Book Review: The Defining Decade, 20

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by Anna Meng

I recently turned 20. Aware of my inability to under prepare for anything, my uncle gave me a book called ‘The Defining Decade’. Written by clinical psychologist Meg Jay, the book is aimed at a specific target audience which most students fall into – the ‘twentysomethings’. The tag line, ‘why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them now’ is the best way the book can be summed up. Each chapter offers practical advice about getting a head start in your ideal career, in your personal life, and a whole load of other things.

Jay’s core argument is the notion that ‘thirty is the new twenty’, often circulated by the media, is in fact a destructive idea. She claims twentysomethings are constantly being patronised and dismissed. And the problem with that, of course, is that not taking yourself seriously now will have knock on consequences in the decades to come.

Whilst the book doesn’t actually talk a great deal about students specifically, it remains highly applicable to us. Every stereotype she talks about can, in my opinion, be applied ten-fold to students. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen lecturers actively surprised that people have actually turned up. Just last week one actually congratulated us on having made it to the lecture, which was taking place at midday. The bar is set worryingly low for us. We are generation ignorant. If you ask me, this is all the more reason to expect more from yourself.

In all honesty, if you’re the type of person who sticks their fingers in their ears when anyone asks what you want to do after graduation, this book won’t be a relaxing read. But that was actually part of why I enjoyed reading it: it challenged a lot of what we are constantly being told. Some of the online reviews online criticised Jay for her for ‘condescending’ and ‘preachy’ tone, but I don’t think that was the authorial intention. I think a fair description of her overall tone would be cautionary. Not validating bad life decisions doesn’t mean condescension.

Not everyone will take something useful from the entire book, which is split into the three sections; Work, Love, and Brain & Body. Whichever sections resonate with you will depend on your own personality, values, and goals. For me the ‘Work’ section was by far the best. I’ll admit I have no idea how to go about finding my dream job. The idea of ‘networking’ makes me honest-to-god shudder. After reading Jay’s book, well, it still makes me shudder. But just that little bit less.

The ‘Love’ section I found to be a rather odd read. We may be used to getting career advice from Student Services, but I doubt the Base is going to start suggesting we factor future fertility into our decisions. I think Jay is guilty here of making very sweeping assumptions about what kinds of lives her readers are aspiring to. She doesn’t seem to consider the possibility of a reader who might not fancy the idea of getting married and settling down. But even if you don’t think anything in this section applies to you I still think it was worth reading. There’s something to be said for being aware of what you don’t want.

The ideal life Jay outlines might veer slightly on the traditional side. Several of the reviews I read seemed offended by the assumptions that the reader probably wants a high-flying career and probably wants children. For me, these assumptions weren’t a huge issue. I think it’s more important to take away the general message – that you should focus more on creating the life you want – than to focus on the specifics of the kind of life Jay assumes you want.

There are, however, broader problems with this particular genre of literature. Of course there is more to landing your dream job than following a few bits of advice in a 200 page book. Of course there is more to marriage and family life than simply deciding you want to settle down. Sadly, everything won’t fall into place just because you would like it to. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make plans anyway.

As I write this, on Friday night, I’m watching Netflix with my housemates while I eat Nutella out of the jar. I don’t think Jay’s point is to put on your most serious face, throw on a pants suit, and at once start worrying about life insurance… but it can’t hurt to give a little more thought to the future. Make hay while the sun shines, as the old proverb goes. While at times it may not feel like it, the sun is shining on all of us students. Whether or not you agree with what she has to say, I highly recommend giving Jay’s book a read.