“Our twenties can be like living beyond time. When we graduate from school, we leave behind the only lives we have ever known, ones that have been neatly packaged in semester-sized chunks with goals nestled within. Suddenly, life opens up and the syllabi are gone. There are days and weeks and months and years, but no clear way to know when or why any one thing should happen. It can be a disorienting cavelike existence. As one twentysomething astutely put it, “The twentysomething years are a whole new way of thinking about time. There’s this big chunk of time and a whole bunch of stuff needs to happen somehow.” (Jay, 2012, p.189)
In the Defining Decade, Meg Jay provides a very compelling narrative and explanation of why our twentysomething years matter so much. Jay dispels some common myths. Contrary to popular opinion, our twenties are not a period of extended adolescence, thirty is not the new twenty, we can pick our families, and twentysomethings are savvy enough to be interested in such information and the power it has to change their lives. Jay contends that about 80 percent of life’s most significant events take place by age thirty-five. Beyond that point, she asserts, we largely either continue with, or correct for, the moves we made during our twenties. Jay’s basic premise is that we need to make the most of our twenties if we are to make the most of our lives as a whole.
The book is definitely worth a read. As a psychologist, Jay has put in several hours working with young people, many of whom feel horribly deceived by the idea that their twenties would be the best years of their lives.
“There are fifty million twentysomethings in the United States, most of whom are living with a staggering, unprecedented amount of uncertainty. Many have no idea what they will be doing, where they will be living, or who they will be with in two or even ten years. They don’t know when they will be happy or when they will be able to pay their bills. They wonder if they should be photographers or lawyers or designers or bankers. They don’t know whether they are a few dates away or many years from a meaningful relationship. They worry about whether they will have families and whether their marriages will last. Most simply, they don’t know if their lives will work out and they don’t know what to do.” (Jay, 2012, p. xxv)
Jay explains that despite the fact that twentysomethings are more educated than ever before, a smaller percentage find work after college, about a quarter of twentysomethings are out of work and another quarter only work part-time, and when adjusted for inflation, employed twentysomethings earn less than their 1970s counterparts.
It is paramount therefore that we use our twenties strategically to optimize our work, love, brain, body, and time for the rest of our lives. This is what The Defining Decade aspires to help us do.
Does K-12 Education prepare young people for their twenties?
As I read the book, it occurred to me that our current approach to K-12 education may have a lot to do with the struggles our twentysomethings face today. If this decade is so defining, then why isn’t K-12 education better oriented to help young people survive and thrive during their twenties?
With our intensified focus and narrowed emphasis on reading and mathematics proficiency as an indicator of college readiness in K-12 education, are we actively robbing our young people of the opportunity to develop, or at least practice, important skills related to work, life, and love?
In February 2011, Harvard University Graduate School of Education produced a report entitled, “Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century“, outlining that U.S. employers are increasingly complaining that today’s young adults are not equipped with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century workforce. The report noted that the implication is that a focus on college readiness alone does not equip young people with all of the skills and abilities they will need for the workplace, or to successfully complete the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It referenced a 2008 report published by Child Trends, which compared research on the competencies required for college readiness, workplace readiness, and healthy youth development. The Child Trends report revealed key overlaps (high personal expectations, self-management, critical thinking, and academic achievement for example), but also demonstrated striking differences:
“[W]hile career planning, previous work experience, decision making, listening skills, integrity, and creativity are all considered vital in the workplace, they hardly figure in college readiness. At the same time, researchers on healthy youth development place far more emphasis on spiritual development (including a sense of purpose), and developing a positive identity and healthy habits, than do those who focus on workplace readiness or college readiness. These findings strongly suggest that a more holistic approach to education – one that aims to equip young adults with a broader range of skills – is more likely to produce youth who will succeed in the 21st century. (Harvard University Graduate School of Education, 2011, p. 11)
If the twenties are to be a defining decade in a positive way for the young people emerging from our K-12 schools, we need to pay attention and take the brave steps required to truly reform the learning process into one that genuinely prepares them for work, life, and love. That means reinvesting in vocational learning as a beneficial co-curricula experience to traditional liberal arts education. It means revitalizing contemporary home economics (family and consumer science) as a serious component of the K-12 curriculum. It means re-defining the classroom so that students can extend their learning beyond the school gates and into the home, the community, the market, the places of worship, and the political square, building relationships and gaining experiences that can help them prepare for life after school.
If we fail to adapt the K-12 learning process to the demands of our modern economy, then our young people will continue to be disillusioned, disempowered, and disoriented during their defining decade and beyond.
“The twenties are an up-in-the-air and turbulent time, but if we can figure out how to navigate, even a little bit at a time, we can get further, faster, than at any other stage in life. It is a pivotal time when the things we do – and the things we don’t do – will have an enormous effect across years and even generations to come. So, let’s get going. The time is now.” (Jay, 2012, p. xxxi)