lifestyle

"I am the exception that proves the rule is rubbish."

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Just let it all hang out.

By AMY STOCKWELL

Mamamia’s editor, Jamila Rizvi wrote on Friday that she is sick of hearing that ‘30 is the new 20’. Jam is concerned about her mates who are wasting their 20s by working in dead-end jobs and dating dud partners (Hi, everyone!).

Jam dropped some truth bombs on her friends whose motivation is on the fritz: “Dismissing your entire 20s as just good fun doesn’t make you a successful, happy or fulfilled 30 year old. It makes you a lazy, lonely and confused 30 year old who is wondering where the hell the last decade went.”

This question of whether your 20s are the most important period in your life or a dumping ground for all of your worst impulses was the theme of a TED Talk by clinical psychologist Dr Meg Jay, who “specialises in twenty-somethings” in her psychology practice.

Dr Jay (and Jamila) want 20-somethings to straighten up and fly right and stop wasting their “defining decade of adulthood”. Have a little ambition kids!

In her TED Talk, Dr Jay wants to tell all 20-somethings three things. Firstly, don’t waste your 20s having an identity crisis. Build your “identity capital” and do something that adds value to your career. Secondly, abandon your “urban tribe” (your friends). They won’t get you anywhere. Instead, use your “weak ties” (your networks) to get a job. Third and finally, you can and should choose your family. Be “as intentional with love as you are with work”. Marry someone who is good for you and be resolute about it.

Now, if this all resonates with you, that’s great. If this kick-starts your heart, even better. If this makes you put down your disco juice and pick up your folio, that is wonderful. Stop reading this. Go, fly! FLY!

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But if Dr Meg Jay’s analysis leaves you a little underwhelmed, settle in, stay a while.

I don’t buy what Dr Jay is selling. Her TED Talk strikes me as the counsel of someone trying to justify their own life choices and, in Dr Jay’s case, to validate the advice that she has given others. Dr Jay probably doesn’t mind that I feel this way because I’m not her target audience. She’s not trying to sell her ethos (or her book) to me. I’m in my middish-30s. She’s talking to people in their 20s or parents of people in their 20s, I imagine.

Yet, while she isn’t talking to me, she is making some fairly pejorative judgments about the lives of people who don’t live the way she prescribes. She’s telling us that we haven’t lived our 20s according to her model, then we’re stuffed career-wise.

If we haven’t formed a strategic union with a significant other (and some other hetero-normative rubbish), we are guilty of sabotaging our own happiness and may not have someone to list as our ‘In Case Of Emergency’ person (this is apparently The Worst). If we don’t get out on the hustings, we might make the life-altering mistake of “benign neglect” in this, our defining decade of adulthood.

And if you haven’t had children then [TICK, TICK LADIES! How can you sleep over the sound of your biological Swatch?].

Biological swatch
How can you sleep over the sound of your biological Swatch?

I say this sincerely and with the greatest of respect: *Yawn*. This kind of escalating hysteria about aging, expectation and running out of time puts women in a constant state of anxiety.

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I’ve got too much to do, I’ve not done enough, I must do more, I must push and drive and crush and mate and breed and make everyone happy.

‘We are expecting more of you’ is not a message that any woman needs to hear. If anything, it is specifically the message that women need to block out if they want to get things done – at any age.

As Dr Jay points out, “your personality changes more in your 20s than at any other time of your life.” In my view, this notion of your 20s as a period of significant change entirely undermines Dr Jay’s thesis.

What if what you want and strive for in your 20s is not what you want in your 30s or 40s or 50s? That seems very reasonable, especially if your personality has changed. Life is long and it is getting longer.

If you find yourself not having what you want (at any age), then you still have time (and the skills) to do something about it, because there is a good chance that, at 45, you are only half way through your life. If your therapist tells you any different, get a new one.

And honestly, Dr Jay, if the worst thing that your 20-something patients are suffering when they walk through your door is privileged malaise about personal identity, then you should keep shtum about it because you are making money for jam.

Now, I know I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a doctor. I’m not even particularly happy or making very much jam.

And this brings me to my point.

Meg Jay is not only wrong because her assumptions about what makes people happy are flawed.

She is not only wrong because she thinks that marriage, children and traditional models of career progress are the true path to happiness.

She is not only wrong because her views don’t accommodate 20-somethings who might be poor, disabled, unemployed or otherwise not white, middle-class post-university types.

Dr Meg Jay is wrong because… ME.

I am the exception that proves her rule is rubbish.

I did exactly what she recommends. And that makes me your cautionary tale, 20-somethings.

I worked at a law firm while at uni studying law and science. Then I worked in the law. Then I studied my masters and then I worked more. And more. And more. Then I got shingles on a nerve behind my eye, right near my brain. Then I kept working. And my hair fell out (in all of the wrong places). So I worked. I got horribly bullied. I worked some more to prove that I was valuable. I had my feelings hurt. So I worked. And for a change up, I worked some more.

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Amy Stockwell
Amy Stockwell

So, now, in my middish-30s, I look back and wonder where my 20s went. Not because I had a super-rad time and can’t remember most of it, but because I worked a lot and can’t remember most of it.

I’ve got Dr Jay’s ‘identity capital’ out the wahzoo and ‘weak links’ to burn (and I’m probably burning them right now). Sure, I’ve dropped the ball on a solemnised strategic union and a baby, but as Meatloaf says: two out of three ain’t bad.

But it is bad. In an effort to recapture what I’ve missed, I go out with 20 somethings and pretend I’m passing for late 20s (wear sunscreen, kids). The truth is I’m not passing. When we go out, I look like my young friends’ sad drunken aunty.

I only go to music festivals when I can bring my own drinks because I don’t want to queue for drinks and then queue for the toilet.

I dress like a computer programmer in the 90s which I like to think makes me look retro-hip, but it just makes me look like someone who says ‘retro-hip’.

Dr Jay says that “80% of life’s defining moments take place before you are 35”, with some implication that you can control what these moments are. I say that, even if you could, you don’t need to be limited by your experiences in your 20s. And you do not need to feel bad if they aren’t the experiences that Dr Jay prescribes.

30 is the new 20, if you want it to be. There is plenty of time to beat yourself up and feel bad about what you have or haven’t achieved. And, never fear, there are plenty of psychologists doing TED Talks who are happy to do it for you.

Amy Stockwell is a policy communicator, lawyer and writer, former ministerial adviser, public servant and NGO-junkie. You can follow her on Twitter 

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