Things May Get Emotional when TED Talks 20-Somethings

21 May

An article on Refinery29 introduced me to a TED Talk that’s apparently striking home with a lot of young adults. After watching the video, I couldn’t help but speak out in response to the slightly jarring take of clinical psychologist Meg Jay on 20-somethings.

To me, the problem faced by millennials starts with what I like to call the “wrong map” issue. What I mean is this: After graduation from college, you find yourself in the center of some new and unknown world. Naturally you intend to rely on the tools and directions you received throughout your education in order to navigate. Eager and confident, you unfold the map you packed and begin to use it to explore. Only, the farther you get out the door, the more obvious it becomes that this map isn’t accurate at all. In fact, it seems like it was drawn from a different city entirely. Even if you know your destination, it’s obvious that it will be a lot harder to find your way there.

The route described by parents, teachers, colleges, and communities (Get a BA, start an entry-level job immediately after, find what you like and progress while earning income) turned out to be unrealistic for many among us. Not only are most 20-somethings forced to completely rewrite the plan, but they’re also dealing with the weight of stress, disappointment, and confusion during the struggle to uncover opportunities. As much as I appreciate Dr. Jay’s tips for personal and professional growth, I do not appreciate feeling as though we are all the equivalent of a sad-faced girl coming into her office every week to discuss boy troubles. I feel like this image is just another unfortunate contribution to the “silly nicknames” phenomena she alludes to in the beginning of her talk, and I don’t believe it to be true.

Although I admit that it doesn’t take long to think of a handful of people who exacerbate Dr. Jay’s ‘sad girl’, there are even more people who have been pushing themselves extremely hard for many years with little to show for it—cue the sweaty palms, dwindling expectations, and anxiety.

Is it possible that the arrested development addressed by Dr. Jay has more to do with the economy than she would like to admit? I would argue yes. Perhaps, although they would like to, many 20-somethings do not feel as though they can credit themselves with the “maturity” of adulthood because this concept is so intricately and securely tied with the more traditional notion of professional and financial success (a “real” job, a nice home/car, no debt, health insurance, a savings account, a retirement fund).

What happens to the self-image when you are offered a wage today that is the same as you were earning more than a decade ago when you were 15? How does the inability to secure a full-time position with benefits affect the self-esteem of a 30-year-old man with a Master’s Degree? How does it feel to have your entire generation accused of being lazy, cheap, and selfish just because you have a liberal/studio arts degree, own a smart phone, work at a restaurant, live with your parents, are afraid of a mortgage, or don’t want to buy a new car? I’ll tell you how it feels: crappy and unfair.

In addition to negatively coloring self-image, the delay in career launch is stunting the establishment of relationships. Certainly the link between financial/career stability and readiness for family isn’t difficult to identify. The encumbering of professional growth naturally restyles expectations for the timing of family and settling down. Those determined to find career success have to be willing to move across the country, or even the world, in order to pursue opportunities.

ready for marriage?

The act of committing seriously to another person or place can possibly undermine your own success in a world where dedication and flexibility of time, location, and skill are valued above all when deciding who will earn the prestigious position of employed. And since it now requires the full-time income of both partners in order to make a living, it leaves little room for flexibility in relationships before and after marriage.

Instead of clinging to the impression that millennials are just drifting along until 30, at which point they will scramble (and fail) to meet the requirements for being grown up, I think that it’s worthwhile to focus our energy on rethinking our own expectations. What should adult life look like? Is it realistic for it to involve multiple children, car ownership, spring break vacations, or a large backyard? I believe that you can have what you really want—but you must know what that is, and you can no longer rely on the default definition for concepts like adulthood, career, family, home, success, and other related vocabulary. I think that the real challenge faced by the millennial generation is to learn how to overcome the expectation of achieving the same level of wealth as our parents, make do with less, and to reinstate joy and pride into life by actively producing a new and more realistic definition of successful adulthood.

How did Dr. Jay’s Talk make you feel about where you are?

8 Responses to “Things May Get Emotional when TED Talks 20-Somethings”

  1. Craig May 21, 2013 at 11:50 pm #

    Great article. I watched this a couple of days ago and saw some good points but was very conflicted about the picture she was painting. I feel my ideas of success and adulthood have definitely turned out to be a lot different than what I was told. Thankfully the process of defining my own expectations and working towards them has been uniquely personal and filled with pride. Thanks again for your take.

    • McKenzie M May 22, 2013 at 12:49 am #


      Bravo to you for doing things your own way and enjoying it!

  2. broadsideblog June 11, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    I haven’t made time to watch her TED talk but have heard a lot about it.

    I love your post. Smart.

    The notion that we are all supposed to jump onto some hetero-normative conveyor belt really appalls me on every level. Women need and must exercise choices that have nothing to do with what people “think” they should do or did or their kids might want.

    I never wanted kids. I didn’t marry until I was 35, then again at 43. Career mattered far more to me than either of those putatively desirable markers of adulthood.

    The economy has killed many people’s plans, including us old folks who are ALSO earning fucking pennies on the dollar when being offered wages or freelance fees that worked in the 1970s or 80s when gas was 89 cents a gallon — not $4 a gallon.

    If you really want to vomit, read David Brooks’ column in today’s NYT. Keck.

    • McKenzie M June 11, 2013 at 9:31 pm #

      The hetero-normative conveyor belt! I think that the worst thing about it is that smart, passionate, and caring people are often pressuring themselves and others into these conservative narratives without realizing it. And thank you for the reminder that people of all ages are affected by the diminished (or absent) wage. This problem is especially fascinating to observe here in Shanghai where I have the opportunity to interact with an influx of Europeans who have moved halfway around the world in search of a living.

      • broadsideblog June 11, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

        I think we all have a lot more in common across generations right now — if we are struggling! — than perhaps in many decades.

        Narratives are silly when they force us to follow them. But they are an easy out from having to figure it out and maybe do it alone.

  3. Poofter Mcturdsworth June 26, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    I think she’s way off on her why’s. Wealthy white girl with wealthy patients as her sample population. However I can’t help but place a handful of people into each of her examples.

    I do wish all humans were a bit more productive towards the betterment of our Earth and humanity. Yes, the economy sucks, but that is no excuse for the lack of a need to give a shit. Perhaps life is too easy. Our education is a joke, all the way through an undergraduate career. I feel as though I was robbed, myself, considering my in-state tuition debt, only to realize the masters degree is the new bachelors, bachelors, the new high school diploma. Top that with the ridiculous number of people paying for absolutely useless degrees, somehow brainwashed, they imagine finding a career to apply it to out of college. I definitely didn’t learn that hard work was the key to success as a result of my education, more likely a strategy for jumping through hoops was the result. I don’t think most know what hard work actually is.

    Regarding life, you don’t have to try and our system will almost make sure you survive unless you plan on opting out yourself. Although, there is a place for social services, most take advantage of them at some point. (i.e. food stamps, welfare, even social security) Survival of the fittest is a joke for our species. Consider the facebook friends she talks about having children and marrying to compare yourself with. The movie, ‘Idiocracy’ comes to mind. No offense to young parents and wed/engaged ones.

    If an annual six figure income is in your plan, you’ve either come from that and have a shoe in and/or I think you ought to figure out a way to take advantage of the hard work of others, or your dreaming.

    I’ve met people from all walks of life and ages who are quick to complain about the short hand they’ve been given, and equally meet people making what they consider a successful living. I don’t believe they found their success by luck, nor do I think all short-hands dealt are always a result of unfortunate events or a poor economy. You only live once and that may be the most successful opportunity anyone can ask for.

    I hope I didn’t offend, and there are exceptions for everything I have been inclined to write here. Mckenzie, I appreciate your hard work and efforts as a twenty -somethin. I’m also glad to find your blog. I wish you good luck.

    • McKenzie M June 26, 2013 at 9:25 pm #


      Thanks for the insight. I appreciate your focus on hard work. I agree that many people still do not know what it feels like. I appreciate YOUR hard work too. It is true that no matter the cards you’re dealt, you’ve got to try to move forward, and hard work will hopefully keep you on the path. No doubt it’s the best bet we’ve got.


  1. Are You Twenty-Something? | schirin oeding - May 29, 2013

    […] Things May Get Emotional (by Mckenzie Malanaphy) […]

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