, single, dating, and renting does not mean I’m not an adult. To each his own.

      • Jack

        I’m 22, and I see the problem with my friends, it really comes down to reckless spending. Living within your means is easy enough to do if you can put priorities in front of your new smartphone, new laptop, new clothes and cool car, ALL the time.

        • Jack

          I understand that job opportunities are not as plentiful as they could be, but in the end of the day, if you have a very small amount of money coming in, it should be saved… I was making 600 bucks a month a year ago. I’m ‘back’ on my feet, and i have over 18,000 dollars building interest, because i’ve managed to keep my expenses low with a Net10 phone, bicycle to work, 3 roomates, and smart food and wardrobe purchases

  • RRod3

    I’m a married homeowner. Home ownership is not the end all be all metric of success, it just means that you’ve agreed to take on a monumental amount of debt. It is certainly not mandatory no matter what age you are and has nothing to do with growing up and being “a man”. Likewise for marriage. Not everyone needs to get married to have a successful and fulfilling life. If you’ve found a career you love and can financially sustain yourself, then you are well past the “adolescent stage”.

  • http://www.brndbl.tumblr.com/ Ryan Donnell

    Yeah I am going to be turning 30 in a few weeks and I have no feelings that “oh god I better get my act in order.” Age is a number, we all have different paths and this economy sure has shown we better find what we love to do.

  • John

    I think this is a really great, smart article for those who are “average”, and let’s face it, that’s the majority of us.

    For some constructive feedback, I’d add some really actionable takeaways at the end, like “try to save your first $10-25k by the time you’re 30″, make sure you stay in shape, and have a deliberate plan in mind–even if it doesn’t work out in the end”.

    • Ben

      Some people are missing the point of this article. If you are successfull, a home owner, and have paid off multiple vehiclces then you are the exception. Im happy for you but clearly you possess the direction and courage many people in their 20’s lack that allows them to “go for it” and dedicate themselves at that point in their life. It’s not necessary for you to pick apart this article just because you have a different perspective and have made different life choices compared with the large majority of the population. Good for you guys, but clearly this article isn’t about, or for you. Its comments like these that keep readers from looking to the comments section for input, and I dont blame them if these kind of narrow minded comments are what they’ll see. Figure it out boys

      • Ben

        and in no way was this directed at John, intended to be a general comment

        • Aaron

          Ben, I think I may have forgotten to mention that it is not people who are not married or not homeowners. The definition of an adolescent is”A young person who has undergone puberty but who has not reached full maturity; a teenager.” That in itself is enough to push back on extending that. Men need to transition out of this when it’s time and your 20’s is definitely time. So before you go and call someone narrow minded it is best to understand where they are coming from and if possible, create a dialogue (which is what comments are for) rather than point fingers.

          • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

            Hi Ben,

            All very true, however the point the NYTimes and others make is that adolescence is longer than ever – it’s a social/biological issue as much as it is personal responsibility.

  • mark anthony

    Just an observation from someone at the other end of the spectrum, I’m rapidly approaching the age of 60. I spent the better part of my 20’s knocking around. I had no real clue what I wanted to do in life other than party. I spent some time in the military, started a photography business (that failed), I did graduate college, gained work experience, got some professional credentials, but I didn’t seriously buckle down to a “career” until I was 28 or 29. I did have a drive to improve myself. I did have goals of my own that I made sure I pursued, and I attained them, plus much more than I had ever planned. Life is like that.

    I can say I have no regrets. I don’t feel I missed anything. On the contrary, I feel that I gained something that some of my peers missed by being more conventional and following the “proper” path. I’ve done things they can only wistfully talk about, things they wished they had done, but had kids, a job, this or that. Now, age and responsibilities continue to press on them and they can only talk about a “bucket list”.

    I cannot recommend “wasting” your 20’s by playing video games, getting stoned, and masturbating in mamas basement. I can recommend trying new things, exploring different career paths, and continuing to improve your skill sets, but do so with some goals in mind. After all, your 20’s won’t last forever.

    • Kyleworld

      I agree wholeheartedly with marc anthony. Having a mortgage on a suburb house with a beige door with a van and sub-compact in the drive may seem like an indicator of someone who has it together to most. Not in my eyes. Life is about experience, living to the fullest, and making the best of the time you have. Some people spend a lifetime waiting for a moment that may never come. I am 32, rent, have a great job that i have got into after bouncing about through the recession, and am married recently with no kids. I don’t think of the later marriage and being single in my 20’s as a delayed maturity. Those were my true formative years, the ones that shaped who I am, developed my political views, formed where I am career wise, helped me meet the perfect mate who I married, taught me to dress well, what music I like, I can go on forever. My point is, people get where they are going in life on different paths. Some just choose one that is a little less defined and clear the way along the route. And i know I am not the person i thought I would be when I was 22, and I am glad I’m not.

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  • John William DeRienzo

    What a great read. There’s no reason to beat ourselves over the head with false maturity, because most often we’ll just end up frustrated and disappointed. Relish the time you have in the present and allow yourself to learn from your current perspective.

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  • Masa

    As someone who just turned 30, I am living at home and discovered that I have been suffering from extended adolescence (even though I hold a job). I have not yet developed a marketable job skill and knowing that is not fun.
    The problem I have with this abstract is that through the writing’s title, the author is stating/implying that being similar to a middle/high school teen in your 20s is acceptable. This is simply not true. Wasting your teens is one thing, but your 20s is not acceptable.