In the famous scene from The Graduate, Ben is cornered by guests at his college graduation party who ask, “What are you going to do now?” One man offers a single word of advice: “Plastics.” By the movie’s end, Ben is still clueless about his future. And there most likely will be thousands of versions of Ben among the 4 million students receiving degrees this month.
Added to the usual post-college confusion is not only a working world radically changed. The concept of emerging adulthood has taken root, in effect giving 20-somethings permission to take their time figuring out the next step.
Many commencement speakers will offer counsel, usually promptly forgotten. However, advice worth remembering for our adult children, both new grads and those post-college, comes from clinical psychologist Meg Jay. She first came to national attention two years ago with “Why 30 Is Not the New 20,” a TED talk with more than 7 million views.
In the talk and her book, The Defining Decade, Jay explains why it’s critically important for young adults to get working on their personal and professional lives in their 20s, even if they are unsure of the ultimate direction. She offers some compelling evidence:
- Eighty percent of life’s most defining moments take place by age 35.
- Seventy percent of lifetime wage growth happens in the first 10 years of a career.
- Personalities change more in the 20s than any other time.
We spoke with Jay last week from her office in Charlottesville, Va., where she has a private practice as well as a role supervising doctoral students at the University of Virginia.
Jay’s key point is that young adults need to accumulate “identity capital,” which she defines as “an investment in who you might want to be next.” That could be a job, internship, grad school, finding mentors, or moving cross country, among other possibilities.
So how do young adults start collecting this identity capital? It doesn’t need to be a 9-to-5 desk job, but it’s not wandering through Europe either. Working as a short-order cook for a year or two before culinary school or as an executive assistant to get into the glamour industry qualify. “Think broadly about what skills and talents are valued in a certain career and what kinds of experiences are relevant,” Jay says.
Some young adults are wary of making a wrong decision. The only bad choice, says Jay, is doing nothing. “I see a lot of 20-somethings killing time by avoiding making any decision. They can’t decide between law school or graphic design so they decide to wait tables or work in a ski town until they make up their minds. There are ways to have fun and still be kind to your future self.”
She gives an example from her own life after college where she worked for several years for Outward Bound, first as a driver and eventually as a team leader. The job not only fulfilled her desire for adventure and exploring the world — it also provided leadership experience valued by psychology doctoral programs when it came time to apply to grad school. “That experience helped me stand out,” she says, “and I also got to enjoy myself in that time.”
Jay suggests putting a year or two into one type of identity capital and then reassessing whether it’s time to move on to something better targeted to a career goal. She counseled a client who worked in Los Angeles as an assistant to a VIP for a year. “After that time, lots had been accomplished in terms of connections and what she had learned but to stay any longer was going to be diminishing returns. It was time to cash in and move on,” Jay says.
So perhaps “identity capital” is the catchphrase of advice to offer new grads. If they starting accumulating one piece of identity capital after another then they become, Jay says, “too big to fail.”
Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.
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