Imagine you’ve been plunked into the ocean. You can’t spot land. You’re treading water, your arms are spaghetti-limp and all you see is blue. You get the sense that this could be it forever: you against the currents.
It’s a little dramatic. But it is one of the metaphors that clinical psychologist Meg Jay has shared to describe being in your 20s in her cult classic book “The Defining Decade” — and it is the metaphor that persistently triggers the most explosive reader response. Dozens of 20-somethings have emailed her, making reference to the ocean metaphor with: “Yes!” They resonate because they, too, feel adrift.
Twenty-somethings are not short on sources of career advice. They’re told to hustle, hustle, hustle and to chill out; they’re told that their professional clocks are ticking, and also that 30 is the new 20 and they have all the time in the world.
Into that morass came Jay’s book, first published in 2012, which has since sold more than 500,000 copies and spawned book clubs, TikTok endorsements and a zealous following. Her advice falls somewhere between “there, there” and tough love: Start planning for the future, but don’t freak out. When she published a new edition in 2021, Jay found that the reach of “The Defining Decade” kept expanding, answering to 20-something confusion that is now textured with the pressures of social media and the turbulence of the pandemic. (Parents embrace it, too; Jay sometimes hears from mothers that all they asked for on Mother’s Day was for their children to read the book.)
Jay has emerged as the patron saint of striving youths, a prophet-like figure for a generation of young people buried under mixed messaging. They’re told on television that they could be Kardashian-level rich if they tried, told on Instagram that they should be vacationing in Sicily, told on TikTok what a #Girlboss routine looks like and told in Beyoncé lyrics that all their peers are quitting their jobs.
This year’s college graduates have extra reasons for uncertainty, given the churn in the labor market and the waves of layoffs across tech. In a survey of 1,432 job seekers from Handshake, a job search site for college students, the top words that members of the class of 2023 and other recent graduates used to describe their feelings about the economy were “anxious,” “worried” and “nervous.” They’re following on the heels of millennials, who were known for spending their 20s job-hopping and landing in various positions for under three years. Jay’s book combines sympathy for young people’s confusion with a nudge.
“It definitely aims to create some urgency,” said Jay, 53, her sobering message tempered by a warm Southern drawl. “When we believe that we have all the time in the world to do something, we don’t do anything. That’s just true, for everything from figuring out our careers to doing our laundry.”
The sense of urgency it breeds means that Jay receives not just fan mail but also angst mail from her readers. “They’ll email me and say, ‘I read it at 22 and threw it across the room,’” Jay said. “It just depends.”
On the one hand, the average American won’t get married until around 30 and might switch employers every 30 months; on the other hand, they’re likely to be saddled with nearly $40,000 in student debt. That can leave people with a simultaneous sense of wanderlust and panic.
Sarah Liddy, 25, and Audrey Flowers, 24, are two of Jay’s superfans, mixed-up youths who recently decided to start a podcast to talk about being mixed-up youths. They called it Completely Clueless, with a profanity added in the middle for effect. Both Liddy and Flowers dreamed, in high school, of becoming actors. (Liddy had her debut as the teapot in “Beauty and the Beast.”) They studied musical theater and graduated from college during the pandemic, when auditioning opportunities were nearly nonexistent. Flowers was, until recently, working at a Lululemon store in New York, and Liddy is babysitting.
“The past couple weeks of my life have been an absolute fail, like an L,” Liddy said in a recent episode of the podcast, called “20s Talk,” using the slang term for “loss.” “Major L’s are being had in my life.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to be in your flop era,” Flowers replied. “Because a slay era doesn’t mean anything if there is no flop era.”
She added, encouragingly, “Your slay era is right around the corner, baby girl.”
On a Wednesday this year, Liddy and Flowers sat down for lunch with Jay in Dimes Square, the Manhattan micro-neighborhood known for its cluster of dive bars and young people trying to figure out their lives over dive drinks. The two declared, giddily, how much Jay’s advice had meant to them.
Flowers and Liddy’s story is, like so many described in “The Defining Decade,” both particular in its mishaps and broadly resonant. They were told by teachers while they were growing up that they had what it took to achieve theatrical stardom; Liddy recalled a sense that her whole hometown thought she would end up on Broadway. In college, they threw themselves into auditioning for shows. Then COVID arrived and tossed their professional plans askew. Both podcast hosts related, they said, to Jay’s descriptions of being unmoored.
“The ocean!” Jay said.
“I’ve said that to my therapist multiple times,” Flowers said.
“We’ve both had periods since graduating where we have felt really stuck,” Liddy added. “I just wish I could be my old self again — that girl who was defined by working hard, ‘She’s going to be a star.’”
There were 50 million 20-somethings in the United States, about 15% of the population, when “The Defining Decade” came out. This cohort is experiencing a stage of life that Jay describes as a modern phenomenon. For much of history, people didn’t have a full decade between leaving their parents’ homes and starting their own families. They settled down early — moving into their own homes, finding jobs, having children.
But a confluence of economic and social forces has meant that people now have a longer period between childhood and full-fledged adulthood. One reason is birth control. As oral contraceptives became readily available in the 1960s and 1970s, women were able to delay the decision to start families, and their labor force participation soared over 50%. There’s also student debt, which has prompted many recent graduates to move home with their parents. On top of all that, as religious affiliation has declined, more than half of Americans now derive their sense of self from work — meaning choosing a career isn’t just finding a source of livelihood but also of identity.
With child rearing and homebuying postponed, and the stakes of professional development heightened, a new phase of life has emerged: one of possibility and risk, exhilaration and crippling self-doubt. It’s a complicated time. And Jay, perusing the self-help section at Barnes & Noble one day, realized that while there were ample books about how to raise a child, there weren’t as many about how to keep raising yourself once you’re technically an adult, or at least not enough books with the kind of measured advice she thought young people deserved.
The first edition of “The Defining Decade” came out a few years after the 2008 financial crisis, when young people were graduating with debt into a historically bad job market. The second edition came out during the pandemic, as they graduated into a workplace turned upside down.
When the pandemic hit, Jay was incidentally in her own period of flux. She’d decided to leave behind her own comfortable routines by signing up to teach “The Defining Decade” in a program called Semester at Sea, in which students spend months on a cruise ship traveling the world. Jay’s book club meetings turned out to be among the most popular events on the ship. The room was always packed, the cookies ran out instantly and students watched as their classmates swapped their Colleen Hoover novels for “The Defining Decade.”
“When she’s talking to young people, she gives off the vibe that she’s rooting for you but would call you out on things you’re not doing,” said Athena Bo, 23, a Semester at Sea participant. “A lot of people passed by the room and would say stuff like, ‘Damn, that room is packed.’ ‘Damn, Meg Jay is superfamous.’”
To Bo, reading “The Defining Decade” sharpened the lessons she’d absorbed from her father growing up: “The example I always remember is when I went to McDonald’s, he would say, ‘If you want chicken nuggets, you’re going to have to order it for yourself.’ He would hold me up and be like, ‘You’ve got to ask for the chicken nuggets.’”
Obviously, chicken nuggets were a low-stakes request. A decade later, Bo is learning, from Jay, to ask for more: a job, for example, and a relationship.
As Jay was updating the book in 2020, she was getting dozens more reader emails. Some people told her they felt as if the pandemic had stolen their defining decade, sapping them of the motivation and opportunities to chase what they wanted. Others said that because they were locked down at home, they finally had the time to read her book.
Twenty-somethings were experiencing the unease that Jay had spent the past decade describing, but it was intensified by COVID isolation. Jahleane Dolne, 25, one TikTok fan of “The Defining Decade,” found herself applying for jobs from her parents’ home, scrolling LinkedIn while seated next to her high school cheerleader uniform and prom dress. Jasmine Yook, 30, who has also posted on TikTok about the book, reread Jay’s book at 29 and reflected on the gaps between where she wanted to be in her fashion career and where she had landed.
Jay responded to these readers with football coach pep. “This is your Great Depression,” she said. “This is your recession. This is your generational adversity, and what did you do? How did you respond? To say, ‘Well, I got scrappy and started a podcast’, or ‘I read 50 books I said I was going to read,’ that’s a metaphor or an example of how you respond when life gets difficult.”
And while much of her advice can sound intimidating, she isn’t against offering hacks. “You’re asking about formulas,” Jay said, over lunch, after a discussion about the balance between seeking joy now and working hard to lay the groundwork for joy in the years to come. “There actually is a very loose formula.”
Everyone at the table leaned forward.
“Happy successful people say that they spend about half their time thinking about the present, ‘What’s going to make me feel happy and successful now?,’ and about half thinking about the future,” Jay continued. “If somebody asked me about a formula, how do I balance between being happy in my 20s and being happy beyond, I would say probably about half and half.”
On the other side of a French fry platter, Liddy and Flowers nodded sagely. The advice wasn’t so much a panacea as a flash of hope. There was wisdom they could grasp onto. Somewhere, in the distance, there was land — or at the very least, their 30s.