In Praise of a Misspent Youth: Are 20-somethings too serious, too young?

When I graduated from college, I went to the Tenafly Public Library and found a book that listed all the names of book and magazine publishing companies in New York. (Yes, there really was something like that back in the old days, kids!) I had my resume printed on some nice thick paper. Using my dad’s Apple 2E, I wrote some cover letters and folded everything up in an envelope, stamped, and mailed it out. I only got as far as the B’s in that publishing book, because Brady Books, the computer book imprint for Simon and Schuster, hired me as an editorial assistant for $15,500 per year. 

That low-paying, but fascinating job was just one of the gigs that I did in my 20’s, while juggling graduate school classes in highly impractical topics — The Political Thought of Max Weber! Rational Marxism! I always had enough for a cheap apartment in a semi-safe part of New York City or Chicago. I went to a lot of parties, and had a lot of fun. My husband was living a similar life throughout his 20s in Cleveland and later in New York City, when we finally met at the end of our 20s. We didn’t buckle down and get serious about 401K plans and proper careers until our mid-30s and didn’t buy our first house until our late 30’s. 

But talking to young people and their parents today, I am often shocked by their deep conservatism.

Read more at my newsletter, Apt. 11D

24 thoughts on “In Praise of a Misspent Youth: Are 20-somethings too serious, too young?

  1. Ooooh, oooh, I’ve been waiting to comment on this topic since you linked to your tweet :-).

    So, my graduating cohort, in the 1980’s, that I can remember: 6 of us went straight to grad school (with all 6 in faculty positions 10+ years later), 1 to med school, 2 to what you would probably call serious jobs, and 1 to a placeholder job (at the U, which he has now leveraged into private sector job).

    Admittedly, we were probably not representative of the world at large (though were representative of our university).

    But, just yesterday, I was talking to my rising college senior about what she saw as the windy trajectory of the older sibs of her classmates — an example, news media as an expat in China, followed by a think tank, followed by a masters, and now starting a PhD (over maybe 7+ years). So, she was noting people who are taking their version of “fun” jobs (international, interesting work, . . . .).


  2. And I was in a serious relationship, and got married at 23, in the first year of grad school. Working intensely was what I wanted (I thought it was great fun — just uncovered some of my lab notes as I was refining my thesis projects and I clearly thought I was asking big questions, though I suspect none of the other commenters on 11D would think so). But, it didn’t mean that there wasn’t a social life (grad students definitely hang out, spouse and I traveled Asia together, and then went canoing in boundary waters, kayaking in puget sound, traveled across the country on the Empire Builder (train, in seats because we couldn’t afford a sleeper).


  3. I’m not seeing my daughter’s cohort as being more focused than we were (but, we were kind of nuts about what we were studying and thought being in school forever was amazing, so potentially an extreme).

    Grad students in science now are more likely to have worked in labs as techs before starting grad school (a good thing). Even their trajectories sound a bit more like what you describe for yourself (though I don’t know if they are partying).

    The CS folks are getting jobs, serious, well paying ones after college, but not all of them are staying or planning on staying.

    Still seeing people going to the consulting firms, but they were doing that 20 years ago, too.

    The cohort I know doesn’t seem like it’s behaving any differently than before (but, it is an intense cohort). I am seeing a bit more serious relationships, but they aren’t at the point where those would change; the difference is finding them before college.


  4. Oh, and I love that picture of you. Would you go for a gamine hair cut again? It looks fabulous in the picture.


  5. And that level of intensity was entirely how I wanted to spend my life until the kids. Being married didn’t change things; we entirely embraced the two intense careers life. Having kids changed me. In grad school, I thought doing all night experiments and a shower & sauna (the fitness center was next door) was exactly how I wanted to spend my time As a post-doc, there was an amazing international cohort that all spent 12+ hours a day in the lab and we had great fun together. But, when there were kids at home (or at the swimming pool, in a particularly painful moment when I was stuck in the office filling out forms) I lost my intensity.


  6. As I said on Twitter, I got married at 23 too, and we bought our first house at 24. I think I’m making up for it now. 🙂 We didn’t have our first child until I was 34, thanks to infertility, and then we lost her so brought our oldest son home when I was 35. We got a lot of very tedious home renos done in between, all by hand.


  7. Career trajectories are a bit different here in NZ.

    The great tradition here is the OE (Overseas Experience) – either after finishing high-school (for those not planning on going to uni) – or, more typically, when you have your undergraduate qualification.

    Young people (early 20s) head off overseas – typically to Europe (though a lot test their toes in the water in Australia first), and work a range of jobs, while travelling and partying. The stereotype of the Kiwi bartender, barista, or office temp in London is fairly true to life- 🙂 Mostly they’re making enough money to travel the world, rather than deliberately building a career.

    There are always some who settle down over there – but the majority tend to boomerang back to NZ once they have (or are thinking about) kids (NZ is just a nicer place to raise a family – and family ties are strong)

    It’s rare for anyone to head straight into post-grad studies (well, there are always some), but the idea that you should build on some form of work in your field first, is fairly strong.
    And, unless you want an academic career, most jobs don’t require post-grad studies (med, engineering and law school for us are all undergraduate qualifications – we don’t split them up the way that the US does)

    After the great Covid lockdown put a stopper to this for the past 2.5 years, it’s starting up again – and 20-something Kiwis are heading off overseas again (much angst about the ‘brain drain’ out of the country). This is, in-part, driven by the high housing cost here (worse than London, if you can believe it) – but it’s mostly the urge to ‘see the world’ before settling down.

    Having said all that – I didn’t do it. Went straight from uni into building my career, and had a leadership role and a house-mortgage by 25 (you could buy a house as a singleton then). Didn’t find a partner or have my son until late 30s – so pretty much did it backwards!
    Took a sabbatical 6 months (unpaid) in my late 20s – and if the right job had come up, I might have stayed in Europe – but it didn’t, and I came home again.

    There are benefits to doing it my way – if you are certain of your career path. I built my name and reputation solidly enough, that I was in high demand when I decided to work part-time while my son was small. And had a paid-off house, and enough savings to carry me through not being in paid employment for a couple of years.

    Do I regret not having some of the experiences my peers did? Yes, a bit.
    But I also know that I’m by nature a cautious outsider, and like a sense of security. I’m not the kind to fling myself off into the unknown with $100 in my backpack and no plan, apart from having a great time.

    If I’m regretting things about the way my life worked out, that one is fairly low down on the list.


  8. This rings so true to me, especially this month. My oldest lived at home post-Covid, having just graduated college, and saved up so much that I suggested buying a condo when she moved out. Why lose the money to inflation? We are looking at places together and yes she’s 24 and yes I was living in chaotic shared homes with girlfriends at that age and going to clubs. But, she will be in the city! At least she’s not buying in the suburbs! She wants to be where things are happening!

    Then my twins, in college, one with bf of six years, since high school freshman year; the other three years. The former couple are considering engagement this summer! At 20! I was married at 29. The latter attend the same college, live together, and own two cats. At least they have a largish social circle and party a little, and live in cute college town.

    The careers are all eminently practical, but I can’t feel bad about that. It’s not worth pursuing the dream job. Better to have an avocation.


  9. I married at 26 after dating/living together for 3 years, but didn’t have S till I was 33, so we had 7-ish years of a lot of fun, living in NYC, getting our careers going (I worked in academic admin and taught as an adjunct, and my husband worked for a small ad agency as a graphic designer). We traveled a lot within the US and enjoyed NYC. Good times.

    S will be 23 in a few weeks. She’s taking off to Germany shortly afterwards to be an au pair for a year, then will see what comes next. As I often say to people, I’m fine with whatever she does as long as I don’t have to pay for it. I have my own adventures to have (and a son who is going into his 3rd year of college but who I suspect will be on the 5 or 6 year plan). Next adventure starts in 2 days: Vienna, Salzburg and Prague! Wish me luck that we don’t get covid while traveling!


  10. Didn’t have my eldest until I was 35 after marrying at 23, so, we had 12 years of traveling, hunting down bookstores, reading NWTimes with coffee on Sundays, morning brunches; my work was intense with intense people, but we roadtripped along the CA coast, had long lunches (without alcohol, though), taught each other about our various cultures (italian pumpkin gnochi, cooked by Italians, academia in Rome, a wedding in Tuscany; the Belgian would pick up bagette sandwiches for us from a french bakery he had found, I and a DC native sang the preamble to the astonished crowd from Europe once).

    So, a relationship doesn’t preclude unencumbered fun. But, for me, children did (though there were travels after that, including a delightful trip to Venice — Venetians love little babies, my son took his first steps there, and I was there as a group international collaborator for my work).

    I’m making a list of what everyone my daughter (a Gen X’er) is seeing her (also intense friends) do as they graduate. A few have seen their plans skewed by the pandemic (emotionally, I think, as well as practically) — a serious academic who is driving ubers/doing organizing work rather than going directly to grad school, for example.


  11. My advice for these intense jobs is don’t do it if you aren’t having fun. People have fun in lots of different ways (a Google young person traveled to all the Google offices, taking pictures of food at their cafeteria, for example). But some people find some of those intense jobs fun (and, even a way to have fun). I, personally, would never have met the crowd of Europeans I got to know at work any other way.


  12. People have different definitions of fun. And that’s fine. I tell Jonah that he should pick a partner that has the same definition of fun that he has. He is in a serious relationship. It’s over a year. I like her a lot, but I really hope that they don’t get married for years and years. I want them to have adventures and travel and enjoy life. Most of my friends didn’t get married until late 20s. Those who got married earlier are definitely more likely to be divorced.

    Sometimes, I talk to these young people about their fancy new jobs, and they have a dead look in their eyes. I suspect that they are not having much fun, but are doing it because they feel that they should.


  13. “Sometimes, I talk to these young people about their fancy new jobs, and they have a dead look in their eyes”

    I do know what you mean, and it breaks my heart. That’s one of the themes of Lythcott-Haimes “how to be an adult” book. People talk about laundry, but the real danger is children who have been given such a narrow path in life that they don’t know what they want or what they would think is fun.

    And, there are the children (and their parents) who “just” want the lifestyle they had growing up, with parents who were established and wealthy and focused on their children and have no idea how much that “just” limits all their life options.


  14. Part of the reason I got so excited about commenting was that the post brought back all my own memories of the times in my 20’s which I enjoyed tremendously.


  15. I wonder if this job market is affecting their decisions? My just-graduated college kid had multiple job offers, some same-day as the interview! In her case, she’s doing her dream job (molecular biology) – working in a research lab studying cell “stuff” that might impact cures for cancer, cardiac disease and Parkinson’s. So no vacant eyes on her end – but it was NOT hard to get a great well-paying job.

    That was not the case for many of us, I suspect. We graduated into a recession and it was so hard to get interviews and job offers. I ended up going to grad school in part because I couldn’t get a good job.

    Curious if the employment rate might affect the fun-rate for this crop of 20-somethings?

    My college freshman son, otoh, decided not to pursue any internships and took the month of May to travel solo through Europe visiting the international students he met at college. He missed out on so much “fun” in HS due to covid restrictions, his theory is to not waste any moments of adventure opportunities now…I suspect many of the younger “Gen-Zs” may fall in his camp, while the older Gen-Zs are taking those jobs and getting that stability. Just a theory.


    1. Glad your daughter found her dream job so quickly!

      Yeah, Jonah and his girlfriend are going down to New Orleans for a week. They are enjoying coming up with their own plans rather doing one of those organized college programs.


      1. Glad to hear Jonah is choosing to have some fun. My wife is having nasty knee arthritis and it’s really impacted what she can do. A knee replacement will most likely happen in the next year or so, but in the meantime we are postponing travel. Both of us are glad we traveled when we were young, both together and separately before we met.

        Moving to California after spending my entire life In Ohio was definitely an adventure in and of itself. I learned how to navigate new cities, find jobs and housing, and meet people. Like Laura I look back on those years of lower budget lifestyle with lots of time with friends very fondly. I was also surrounded by a large LGBT community for the first time and that was a big part of it. Plus San Francisco was just so much fun, especially the first half of the 90s before the tech boom changed it. I saved enough money to spend a month backpacking around Europe, a trip that built my confidence. I didn’t start focusing on a career till I was about 29, and I sometimes wish I had accumulated the money to buy a place in the Bay Area before prices got so high. But I’m really enjoying living in Denver now and the last time I visited the Bay Area it seemed so over crowded and noisy and dirty. Perhaps I’ve changed and like a quieter city?


      2. I keep telling her that this job market is NOT NORMAL. I’ve never seen anything like it (at least for the entry level positions in her specific field – can’t speak to any other professions.) I do wonder how it changes the GenZs views on work (as opposed to those of us who graduated into a recession and bad job market)


    2. I’m seeing the young Gen Z wanting to have some fun when they can and a certain sense of the world being a very unreliable place.

      Grasping fun generally been good for my kiddos, who were both on a bit of a hamster wheel and learned how to jump off (appropriately on the whole) during the pandemic. The key thing was to to think about what they actually wanted to spend time on (Koch funded political discussion group: no, rowing: no; time with friends: yes; prison reform activism: yes; learning more languages: yes).

      I hope they remember how to make choices even when they have consequences.

      And, not, as happens with many intense people, a search for “optionality” as described and questioned in this Harvard Crimson commencement address piece:

      “I’ve lost count of the number of students who, when describing their career goals, talk about their desire to “maximize optionality.” They’re referring to financial instruments known as options that confer the right to do something rather than an obligation to do something. For this reason, options have a “Heads I win, tails I don’t lose” character— . . . Optionality is the state of enjoying possibilities without being on the hook to do anything.”


    1. One of the reasons I question trying to do everything at school because it is our only government service provider. I don’t see providing health services in the school house (including mental health services) as being mission creep, but this story shows that some people do.

      Since I think we’re unlikely to provide free health clinics that provide health services as their primary mission (and not as an adjunct to education), I’ll go for what I can get. My kiddo’s public high school has a health clinic and provides services to those on Apple care, as well as any other insurance, which is the state name for Medicaid for children).

      There’s the quote running around that other countries have safety nets, but America have women. We could also say other countries have social services, but America has schools and we try to make them do it all.


      1. Yeah, schools can’t do it all. But that’s all we have. Just look at autism services. Once public school ends, we are totally and completely screwed. And it’s not like schools have done that much for Ian in that department. or really any department. I should have hired a lawyer when he was in fifth grade. Major error.


Comments are closed.