Fiftysomethings Reflect on Twentysomethings

Summary: Everyone's been there. Oh, and Girls is horrifying.
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Actress Charlotte Rae, center, played the "housemom" on The Facts of Life, in which she mentored almost-twentysomethings at a fictional girls' boarding school. (popsugar social/Google images)

The "twentysomething," that highly studied sociological specimen, has been a topic of sustained conversation among psychologists, journalists, and cultural critics over the past few years. Reflections on Millennials sometimes include intense criticism, but Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade, points out that "even as we dismiss twentysomethings, we culturally fetishize them. Popular cultural is obsessed with these in-between, 'freebie' years. Even parents who settle down fast project their fantasies, saying, 'These are going to be the best years of your life.'"

At a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Jay had a number of comments of her own about twentysomethings, largely making the point that the way people spend their twenties matters later in life in terms of income, relationships, and overall happiness. Most interestingly, though, Jay provided evidence that the twentysomething brain is developmentally distinctive.

"The brain is going through a second critical period of growth," she explained. "The brain doesn't finish developing until some time in your twentysomething years. Being more specific, the pre-frontal cortex doesn't reach maturation until some time in your twenties. This is the last part of the brain to have evolved; it's the last part of the brain to mature. For our purposes, what's important to know about the pre-frontal cortext is that this is the part of the brain that thinks about time, probability, and uncertainty.

"If the brain is rewiring itself in the 20s for adulthood, it's trying to wrap itself around the concepts of time, probability and uncertainty."

In other words, there's science behind the idea that people in their twenties have to figure out all of the stuff Jay is using to define adulthood: How to make long-term plans, how to deal with the uncertainty of the future, etc. But a question remains: Are Millennials figuring stuff out less effectively than generations before them?

To get a take on this question, I had a conversation with three fiftysomethings who attended Jay's talk. They're all parents of young people who are or are about to become twentysomethings, and I asked them what they learned about the twentysomething specimen. The main take-aways: Being a twentysomething has always been hard. They also really hope Girls isn't true-to-life.

Here are some lightly edited highlights from this fiftysomething focus group on the most talked-about generation.

Kathy: I think the term intentional is really interesting. The concern is that in this global economy that is very fast and is very competitive, where the jobs that will be long lasting or self-sustaining are somewhat unclear -- is this notion of being intentional really hard, or is it not that hard? We all were somewhat intentional in our pursuit of what we wanted. It was pretty stressful when I was in my twenties. You have to figure out who you are, what you want to be, but you also have to be self-sustaining. It's a question: is it more difficult now, really, than it was when I was in my twenties?

Peter: I think it's a universal experience. If you compare people with a similar demographic growing up in the United States, I think it's fairly similar. I think it's the same grappling with relationships, with careers, with the same set of issues.

Lisa: I actually think it's different to be a parent than a boss of a twentysomething. If I had to quick title this I would say "20 matters," and I like that. It always mattered to me that people thought I was important, and I certainly thought I was important!

Peter: I don't understand her premise that your 20s don't matter. Maybe I've never thought about it in terms of the 20s as an age thing ... [but] I never really thought that anybody thought that what you go through in your 20s doesn't matter.

Lisa: I kind of hear it more with my kids .... It's the "fetish-ing" of the twenty years. Everyone has got to hook up, everybody's got to text a certain way, everybody's got to know exactly what the Kardashians did last night on the show. ... I do see that as this sort of prolonged party.

Kathy: You could in the worst way look at as this sort of prolonged self-obsesssion -- like Girls is a good example. I find it horrifying.

Lisa: I haven't seen it.

Kathy: You should really watch it, because I do find it really disturbing. ...It portrays the kind of concern of what twentysomethings are living. Not all -- it's a very rarefied group, for sure, but it's still real. The self-obsession -- there's not a sense of "I've gotta get out in this world and (a) survive, and (b) actually make some sort of difference."

Lisa: My favorite employees are old-fashioned. They have great attitudes, they write well, they clean up after themselves, they show up. They're really hard workers, and not too scared of the scut work. ... I actually love this time, this decade, and I do think it matters, and I really love the people who are figuring it out.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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