“The Defining Decade” by Meg Jay: Trading Fluff for Fear Tactics

Therapy makes you uncomfortable. I personally feel more capable of girding my loins and analyzing my past traumas alongside my sidekick-who-is-actually-the-hero therapist. I can stomach telling her stories about how this or that painful card stacked upon the previous until my anxiety was a playing-card house about 10 feet tall. (Except, someone cheated. They used superglue to stack them and now I couldn’t kick that sucker over if I tried! And I’ve tried!)

The real difficulty comes when my therapist asks me about who I am now or, even worse, who I want to be. I cried very hard when I told her how I want my career to be related to writing, not only because this has always felt like a pipe dream for me, but also because I have this perception that your ideal occupation should be cultivated with care, each previous well-selected job providing essential training so that when that ideal position does come up, you’ll be prepared. Let’s just say I don’t feel like I’ve spent my time in New York so far garnering those skills — howdy, anxiety and quarter-life crisis.

I was walking through a bookstore the other day and talking to my sister on the phone when I said distractedly, “I think I want to buy a self-help book.” I stopped walking and laughed. Claire, what? I’ve never been one for the self-help genre. It involves the intimidating activity of admitting that you as a person are not perfect, don’t like some things about yourself, or are flawed in some way. You have to admit this to people on the subway who glance at the cover of your self-help book. You have to admit it to your roommate, who sees the book on the kitchen table, or your boyfriend, who sees it on your bookshelf. Okay, maybe you can get past this step. You read the book in private and store it safely under your mattress. You still have to admit these things to the bookstore clerk who takes way too long to help you buy your book while everyone behind you in line is surely annoyed and also probably rolling their eyes at your book choice. Maybe these admissions of defect don’t really faze you — great! In order to purchase the book, though, you ultimately have to admit them to yourself.

Another reason I’ve never really been drawn to self-help is because the 21st-century titles telling you to wash your hair, unfuck your lifestyle, and learn to navigate a dating scene forged by pings off of various cellphone towers seem like they contain a suspicious amount of fluff. Why are the covers so baby blue, so very instagrammable next to a cup of tea, and how much new information could each possibly contain? One solid stone of advice surrounded by a whole lot of air per book? At best? I’m not judging here. I love all books, and that includes airy books. They’re often more fun. They bounce higher. If I was going to take this self-help thing seriously, though, if I really wanted to learn something that would alter my thinking, I wanted a book that was persistent on the bestseller list and written by someone qualified. I chose The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — and How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay, PhD. Sounds promising, right?

Jay’s book starts with a call for twentysomethings to act, to pull up “a seat at the table in a conversation about their own lives” (xi). She ensures her twentysomething reader will continue to participate in her “conversation” by pandering to the self-criticism and doubt that comes from forging a life for one’s own, noting with virulence that twentysomethings “are working the most unstable jobs they’ll ever have” (xii). Wouldn’t you rather this not be the case, Jay asks? Aren’t you “looking to get it just right” (xii)?

According to Jay, not only do twentysomethings not “know if their lives will work out [or] . . . what to do,” but they also “assume life will come together quickly after thirty” (xxvi). However, Jay has “seen countless twentysomethings spend . . . years living without perspective” (xix). This “lack of vision in their twenties” ultimately leads to jobs, relationships, and families that don’t match up to the expectations these people had for their lives (xix). Jay urges twentysomethings to “build the lives they want” because “the twenties are . . . a time [that] . . . disproportionately [influences] the adult lives we will lead” (xxix, xxx). In the following chapters, Jay provides information on three broadly categorized subsets of life — “Work,” “Love,” and “The Brain and the Body” — to apprise her reader of why this decade is, as the title states, defining.


Dr. Jay says she “[prefers] to talk to twentysomethings,” and I’m a twentysomething ready to talk. There are parts of Jay’s book that made me angry for her fear-mongering and the patches of sanctimoniousness that showed through her “it’s not preachy if I lived it” wisdom. There are also parts that I found distinctly helpful and poignant. In my review, I hope to unpack some of Jay’s advice in a way that disassembles the power structure inherent in this printed and therefore static, one-sided “discussion.” In this blog series, I will speak back to Jay, giving detailed attention to each section of her book from the perspective of a living, thinking, speaking twentysomething. After all, two voices are necessary for a dialogue.

Jay, Meg. The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter — and how to make the most of them now. New York City, Hachette Book Group, 2012.

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