Our 20s Matter
Part 1: Work
2020-11-15 00:00:00 -0600

When people think of their 20s, what do they think of? I know what I used to think of:

  • fun
  • getting a decent job in a bustling city, maybe around age 26–28
  • falling in love and having a rollercoaster romance
  • more fun

You get the gist of it. Of course, this is all based on what I saw on TV shows and movies that featured young women in their 20s. For the moment, let’s focus on the second bullet point: “getting a decent job in a bustling city, maybe around age 26–28”. Although this is what those TV shows show their viewers, it’s not exactly realistic, and oftentimes getting a “decent job in a bustling city” is more nuanced and complex than just starting in a secretary job in Season 1 and slowly moving up and becoming a magazine editor by Season 3.

For real people, not characters, finding the “right” job in the “right” city is not always the easy, or even the “right” thing. To help summarize what The Defining Decade by Meg Jay has explained to me, this blog post will focus on the following areas:

 

Identity Capital

The truth, according to The Defining Decade, is that “[about] two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first ten years of a career” (page 12). This means that if young adults in their 20s continually take strings of underemployment jobs, with no hope of getting ahead (either moving into a management role, using that experience as a resumé builder for another job, etc), then by the time they’re in their 30s, they’ve paid a high price for those jobs. “[Late] bloomers will likely never close the gap between themselves and those who got started earlier” (page 13).

To help clarify the exact price that “late bloomers” will pay, let’s crunch some numbers. Let’s take a job at a retail store making $12/hour. If that person works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, that totals about $24,960 per year (ignoring taxes). Let’s say they work that job for eight years. After eight years, they’ll have made $199,680. Now, let’s take somebody that takes a lower paying job, but a job with growth potential, and they start at $10/hour. Working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, they’ll have made $20,800 the first year. But the next year, they get a raise (let’s say 4%), to now $10.40/hour. Now after the first two years, they’ll have made $42,432. The next year, they get another 4% raise. In year four, they get a significant promotion, and now make $22/hour. Now, for the sake of my lazy, but long, calculator string, let’s say they keep that promoted raise of $22/hour for the next four years (so they made $22/hour for a total of five years). At the end of eight years, the same as before, they’ll have made $293,737.60. Feel free to correct my math, but I think I did it right.

Year First Scenario Second Scenario Comparison (2nd Scenario – 1st Scenario) Comparison Total over all Years
1
$12 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $24,960
$10 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $20,800
$20,800 − $24,960
= $-4,160
$20,800 − $24,960
= $-4,160
2
$12 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $24,960
$10.40 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $21,632
$21,632 − $24,960
= $-3,328
$42,432 − $49,920
= $-7,488
3
$12 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $24,960
$10.82 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $22,505.60
$22,505.60 − $24,960
= $-2,454.40
$64,937.60 − $74,880
= $-9,942.40
4
$12 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $24,960
$22 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $45,760
$45,760 − $24,960
= $20,800
$110,697.60 − $99,840
= $10,857.60
5
$12 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $24,960
$22 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $45,760
$45,760 − $24,960
= $20,800
$156,457.60 − $124,800
= $31,657.6
6
$12 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $24,960
$22 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $45,760
$45,760 − $24,960
= $20,800
$202,217.60 − $149,760
= $52,457.60
7
$12 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $24,960
$22 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $45,760
$45,760 − $24,960
= $20,800
$247,977.60 − $174,720
= $73,257.60
8
$12 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $24,960
$22 × 40 hours × 52 weeks
= $45,760
$45,760 − $24,960
= $20,800
$293,737.60 − $199,680
= $94,057.60

Obviously in this example, not everybody can afford to take a lower paying job with growth potential, but this is just an example I made up.

While the whole concept of no work and all play is enticing, the truth is, it’ll put young adults behind for years to come. This is clear from a monetary perspective, but it’s also true when it comes to the state of our mental health. Having unfulfilling jobs can introduce an array of issues, such as depression, drinking, low self-esteem, lower stress management, and less life satisfaction. If a person is consistently taking jobs that are below their true worth, they’re slowly starting to subconsciously convince themselves that they’re not capable of doing anything better, for whatever reason. And as they see their friends and peers moving on, they’ll start to feel behind.

So, what do we do about this? Well, if we are having trouble getting a job that fits our skillset (as, according to The Defining Decade, many adults in their 20s do), then we must take the job that has the most identity capital.

Identity capital is a collection of personal assets: the investments we make in ourselves. Maybe that involves taking the lower-paying job at the youth center, versus a barista job at Starbucks. Identity capital could be things that would eventually go on our resumé, or it could be personal, such as how we speak, where we come from, or how we look. Maybe investing in professional clothing is going to be worth more than purchasing more workout clothes (says the person who wears leggings and/or sweatpants every day… I know). All of these make you you. And when you go interview for jobs (or on a first date, or really anything with a first impression), you’re marketing yourself.

If people develop lives with all capital and no crisis (all work, no exploration), their life can end up rigid and conventional. On the opposite side, people with all crisis and no capital are potentially “in danger of becoming irrelevant” (page 7). Therefore, the healthiest thing to do is aim for somewhere in the middle. Live your life and have a good time, of course. But also invest in yourself. Don’t stay up until 2am every night because your work will suffer. Don’t quit every job as soon as it gets difficult. Likewise, don’t work until 9pm each night and neglect your social life because those friends will eventually become an invaluable support system.

Use what bits of identity capital you have to gain new bits of capital. Think of your career as a ladder. If you want to get as high on the ladder as you can (think long-term, not short-term), you need to start at the bottom. You need jump to the first rung in order to get to the second. And you need to get to the fourth to get to the fifth. Of course, it may be easier for some people to jump rungs than others (see privilege). But the truth is that everybody has identity capital to use… the trick is to find which pieces will be useful to you.

For example, I got one of my first internship interviews because I attended the same college as the future intern’s manager. In my most recent interview with a delivery company, I brought up my own crazy experience as a delivery driver with Instacart (see My Time with Two Jobs). All of these little bits of identity capital have been used to form my story, and my personalized story will help me get to the next level in my career.

 

Connections

I get it: networking isn’t fun. And it can feel unfair that people with connections get things (like jobs, interviews, and acceptance letters) easier. But, whether for good or bad, that’s the way the world works. We can gain new opportunities by keeping in touch with people that we once knew. Even things as simple as writing down somebody’s email address, and then messaging them that you were happy to meet with them, and you hope to work with them again in the future could go a long way.

For my latest job, I was basically asked to interview because of a recommendation from a person I had worked with two years ago. I leaned into that request to interview, and I went for it. What did I have to lose? And that worked in my favor: I’m very happy at my new job. And I wouldn’t be surprised if within the next 20 years, I work with other previous coworkers again.

But, making connections with people goes beyond the workplace. As Jay wrote on page 27:

Most twentysomethings yearn for a feeling of community, and they cling to their strong ties to feel more connected. Ironically, being enmeshed with a group can actually enhance feelings of alienation, because we—and our tribe—become insular and detached. Over time, our initial feeling of being part of a group becomes a sense of disconnection with the larger world.

Let’s say you’ve been spending a lot of time doing the same hobbies with the same friends for the past two years. If you want to branch out and do other things, it could be hard to convince your current friend group to do that, too. Hence, here come those connections. Maybe you worked with somebody previously that has a hobby you’re interested in trying. Maybe you have a mutual friend somewhere that is experienced in another activity you’d like to try. If you’ve kept up with those connections, even a little bit, then you can reach out to them again and ask for a favor.

The Defining Decade points out something called the Ben Franklin effect. Simply put, this states that people that have already done a favor for somebody is more likely to do a favor for them again. Basically, if we do favors for other people, our brain starts to tell us that we like that person. This leads us to do more favors, which leads to liking other people more, etc. The point is, if you want somebody to like you, then ask them to do you a favor. If they do it, they’ll be more likely to do more favors in the future. Of course, asking someone for help can be scary. The fear of being rejected or mocked is real. But the truth is that people like to help other people, and so if you’re nice and friendly, people will want to help you.

Furthermore, if young people in their 20s are trying new things and talking to new people (that may not have the same backgrounds and history as them), then they’re more likely to get a broader perspective of the world around them. They’ll be able to learn new skills, trades, and more about themselves. This is important to do now, while young adults’ brains are still malleable and they’re still in their prime “learning” age (more to come on this in another blog post).

My point is, lean into these weaker connections. These weak connections can eventually become stronger with a little bit of effort, and there’s a lot of good that can come from new connections. You all have seen the movies where somebody doesn’t want to go to a party, but goes to be with their friend and make the friend happy. And then, the protagonist ends up meeting their romantic partner for the movie. My point is, if you say ‘yes’ to those weaker connections, there’s lots of possibilities. If you say ‘no’, you’re closing yourself off to all the possibilities.

You don’t have to do everything alone. Of course, do your research. Figure out how to make helping you sound as appealing as possible, and always be respectful. Some people will say no, and that’s okay. But “[more] than you think will say yes” (page 31).

 

Comparisons and Expectations

I’ll start this section simple: don’t compare your life to your “friends’” lives on social media. Your life is not your friends’ lives. Their dream job doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) your dream job. Just because they may be working for a non-profit that’s helping kids in bad foster homes, doesn’t mean your job is a bad job, or like you aren’t doing what you should be doing.

According to The Defining Decade, “[each] person has an inherent urge to grow toward his or her potential” (page 46). But many people don’t understand what potential they should be aiming for. We are not all the same. Our potentials are all different, and no one person’s potential is smaller or inferior to another’s. “Some twentysomethings dream too small, not understanding that their twentysomething choices matter and are, in fact, shaping the years ahead. Others dream too big, fueled more by fantasies about limitless possibilities than experiences” (page 46). The truth is, my life journey looks nothing like your life journey, which probably looks nothing like anybody else’s life journey.

According to Jay, there’s a difference between striving for potential and falling victim to comparisons and expectations. The difference is called “the tyranny of the should” (page 47). When you talk about your job and career, are your sentences filled with ‘should’s and ‘supposed to’s? “My work should be fulfilling.” “My work is supposed to stress me out, or else I’m not being challenged.” “I should be in grad school.” “College should be easier than this.” “My life is supposed to be happier.” As Jay wrote on page 47:

Shoulds can masquerade as high standards or lofty goals, but they are not the same. Goals direct us from the inside, but shoulds are paralyzing judgments from the outside.

You shouldn’t feel obligated to do anything. If you’re unsatisfied in your job, then what can you do to change the situation? If you feel pressured to move to a certain city (hence the “getting a decent job in a bustling city”), but you don’t want to move to a big city, then what can you do to ensure you can stay where you are? Focus on what’s real, not what you think is real (which commonly comes from social media). If you feel obligated to make your life fit all of the ‘should’s, then you’re losing your sense of self and your sense of your own desires.

As an example, I don’t really drink or party anymore. I used to. But I don’t find it enjoyable anymore… and I’m not really sure if I ever did. Now, I play with LEGO sets. I write blog posts. I meditate. I don’t have any kids, and right now, that’s okay with me. If I tried to make my life exactly how all of my one thousand Facebook friends lived their lives… well I probably wouldn’t be as happy as I am now.

You don’t need to go to parties if you don’t want to. You don’t need to live in a certain location, just because all of your college friends are living there. You don’t need to want to travel if you don’t want to. You don’t need to only see your family at holidays. You don’t need to be a lawyer just because your parents want you to be a lawyer. You’re in charge of your own life. Obviously, I write this knowing that comes with a certain amount of privilege. Not everybody can just change their life whenever they want. Creating the life we really want to live is hard for everyone. So you’re not alone. Ask for favors. Talk to people, despite being scared. Take leaps of faith. Through all of that discomfort, we grow.

Don’t give into those comparisons you subconsciously make with everybody else, and don’t let those expectations of you change what you really want to do. If you let those rule your life… well… that’s not living up to your full potential.

 

Your Life Doesn’t Need to be Boring

According to The Defining Decade, there’s many young adults in their 20s who don’t want their life to be “boring”. They want to be unique and special. As Jay writes on page 56:

Distinctiveness is a fundamental part of identity. We develop a clearer sense of ourselves by firming up the boundaries between ourselves and others. I am who I am because of how I am different from those around me. […] Differentness is part of what makes us who we are. It gives our lives meaning.

On a personal level, I never really felt any stress from this standpoint. Maybe it’s because, as a non-white woman in tech, I am sort of unique. Maybe it’s just that I always sat at the front of the classroom, and that set me apart. Maybe it was as simple as I knew I had the boisterous and energetic attitude to always stand out. But, according to Jay, there’s a subsection of young adults that don’t commit to career paths or jobs because they don’t want to have the same old desk job that everyone else has.

Jay writes that “[we] have to shift from a negative identity, or a sense of what [we’re] not, to a positive one, or a sense of what [we are]” (page 56). Instead of focusing on what we don’t want to do (be the same as everyone else), we need to focus on what we do want to do. Maybe instead of a “desk job”, it’s writing and drawing. Maybe instead of working as an office manager, it’s organizing and planning weddings and parties. As Jay writes on page 57:

Saying yes to one concrete thing felt like saying no to an interesting or limitless life. In fact, it’s the other way around. If [the young adult] didn’t say yes to something, [their] life was going to become unremarkable and limited.

By saying ‘yes’ to a desk job in your 20s, you’re not settling. You’re not stuck. What really would make you stuck is if you wait until you’re 36, and then you have a baby at 38, and need a job, but aren’t qualified for any well-paying job. By claiming a career in your 20s, you’re starting, not setting.