Here is an open letter to all the parents, aunts and uncles who write to me asking for advice about the twentysomething in their life who is an incorrigible underachiever:
Lighten up! No one should be labeled an underachiever in their twenties! The first thing you should ask yourself is whose standards are you using? This is not the same workplace that existed ten years ago. There are new rules, and you need to stop applying the old rules to someone who has no need for them.
The people who know exactly what they want to do when they are 22 are called, in the land of sociology, “fast starters.” And today that is only 12% of the workforce. In general, these people are conservative, taking paths their parents took, and do not ask a lot of questions. The majority of twentysomethings today move back home with their parents , job hop every 18 months, and refuse to pay their dues.
And you know what? These are all good decisions. To you, these decisions might look like decisions that losers make, but the world is different. Do you know what a loser is today? A loser is someone who doesn’t take the time to get to know herself. A loser is someone who saw his parents earn a lot of money and not get happiness from it and still deludes himself that money will make him happy. A loser is someone who looks for fame or prestige. A loser is someone who lets someone else tell them what success looks like.
Today success is personal. It’s about using the years of emerging adulthood to figure out what works for you. This is time to experiment – try things and quit them and try other things. This is a time to have gaps in resumes, red in bank accounts, and a suitcase packed, ready to go at a moment’s notice. These are symptoms of someone who is learning a lot and growing a lot.
Personal growth looks a lot like being lost. Lost is okay. Who wouldn’t be with twenty years of schooling and no preparation for adult life? People grow more when they are lost then when they are on a straight path with a clear view of where they are going.
Don’t tell me that your kid is a bar tender and will never grow up. Bar tenders have some of the best social skills in the workforce, and social skills are what matters. Bar tenders are not underachievers. Also, did you ever stop to ask your bar-tender kid what he does during the day when he’s not pouring drinks? He’s probably doing something fun and cool and a little risky that you didn’t have the guts to try til you had a midlife crisis.
And don’t tell me about your kid who isn’t finishing college. No one said college has to happen right away. No one has research to show that if you do college right after high school you will be a happier person. But people do have research to show that if you take time to find yourself during your twenties then you will avoid a quarterlife crisis. So maybe it’s okay that your niece is taking a year off of college to travel in Thailand. Or knit sweaters.
Stop judging the twentysomethings. Instead, look at yourself. Why is it so important for your twentysomething to make choices that you like? In fact, the most successful people in today’s workplace are making choices that would have seemed absurd ten years ago. And things that are true today were not true ten years ago.
And have a heart. It’s not easy to be a twentysomething today. These young people grew up with tons of structure, tons of adults watching over them, tons of accolades. It’s a hard adjustment to go into the adult world where there is none of this. The most successful transitions happen when the person making the change receives time to adjust, space to grow, and support for tough decisions.
Have some patience. Most people find what they want to do with their life by the time they are 30. Really. And they are already putting so much pressure on themselves to find a good life. They don’t need more pressure from you.