JAM: Why 30 is NOT the new 20.

Jamila in Ireland. Probably about to tip over a cow in her efforts to be young and dumb.


Two years ago, I got on a plane and flew to the other side of the world in search of the crazy 20s I was convinced I’d been missing out on.

After years of focusing (read: obsessing) over some fairly lofty career goals, working my butt off balancing full time work with full time study and never straying from a fairly comfortable relationship path – I was finally going to be young and dumb for a while.

Because that’s what your 20s are for, right? It’s when you’re supposed to make mistakes: sleep with the bad boy, experiment with substances you shouldn’t, fail the exams, live at home and save on rent, ignore dates and deadlines, blow all your money on that once-in-a-lifetime holiday, mess around and never worry about the consequences.

And for my generation there seems to be an expectation that you should make these carefree years last for as long as possible. In fact, right up until there is no longer a lovely number ‘2’ at the front of your age and it is instead replaced by a big fat-tummied ‘3’.

Because apparently 30 is the new 20.

For the generations that came immediately before Y, 20 (or more specifically 21) was seen as the gateway to adulthood. It was when you made plans, set goals, became fully independent from your parents and got serious about work. But now? Notsomuch.

Apparently, you can be as irresponsible as you like when you’re a 20-something because it’s basically an extension of your teen years. We have all heard the spiel: It doesn’t matter if your boyfriend isn’t perfect because he’s not who you’ll marry, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you to worry about money and career, and this is a time when you should just be having fun.

Now, to a certain extent I agree with that. Because we do learn from our mistakes. And experiences – however bad – are part of what makes us who we are. I’m a little over two thirds of the way through my twenties and I still spend most days discovering just how much I don’t know. I have made rather a habit of making errors of judgement so large that I leave a giant Jamila-sized hole in the proverbial wall.

But. (And this is a really big But).

This emerging view that your 20s are simply a ‘write-off’ decade – where you can mess around by living without reason, fear, logic, ambition, empathy or regret – is just plain dangerous.

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 last decade went. And here’s a hint: It’s not behind the couch cushions or where the missing socks are.

Clinical psychologist Meg Jay gave a TED talk recently on this very topic.


Jay argues that because everything is happening later in life for generation Y (marriage, kids, career, moving out of home and even death), we are more accepting of the whole ’30 is the new 20′ mantra. And that’s a problem.

In her TED talk (which has inspired praise and derision in seemingly equal measure) Jay explains that 80 per cent of life’s most defining moments take place before 35.

She speaks of a person’s 20s as incredibly important to their development and their future success. Jay claims that: “the brain caps of its second and last growth spurt in your 20s as it rewires itself for adulthood” and that “personality changes more in your 20s that at any other time in your life.”

And this is the decade we’re increasingly dismissing as a veritable write-off? Seriously?

Now I am not poo-poo-ing the concept of giving ourselves some freedom to try different things when we’re young. But I am frustrated by how regularly I’m accused of ‘not really living’ or ‘taking life too seriously’ just because I have ambitions that are written in the present and not just the future tense.

You’re in your 20s not your teens.

I’m distressed by the number of my friends who are squandering brains, enthusiasm and potential in jobs they hate because they ‘don’t want to get tied down to the responsibility of a full blown career’ just yet.

I’m exhausted by how willing some of my mates are to be wasting years with someone who isn’t right for them because he or she is ‘just for now’. Because just for now tends to turn into a lifetime…

A few of my peers have even expressly chosen to make stupid decisions because ‘that’s what we’re supposed to do at this age’, rather than letting those mistakes be a by-product of the pursuit of actual goals.

Friends, I don’t know much but I do know this: There are no dress rehearsals or practice runs when it comes to what you’re going to fill your life with.

And our lives do not begin at 30.

I say this while absolutely acknowledging that it can be incredibly fulfilling and beneficial to take some time out from your usual day-to-day. Many of us need the chance to try something new or re-group and re-set. And your 20s is a great time to do that. It might be a couple of weeks, a couple of months, even a year or so but for heaven’s sake you don’t need a DECADE.

Of course you are going to make mistakes. Of course you are going to take wrong turns. Of course you are going to change your mind. ALL of that is okay. But don’t sell yourself short by screwing around and putting off the things that will make you happy because you think you’re too young.

And hell, if this entire tirade is completely wrong? Well,  they say 40 is the new 30.

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