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Why it’s important to get your life together in your 20s

PSA for all the millennials out there

By Laura Collins  January 5th, 2017

I am one of the millions of millennials who live in a procrastinating culture, fuelled by Instagram filters, BuzzFeed listicles and TV on demand. I don’t feel like I need to rush into the grown-up realm of marriage, mortgages and babies because I have got years until I hit 30, and according to everyone, 30 is when you have to get serious.

At least that’s what I spent the first half of my twenties believing. Upon closer introspection, I have come to realise: “Holy shit, I’m 26 years old.” Suddenly, straddling the line between adolescence and adulthood has never felt more like a game of Survivor. In some ways, I feel relatively “adult”. I have a tax guy and a great credit rating. But in other ways, I’m completely useless—I moved out three-and-a-half years ago, but I’m still on the family Medicare card. Like many of my peers, I fall somewhere in between the two extremes: I’m an emerging adult.

The term “emerging adulthood” was coined in 2000 by US-based research professor Jeffrey Arnet in his paper Emerging Adulthood: A Theory Of Development From The Late Teens Through The Twenties. Arnet describes this new life phase as a time “when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it’ll be at any other period of the life course”. It was originally focused on those between the ages of 18 and 25, but you could argue that recently the concept of “emerging adulthood” has expanded to take in those of us in the next age bracket. To Arnet, social change—triggered by women’s and youth movements, and technology and sexual revolutions—has allowed us to come to adulthood in our own time, to try things out and not be tied down so we can make better choices about the kinds of adults we’d like to be. We’re also living longer, so I guess he’s right… what’s the rush?

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Before we continue, let me tell you this slightly terrifying statistic: Eighty per cent of your life’s most defining moments happen by the age of 35. The first 10 years of your career are where you make two-thirds of your lifetime wage growth. With the median age for marriage at 29.6 years, by the time you hit your thirties, you’re likely to have settled down. Biologically, your personality undergoes the most changes during your twenties—your brain has its last big growth spurt and female fertility also peaks. If you’re over 35, your life is probably now flashing before your eyes. If you’re my age, you’re calculating you have nine more years to make shit happen before you begin the slow descent to death (or so I assume).

Traditionally, there are five markers of adulthood: marriage, a full-time job, financial independence, home ownership and parenthood. As a point of comparison, I asked my 81-year-old grandmother about her entrance to adulthood. She grew up in a country town, had a full-time job as a bank clerk in the city by 15 and was married with her first child at 23. The whole time, she was completely independent from her family: “I didn’t call mum if I needed her advice or help with something. Once you were out, you were out.” Did she ever feel like there was an opportunity for her to find her “life’s purpose”, gen-Y style? “I was too concerned about making sure the kids were looked after and that there was food on the table.” I called my mum last night to ask her what “moderate oven” meant in a recipe.

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But considering the cost of living, the unstable labour market, the debt of tertiary education and the changing attitudes towards marriage and babies, are those five markers even relevant now? Arnet surveyed a group of twenty-somethings and found that their idea of what constituted adulthood looked more like this: accepting personal responsibility, making decisions apart from other influences and financial independence from parents. In the traditional sense, I have checked off two adulthood markers—I have a full-time job and I’m financially independent. In the latter, the one suggested by my peers, I’m nailing adulthood, and that’s because the revised version places more emphasis on personal and introspective development.

Melbourne-based research programme Life Patterns has been tracking the development of two generations of Australians, gen X and gen Y, since each group finished school—in 1991 and 2006, respectively. The study’s senior research fellow, Dr Dan Woodman, says while more women are now investing in their own education, it’s taking longer for it to pay off, with job security rarely “just around the corner”. And there’s a key difference in the way each generation deals with it. At the time gen X (those born between the early ’60s and the early ’80s) graduated, they were much more confident than gen Y in making “in five years’ time” claims. But gen Y is better able to anticipate an unstable path through the job market, having grown up in a slow economy and graduated around the time of the global financial crisis—they hesitate to plan their lives too far ahead.

It’s not all depressing news, though. Experts like Woodman and clinical psychologist Dr Meg Jay—whose book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter And How To Make The Most Of Them Now (Twelve, 2012), and subsequent TED talk spoke to misunderstood and directionless millennials everywhere—agree that it’s the internal development that, these days, counts for more, rather than chalking up 10 years working for the same company. Woodman calls it “building a portfolio of your life”; Jay calls it “identity capital”. “The great thing about the modern twenties is that if you don’t yet have a mortgage or kids, you can get out there and try something for a bit and find out what you do and don’t like,” says Jay. “It’s an amazing decade for purposeful exploration.”

The core of Jay’s philosophy revolves around the idea that, rather than viewing your twenties as a time to have nonstop fun, waste time in dead-end relationships and work at a job you don’t see a future in, you should begin setting the groundwork for your thirties, forties, fifties and beyond. Use the decade wisely and you can enter the next phase of your life with the confidence and maturity to excel even further. Jay calls the twenties a developmentally unique period and believes parents did their gen-Y children a disservice by telling them they have all the time in the world. “When we say the twenties are supposed to be the best years of your life, my reaction to that is that they’re the best for a lot of things. They may be the best time to travel, but they’re also the best time to be kind to your future self and lay the groundwork for what is coming up.”

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It makes perfect sense, to millennials at least. Sure, the media thinks we’re narcissistic, disloyal to employers, trivial and self-serving, but in reality, we’re ambitious (less in the ladder-climbing sense and more in the Oprah Winfrey/live-your-best-life sense), ethically minded and morally conscious (the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey found that 49 per cent of those surveyed had “chosen not to undertake a task at work because it went against their personal values or ethics”) and we make up about 33 per cent of all the donations on cause-based crowdfunding sites (despite having much less disposable income than older generations).

So with Jay’s voice in my ear telling me that I should be using my twenties to figure out what kind of adult (the no-taking-back kind, not the emerging kind) I want to be, I have decided I’m not going to sit around killing time and watching Stranger Things while I creep closer to the next decade. First, I’m going to stop feeling bad because I’m not sure I want the same things many of my fellow twenty-somethings want—like a swanky house, a shiny new car, a kid or a dog (okay, I do want a dog). Then, I’m going to work really hard and I’m going to love it, even if some days I come home hating it. Because in the coming years, I want to see the world and get best-friend tattoos in tiny European towns and stroll down a Brooklyn sidewalk with my boyfriend at dusk, while we take turns swigging from a brown paper-bagged bottle of rosé. And, fuck it, I’ll adopt 10 dogs because by then I’ll be an adult and adults can have as many dogs as they like.