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Humanities Workshop Explores What it Means to Be a Twenty-Something Today

“Thirty is not the new 20.”

With that, Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, sought to dispel a popular myth during a talk hosted Thursday by U.Va.’s Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures. The discussion, “Growing Up and Growing Older in the College Years: Will it Ever Get Better Than This?“ was the first in a series of four workshops to be held throughout the spring.

English professor Michael Levenson, director of the institute, said the series, “Well Being and Good Living: Learning, Losing, and Loving in University Years” grew out of an interdisciplinary collaboration.

“We are not just interested in the academic nature of the humanities,“ he said. “The humanities are also about human flourishing and about man reaching his potential. When we reached out across disciplines, we found that we had a lot in common with health sciences.”

The workshops will address a range of topics from social media to anxiety, and each will feature brief talks by a psychotherapist, a faculty member and an undergraduate, followed by an open conversation with attendees.

At the first talk, Jay and Levenson, along with third-year College of Arts & Sciences student Charlie Tyson, an English and political and social thought major, spoke to a crowd of about 20 faculty members and undergraduate and graduate students about being a 20-something in today’s world.

In her book “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now, ” Jay discounts the modern mantra that one’s 20s are an extended adolescence. When professional life and serious relationships are pushed to one’s 30s, there is suddenly a lot of pressure to do everything at once, Jay said.        

“Claiming your 20s is one of the easiest, most transformative things you can do,” she said. “We all know how the first five years are important to child development. What we hear less about is adult development, which happens in your 20s. The 20s are a developmental hot spot that you’ll never get again.”

To maximize one’s 20s, Jay gave three pieces of advice: forget having an identity crisis and seek “identity capital”; the urban tribe is overrated; and you can, in fact, pick your family.

Jay defines identity capital as one’s collection of personal assets that are accumulated over time through work and life experience. Unlike an identity crisis, identity capital involves making commitments, and through those choices, constructing an individual and marketable identity.

“Identity capital begets identity capital,” Jay said. “I am not discounting exploration, just exploration that ‘doesn’t count.’ That’s not exploration, that’s procrastination.”

She discussed the strength of weak ties and how the close-knit “urban tribe”  popularized by television shows is not as beneficial as having a large network of acquaintances.

Jay also debunked the myth “you can’t pick your family.” While that was true growing up, 20-somethings can now choose their family by deciding on a life partner, she said.

“It’s not necessarily about sticking to a plan, but about creating choices and realizing you have more control than you think you do, ” Jay said. “One opportunity, one good piece of advice can set a life on fire. ”

As a 20-something on the discussion panel, Tyson addressed the unique issues facing his generation and his skepticism about growing up too fast. He said that his generation lives in a world that has never been experienced before and that his cohort must learn to ask for help in order to navigate the challenges of economic uncertainty and digital technology. “An adulthood we want to enter into is not only a professional one, but a moral one,” he said.

Tyson also discussed the importance of growing up slowly and utilizing the 10 years of one’s 20s for development. “Growing up should not be sudden, but a ‘slow roast.’ Consistency is a marker of true maturity,” he said.

Jay, however, said the 20s are more microwave than slow roast. “Reject the conscious wisdom that 30 is the new 20,” Jay said. “You are deciding your life right now.”

The next talk in the series, “Face to Face, Facebook, or Facetime: Lost online, just lost, or never lost?” will take place Thursday at 6 p.m. and will feature Michael Mason, the Elson Student Health Center’s multicultural specialist, and history professor Sophia Rosenfeld.

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