Book Review: The Defining Decade by Meg Jay PhD


“Our “thirty-is-the-new-twenty” culture tells us that the twentysomething years don’t matter. Some say they are an extended adolescence. Others call them an emerging adulthood. But what if thirty is not the new twenty?”

Meg Jay PhD‘s “The Defining Decade” is a deep dive into the difficulties and confusions that a lot of twentysomething’s deal with now and weaves the latest science found about some of the most important years of our lives with stories from Jay’s real-life patients to help people like me figure out our lives. We live in a world where absolutely nothing is guaranteed for twentysomethings, including careers, owning a house, love, marriage or having children. We struggle to keep jobs, find partners or even feel whole and feel like we have a purpose. And why would we? We are constantly being told how replaceable, lazy and boring we are by people that had got to go to university for free and buy a house aged 21. Being a twentysomething is a struggle, and I’m so glad that a scientific professional thought to confirm this for us – it’s not just us being crybabies.

“The Defining Decade” is a practical guide to figuring out how to make the best of the most important years of our lives, written by a clinical psychologist who argues that the 20s decade is the perfect opportunity to develop and set ourselves up to thrive. Split up in three sections – Work, Love, and The Brain & The Body – Jay walks through some of the problems her clients have faced and how we can apply those lessons to our own lives.

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My initial thoughts were that this book manages to somehow be both inspiring and scolding. A few chapters in, I found myself feeling like I was being told off for not making “better” decisions so far, but I’m 23, and who makes good decisions when they’re 23? It made me feel like I have an incredibly limited amount of time to make my life decisions, at the risk of not having enough time to develop my career, get married, or raise a family. It was arresting. Jarring. The sections on Work and Love were the ones that both patronised me and inspired me. It has educated me on the importance of figuring it all out in the next few years, and has reinforced my decision of the next steps I want to take.

The Brain & The Body was the best chapter in my opinion. Looking at the psychological and biological reasons why twentysomething’s often struggle with our confidence and self-esteem, especially when it comes to work, was important, but I don’t think the author really examines that in today’s world a lot of the anxiety comes from us being told we are completely replaceable at work, and that because so many people have degrees/other qualifications there is always someone that can replace us with if we make a big mistake. We are disposable in a way that previous generations never were. It covers a lot of ground – from the importance of looking at starting your retirement savings early to the profound realisations one of Jay’s clients had while having an MRI and fearing for his life. When I finished, I sat down and plotted out where I want to be at each 5 year mark in my life, from 25 to 40. Having marked out some major steps that I want to have taken and goals that I want to have achieved, I can see why so many people have loved this book and have used its message to better their lives. While I don’t think I’ll be reading this cover-to-cover again, I’ll be dipping into the chapters I found useful when I need a little kick to get going again.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

Explaining the most important part of our work and our careers, Identity Capital – “Identity capital is our collection of personal assets… These are the investments we make in ourselves, the things we do well enough, or long enough, that they become a part of who we are.”

On how limiting our friend group and social interactions can limit us – “Whatever the particular sources of sameness, hanging out with them can limit who and what we know, how we talk, and ultimately how we think.”

“An adult life is built not out of eating, praying, and loving but out of person, place, and thing: who we are with, where we live, and what we do for a living. We start our lives with whichever of these we know something about.”

“Confidence doesn’t come from the inside out. It moves from the outside in… The confidence that overrides insecurity comes from experience.”

“The future isn’t written in the stars. There are no guarantees. So claim your adulthood. Be intentional. Get to work. Pick your family. Do the math. Make your own certainty. Don’t be defined by what you didn’t know or didn’t do. You are deciding your life right now.”