5 Signs You're Wasting Your 20s, According to a Psychologist

Kelsey Clark
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Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Most 20-somethings breathe a heavy sigh of relief when they hear the latest catchphrase, "30 is the new 20." Based on the fact that today's young adults are starting their careers, getting married, having kids, and settling down much later in life, this new cultural narrative is shaping the way we approach our 20s. What with the inhospitable job market, skyrocketing cost of college, and recession that served as the backdrop of our early adulthood, gaining a solid footing in the "real world" has understandably taken a backseat. This sort of rootless existence is compounded by our evolving definition of happiness; the life milestones that once signaled success no longer ring true for today's 20-somethings. In the eyes of many, traveling the world, volunteering overseas, and amassing a 10K Instagram following in the process trump owning a home, purchasing a car, and opening a 401(k).

But with this new mentality comes the license to trivialize our 20s as a sort of extended adolescence; if you have all the time in the world, why not just drift through life with no real plan? While your 20s are certainly a time of exploration and self-discovery, they're also a time to lay the groundwork for what you want your future to look like.

"Claiming your 20s is one of the simplest yet most transformative things you can do for work, for love, for your happiness, maybe even for the world," clinical psychologist and The Defining Decade author Meg Jay, Ph.D., said in her viral TED Talk. Jay has dedicated her career to studying adult development, particularly the lives of her 20-something clients and students. She argues that rather than being the awkward decade between adolescence and adulthood, your 20s are actually a "developmental sweet spot," one that should not be wasted. "Don't be defined by what you didn't know or didn't do [in your 20s]," remarks Jay. "You're deciding your life right now." Here's why:

Developmentally speaking, your 20s are a time of immense growth and change, both biologically and statistically. Far from the rigidity of mid to late adulthood, your brain is still wired for...

Developmentally speaking, your 20s are a time of immense growth and change, both biologically and statistically. Far from the rigidity of mid to late adulthood, your brain is still wired for change, flexibility and adaptation. According to the Young Adult Development Project at MIT, the prefrontal cortex, or the area of the brain associated with problem-solving and decision-making, is still developing until well into your 20s. In other words, if you want to make a drastic change in your life, your brain is still malleable enough to make this a reality.

"That's one reason I love working with 20-somethings; they are so darn easy to help because they—and their brains and their lives—can change so quickly and so profoundly," Jay said in an interview with Big Think. "The real take-home message about the still-developing 20-something brain is that whatever it is you want to change about yourself, now is the easiest time to change it."

Your first few years in the job market have the potential to shape what your career will look like in the long run—both in terms of industry and salary. Whether you're working part-time at a...

Your first few years in the job market have the potential to shape what your career will look like in the long run—both in terms of industry and salary. Whether you're working part-time at a bookstore or have your sights set on Wall Street, what you do right out of the gate can determine your lifetime earnings. According to Nicole Williams, founder of New York City–based career consultancy firm Works, you should look at your first salary as an investment in your future career. Not only does it allow you to sharpen your skills as a negotiator, but it sets the tone for what income bracket you're going to fall into.

"Sure, the 20s are for experimenting, but not just with philosophies and vacations and substances," says Jay. "The 20s are your best chance to experiment with jobs and relationships. Then each move can be more intentional and more informed than the last." In short, don't be afraid to give up your freedom as a young adult—your first job is just the beginning.

Although Americans are putting off marriage now more than ever, with some forgoing it altogether, some of your most meaningful relationships—romantic or otherwise—are still formed...

Although Americans are putting off marriage now more than ever, with some forgoing it altogether, some of your most meaningful relationships—romantic or otherwise—are still formed during your 20s. More specifically, Jay believes, sticking to a small, like-minded group of individuals during this pivotal time in your life can limit your potential, both career-wise and relationship-wise.

Her research has shown that the most rewarding, fulfilling connections "almost always come from outside the inner circle" and that focusing on your weak social ties or your friends-of-friends will help you to branch out and grow as a person. While there is certainly no time limit on the ability to connect with another person romantically, Jay claims that "more than half of Americans are married or are living with or dating their future partner by age 30."

There's a fine line between exploring life with purpose and mindlessly wandering without a sense of direction. While those seemingly random experiences can combine into a collective sense of self...

There's a fine line between exploring life with purpose and mindlessly wandering without a sense of direction. While those seemingly random experiences can combine into a collective sense of self when all is said and done, that trajectory may not line up with where you see yourself at age 30. Jay refers to this intentional exploration as "identity capital," or the experiences, activities, and hobbies that add value to who you are and who you want to become. "Don't shrug your shoulders and say, 'I'm in my 20s. What I'm doing doesn't count,'" says Jay. "Recognize that what you do, and what you don't do, will have an enormous impact across years and even generations."

Purpose aside, trying to jam all of life's most exciting and thrilling experiences into one decade just isn't necessary. Contrary to what popular culture would have you believe, your 20s don't have to be the best years of your life, and they actually aren't for many people. In Jay's experience, your 20s can be some of the most uncertain, confusing years of your life—don't put too much pressure on this decade.

Making the most of your 20s boils down to the idea that life is a constant work in progress and gradually takes shape over time. Designating your 20s as your explorative years and putting a strict...

Making the most of your 20s boils down to the idea that life is a constant work in progress and gradually takes shape over time. Designating your 20s as your explorative years and putting a strict "adulthood" mandate on age 30 can result in a very overwhelming 30th birthday or, worse, a quarter-life crisis. Having your life together by age 30 isn't realistic, but neither is expecting life to magically work out the way you want it to. By having some sort of timeline in place, however informal, you can slowly but surely create the life you want for yourself, rather than pinning all of life's expectations on one solitary number.

Although Jay makes some valid points, this is just one researcher's perspective. Do you agree with her thoughts on 20-something life? Share your opinion below!

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