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Avoiding The Post-Millennial Midlife Crisis


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common-sense and savvy advice. Today, as we broadcast from the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colo., we decided to talk about new ideas about how young people can make the most of their 20s.

These days you will hear a lot of criticism of this group, the so-called Millennials. Many critics scorn 20-somethings as unfocused, self-centered, even lazy. Others praise their free-spirited sense of adventure, exploring different relationships and careers without settling down. Now, though, others are saying that - all of that freedom is not free, and many Americans need to rethink what their 20s are for.

Joining us here in Aspen to talk about this, Meg Jay. She is a clinical psychologist. She's author of the book "The Defining Decade," about thriving during your 20s. She's also a mom of two.

Daniel Kim is the 33-year-old founder and CEO of Lit Motors; that's a sustainable transportation company. And Dr. Pamela Cantor is a psychiatrist. She works with children; she's the CEO of Turnaround for Children, which helps improve low-performing schools. She's also a mom of five, and grandmother of 15.

Welcome to you all, thank you all so much for joining us. Yes, you wear the crown. Meg Jay, I'm going to start with you 'cause you gave a very popular TED Talk earlier this year. It was viewed more than 2 million times.


MARTIN: You said that 20-somethings are kicking the can down the road when it comes to relationships, work, and other parts of life. I wanted to ask, you know, how you started thinking about that, and how you came to that conclusion.

JAY: Yes, well, I'm a clinical psychologist, and I specialize in 20-somethings. So all day, every day, I sit across from 20-somethings and I listen to them. And what I have found is that, of course, young adults settle down later than they used to, and there are many upsides to that. But I think it's hard, when a young adult is trying to think about time, that when they hear that partnership happens later, career happens later, adulthood happens later, then they sort of lose that urgency and that purpose of, what am I supposed to do with my 20s.

And I think that's hard. That leaves a lot of 20-somethings feeling quite aimless, when they really want to be taken seriously and they want to get started on their life.

MARTIN: I think a lot of 20-somethings will be hearing our conversation - and also parents of 20-somethings - who will say that the economy is the reason that a lot of young people are unfocused today.

JAY: Sure.

MARTIN: That it's just not their choice that they've not settled into the career of their choice, or even the career that they've trained for.

JAY: Of course.

MARTIN: That they've got to have two or three part-time gigs just to fill their day 'cause they can't find that. So what about that?

JAY: What about that? Sure.

MARTIN: Is it a choice, or is it they're just reacting to the circumstances that they have been given?

JAY: Right, well, 20-somethings are a diverse group, so I would not say, you know, it's all a choice or it's all circumstance. But, you know, I think graduating into a recession is not fun, but it's a time to learn about what you do and the wind isn't at your back. And right now the wind is not at 20-somethings' backs and yes, you may have to have different part-time gigs to pay your bills and that's the way it was for me when I graduated, which was not long after the '87 crash.

But you can still use that time to keep yourself relevant to what you want to do or what you want to do next. You don't have to leave college and go straight into some great high-paying job to make it down the line.

MARTIN: Daniel Kim, you are our honorary 20-something, even though you're in our 30s. But you had - the reason we're so happy that you could join us is that you had a path that a lot of people would consider very unconventional. You dropped out of college to become a mechanic. You were laid off from that job and then you traveled the world and then you reenrolled in college and started a company. So I wanted to ask, just how the conversation we've had so far, how is that resonating with you and the people you know?

DANIEL KIM: Yeah, absolutely. I definitely can identify with that path. You know, I'm Asian, my parents, you know, were very hard on me to become a doctor or engineer or a concert pianist. So, you know, I took an opposite direction. But, you know, dropping out of Reed was probably one of the best things that I ever did. But one thing that stayed throughout my entire 20s was I remained to be very curious and definitely was very proactive in assuaging that, like, desire to be incredibly, you know, satisfied with knowledge. So...

MARTIN: ...Did you think that - one of the points that Dr. Jay makes in her book is that kids these days are told - young people these days are told that 30 is the new 20 or 20 - what is it, is it 20 is the new 30?

JAY: They hear 30 is the new 20.

MARTIN: Thirty is the new 20, which essentially is saying you've got 10 years to mess around. Did you feel that way, that you had 10 years to mess around?

KIM: Yeah, well, not really mess around, but a lot of my friends are definitely, you know, kind of taking that route. It's kind of easy, you know, there's no real - like, no one really wants - a lot of my friends don't want to work in large corporations and they kind of despise that path. So, you know, for me, creating my own startup was something that I could kind of sink my teeth into.

It was a big project, basically took up all of my time, about 17 hours every day. So, you know, I had a lot of fun and I was just passionate about it and I loved it, and I didn't really love learning about, you know, the Iliad, which was great. You know, I think everyone should go through the classics, just know your own historical background, at least for western culture. But yeah, I really felt that just - it's constantly being engaged and, you know, finding ways to be resourceful is really important.

MARTIN: Dr. Cantor, you guided your own children, now your grandchildren, through their 20s, do you think this generation is really all that different from the 20-somethings who came before?

PAMELA CANTOR: Well, I actually do, but I look at it through the parent-child lens. In the sense that if I were to make one broad statement about the Millennials, it has to do with how much failure their parents tolerated. By that I mean, that failure is often a really incredible opportunity if kids are allowed to have it.

And I would say, both from the family perspective and my practice perspective, the tolerance for kids failing is very low, and the requirement for kids to do something unusual - very high. So where my parents were really happy for me to have an advantage they didn't have, being a doctor was a great thing, not so much. Our kids feel, and grandkids certainly, that they have to do something very unusual.

MARTIN: Well, Scott Rocco (ph) for example, tweets, weren't the same things said about Gen X, that are being said about Millennials now? Yes, no?

CANTOR: I actually don't think so. And I think this issue of calibration of failure is a huge part of that.

MARTIN: Meg Jay, what did you want to say?

JAY: I think the same things were being said about Gen X. I'm Gen X, and I think, you know, the path that Danny's talking about is very similar to my path. I graduated from college, grade school, University of Virginia, graduated into a recession, couldn't get a job that required a college degree. So I became an Outward Bound instructor, which had a lot of identity capital, didn't make a lot of money, but it helped me get into Berkeley...

MARTIN: ...When you say identity capital, stop right there, tell us what you mean by that.

JAY: By identity capital - it's a sociologist term, but it means that it's something that said a lot about who I was, what I was capable of, what I was about, and what I might want to do next. So it had a lot of grit, and it said a lot about my commitment to working with people, being willing to work hard.

And so when I went to go to graduate school at Berkeley, that really helped me. And I think sometimes 20-somethings see a false choice, we were talking about false choices earlier in the program, between starting their life and, you know, I have to go work in a corporation or completely drop out of it. And there's a lot in between. And that's what Danny is talking about.

KIM: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is this a privilege conversation, 'cause I'm thinking about the fact that, you know, today I think many of us are very much very aggrieved and really sad and hurt about the death of those 19 firefighters in Arizona. Fourteen of those 19 people who died were in their 20s.

JAY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And I'm thinking about the people who are landing the planes on aircraft carriers, the people who're guiding those planes onto aircraft carriers. The people who are kind of on the front lines are in their 20s, you know, by and large. Is this a privilege conversation? Is this a conversation about people who kind of have enough resources somewhere that they can contemplate not having a direction at a certain age. Danny - I mean?

KIM: I'm not going to interrupt you.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

JAY: Aren't you sweet.


JAY: It's definitely - my conversation is definitely not a privilege conversation.

KIM: It's not.

JAY: It is not. The entire reason I wrote my book was that I believed that anybody who could scrape together $10 should have access to the information that my students were getting at UVA, that they got at Berkeley, or that my clients were getting.

And one of the most gratifying things about having written a book about how to make the most of your 20s, it's been incredibly popular with 20-somethings of color, with 20-somethings of all differences, socioeconomic backgrounds, who have said, I would've given anything to have a helicopter parent, and I'm just so glad somebody is giving me a place to start.

MARTIN: Dr. Cantor - and also I want to mention, if you still want to join our conversation, if you missed your flight to Aspen, you can join us at #NPRAspen. Dr. Cantor, you see a difference between boys and girls - young men and young women in this conversation?

CANTOR: I actually don't. I think it's very, very similar. And I agree with this notion that Meg was talking about, that the absence of opportunity in the 20s because of the recession is actually providing a very wonderful irritant to a lot of creative thinking about what kids want to do with their lives. So to me that's the moment of failure that becomes opportunity that they have absolutely been craving.

MARTIN: Danny, can you talk a little bit about how you - when you were spending that time kind of dealing with yourself, if I could put it that way...

KIM: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And exploring different things, did you kind of think you had a goal in mind? Or - how did you think about the time that you were spending and what you were doing?

KIM: A lot of it was really just kind of very intuitive. You know, after I dropped out of Reed I was like, well, what do I want to do, what am I most curious about. I wanted to learn how cars worked, like, deep down. So I applied to become a mechanic.

And I convinced the head lead mechanic of a Land Rover shop to give me a job. I mean, I had no experience, like zero. Did that for a year and a half and then I was like, well, I'm done with that, now what am I curious about. Well, I'm curious about the world. So I'd saved up a lot of money.

MARTIN: I was going to say, where did you live during all this time?

KIM: I was in Portland, Oregon.

MARTIN: Were you with the bank of mom and dad at that point?

KIM: No, no I was living on my own. Yeah, they definitely came to visit but...

JAY: ...To give you dinner.

KIM: Yeah, absolutely, or something like that. But, you know, I left. So we went on a family vacation to Spain and I just did not come back. So that was an interesting conversation. It's time to pack your bags. That's interesting, well, I'm going to go over to Germany. She's like, but we're going back to Portland. And I was like, well, I'm going to go to Germany.

And she was like, well, you know, how're you going to do that, what money? Well, I have $11,000 in my debit card. And then she's like, well, how're you going to eat? It's like, I'm going to go buy food. And, you know, but that led to about a year of travel by myself. And, you know, when you talk about, like, identity - or capital - it's just - I mean, really, like traveling to 106 cities, 28 countries by myself, you know, I was - I traveled alone...

MARTIN: Well, I know that people would want to come to you - I mean, if you were in, like, a roomful of people, I know that I would gravitate to you because I know you'd have some interesting stories to tell. But I do want to ask, when did you decide it was over and it was time for you to come back and get on the track that - the track?

KIM: I never got back on track. I never...

MARTIN: But you did go back to college?

KIM: Yeah, applied to Berkeley and got in for, like, architecture and then dropped out and then - 'cause that wasn't what I wanted to do. And then I started building my own trucks after that just because that's what I wanted to do in the beginning. And I took about a year and a half to, basically, to build two vehicles and obtain a production. I want to - the idea was to, you know, the DIY, the maker kind of community.

MARTIN: Well, when you think about that time now, how do you think it contributed to the person you are today, or was it good time or was it wasted time, when you're honest with yourself?

KIM: Oh, it was great, I mean, being able to, like, understand what deep fear was, like running with the bulls, like actually running with the bulls. It's a great way to, kind of, test yourself and really understand, you know, how do I react in a situation like that. So, yeah. I just - I was very comfortable with myself in a very deep meaningful level.

MARTIN: We have time just for some last-minute advice from each of you. Dr. Cantor...

KIM: Oh, of course.

MARTIN: ...Do you want to start us off? And obviously, you're speaking now to people who are listening to this conversation and maybe aren't sure where they fit in in this or what to say to a 20-something-year-old or are 20-something themselves. What do you want to say?

CANTOR: I think my focus would certainly be wanting them to like - to really be able to see the opportunity that is in front of them. And sometimes that's guided by curiosity, but sometimes it's really guided by disappointment. So to not be afraid to use that disappointment to create something.

MARTIN: Meg Jay, you've got a whole book of advice.

JAY: I do. I guess that'd be my first piece, would be read the book, I guess.

MARTIN: Would be read the book. But just in the time that we have here, what's your advice to people who are thinking about this, not sure they're on the right track, not sure they're saying the right things?

JAY: Right. You know, I think the one kind of life that I'm advocating, because 20-somethings are such a diverse group, it's not a one size fits all anymore, and because of that you need to be more intentional, not less intentional, because there's not a turnkey life waiting for you whenever you decide you want one. So, you know, I think it's really just lead an intentional life and that that process starts in your 20s and it will unfold over time.

MARTIN: That that time does matter.

JAY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Meg Jay is author of the book, "The Defining Decade." It's why your 20s matter and how to make the most of them now. She is a clinical psychologist. Daniel Kim is founder and CEO of Lit Motors. Dr. Pamela Cantor is CEO of Turnaround for Children, which helps improve underperforming schools. They were all kind enough to join us here at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado. Thank you all so much for joining us.

KIM: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for having me.

CANTOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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