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.
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.