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 bartender 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.

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  1. kh
    kh says:

    ‘A loser is someone who lets someone else tell them what success looks like.’ Yet here we are, taking notes on what a loser is, and what a winner is.

    It’s funny, of the 8 close friends I made in university engineering, only 1 hasn’t found a job in the field and is in search of what he truly desires. So, 7/8 university graduates are ‘losers’ who can’t grow? The thing is, I set my goals because my parents taught me how to. This article is kind of sad…because it indicates the opposite of what should be done by parents.

  2. Giulia
    Giulia says:

    I know this is an old post…but all I can say s THANK YOU!

    I fit perfectly to your blog. I decided to move abroad with my boyfriend to where I don’t speak the language (I’m learning!) and out of the whole year I’m here, I have worked only half of the time. What I “think” I like to do I can’t do it here bc of the language. Sorry to give so many details… but, I just think that even though my family understands me, I feel so much pressure from the outside. I keep thinking I am wasting my time and that I will never get a good job with this time gap in my resume and no “real job” experience…

    THANK YOU for having such a great blog!

  3. Giulia
    Giulia says:

    I know this is an old post…but all I can say s THANK YOU!

    I fit perfectly to your blog. I decided to move abroad with my boyfriend to where I don’t speak the language (I’m learning!) and out of the whole year I’m here, I have worked only half of the time. What I “think” I like to do I can’t do it here bc of the language. Sorry to give so many details… but, I just think that even though my family understands me, I feel so much pressure from the outside. I keep thinking I am wasting my time and that I will never get a good job with this time gap in my resume and no “real job” experience…

    THANK YOU for having such a great blog!

  4. 4GenY
    4GenY says:

    As a 28 year old, I find this post to be the opposite of the advice I would give to someone coming up behind me.  I didn’t just flounder about after graduating high school.  I wasn’t entirely sure about the specifics of what I wanted to do with my life but I knew that nothing was not what I wanted.  So I involved myself in various experiences during college so that I could have a good idea of what I would do when I graduated.  I added a major, took a few fun classes, tried my hand at selling (I was horrible at it).  I have worked in more than one area, contemplated a change of direction or location, and narrowed my focus since graduation.  However, I did not stand still.  You crawl, then walk.  You walk, then run.  But sitting and doing nothing just leaves you undeveloped and immature.  If a child doesn’t starting speaking by a certain age, then they get evaluated for a developmental problem.  Same is true for 20 somethings who are regressed into perpetual teenagedom.  At some point you have to realize that you are not 16 anymore.  It’s okay to not know everything of what your life will be.  No one really knows that.  But you cannot sit around and wait for an idea to fall from heaven in between watching TV, surfing the net, or hanging out with your friends.  Don’t look for an apple tree if you haven’t planted any apple seeds.  Get out there and do something and don’t stop moving.  Also, don’t quit just because things get hard.  Nothing is easy all of the time.

  5. Tim Lau
    Tim Lau says:

    What an encouraging article!

    Of course, you guessed right. I am one of those twentysomethings whose “adult supervisors” monitor my life like an unhooked surveillance camera.

    I believe most adults respond the way they do to twentysomethings is also because they’ve *never (or will ever) allow full-blown autonomy and independence for a “child”. Because they’ve never actually experienced it for themselves. Child independence (aka homeschooling) is politically incorrect. It doesn’t suit the cookie-cutter path for a successful doctor, lawyer or what have you.

    Actually, I’ve always been optimistic about my future–always have–, despite society’s assigned clues that allegedly mark someone as a “loser”:
    disobeying parents
    plummeting from a GPA 3.45 to a mere 2.5
    taking a “vacation/break” from college
    dropping out of college (How did you know?)

    At last someone (You) speaks out against all those yahoos! Personally, I’ve never spoken out against the yahoos (never-mind trying to convince them), just merely stated my boundaries: “Leave me alone, I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

    Here’s the thing. The greatest challenge for ‘losers’ (or “crazy people”) like us is retaining our self-esteem and composure no matter what. I think that most ‘losers’ eventually feel like losers—not because they’re wrong (or we’re wrong)—but because they’ve let their own guardians and strangers conquer them on a deep enough level to be influential, and finally devastating to what could have been a bright life and career….

    It’s people like you (and there are few) that these ‘losers’ need to “re-affirm” their own beliefs. Encouragement. Most of the time these kids don’t know (or trust) anyone else but themselves—or what particular questions to ask….and because of that also finally give in the pressure from outside: They stay where they’re at, forever.

    An old friend of mine used to *never do his homework in school. But he would *always earn 95+ on all the tests no matter what. He was consistent about this through elementary and high school. Really bright kid. But when I bumped into him the other day he mentioned to me about returning to college to “finish his education”. Imagine my surprise that he wasn’t already starting his own business or touching-up the next world-class invention!

    That is why I always remind teens on my daily bike rides that other options *are available beyond a Public Education: right here, right now. It’s too bad that a lot of them have had their courage shattered by “scholarly” adult advice.

    Still, parents refuse to allow (or expect) autonomy and full independence in a child. Unfortunately, the politically correct cookie-cutter path is just as vibrant today as in the old days. George Washington was a land surveyor by the age of 15 and turning out 100k a year. Go figure, people!

    –Tim

    P.S.
    Once again, I laughed out loud!:
    “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 till you had a midlife crisis.”
    HAH.

  6. BTF
    BTF says:

    Notice when this article was posted–Nov. 2007 prior to the economic downturn when people thought the mortgage bubble would last forever and we could all buy $450k houses in our twenties with nothing down–as I’m posting this in Jan. 2013 unemp is still almost 8% and the only people who can get mortgages are rich people with perfect credit–my advice to anyone in college/20’s is..1) if you’re smart enough to get into college major in medical field or law and work your tail off; 2) if you’re not smart enough for college become a plumber or electrician or join the military to get free college later; if you follow advice in this article you’ll end up 45 yrs old in your parent’s basement eating macaroni and cheese and watching “Friends” reruns on your 20-year old TV.

  7. Michelle Cross
    Michelle Cross says:

    Love this, Penelope. The hardest thing about reading your blog is realizing all my ideas + feelings I thought were original, you’ve actually been writing about since, well, 2003 :).

  8. beverley maccorquodale
    beverley maccorquodale says:

    everything you say smacks of the now. you feel wise and
    on top of the world. how will you feel 20 years from now if you knew
    that you were a poor influence on your generation. do
    you think you get to be ‘real’ forever. your hour on the stage will
    pass and the next generation will depise you. i look forward to
    the debunking of your arrogance. my daughter sent me this
    article and what I say is get out of her life.

  9. Alan
    Alan says:

    My last post was in November of 2007. I still see that there are responses coming in on this subject and the older generations (for the most part) do not agree with your views about our youth and the directions they should explore for choosing a career.

    Our youth seems to have a tremendous amount of pressure on what they will be doing once they obtain their college degree. They are being pushed out of the job market by boomers who refuse to retire because of their inadequacy to save for retirement, by companies who take their jobs overseas to get cheaper labor and hence make more profits, and lastly by the characteristics of our depressed economy (i.e., trying to do more with less FTE’s, etc.).

    I would like to see more incentives for our youth to go into the sciences and math-related occupations. But there are a lot of jobs out there at this time. But most of those jobs either require 3-5 years of experience or bilingual speaking individuals to deal with all of the workers we have who do not speak English as their primary language.

    Those who are older (mid 40’s, 50’s and beyond) will most likely disagree with your opinions, but I challenge those who disagree with you to come up with a rational solution to help put our college graduates to work so that they don’t end up with a great deal of debt with nothing positive lying aheaad of them to move on with the other aspects of their lives (like starting a family and settling down to raise kids of their own).

    Until we all figure out solutions to the multitudes of problems that we are facing, the problems we face will only get worse. If our youth has an abundaance of stress at this point in their lives, then what is the future of their kids and the generation following them?

  10. Brad Palmer
    Brad Palmer says:

    Your blog is nonsense. As a CPA, over the past 10 years, I’ve had a number of early 20 somethings working for me. Not all, but most, are a) lazy, b) speak to the boss like a buddy at a frat party, and c) are incapable of anything that does not involve a computer. The interesting thing is that when you fire them they look at you like mommy took their candy away.

  11. William
    William says:

    I like that I am 30 and I am still trying to figure out my life..just live life to the fullest and leave it all to GOD he will give you the wright guide in life ..

  12. Emz
    Emz says:

    Well said Ms Penelope. It’s like I’m reading my thoughts that has been written by your graceful hands. Thank you to this. God Bless. ;)

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