A Manifesto to Women in Their 20s:
Almost every week I’ll get an email from a young woman asking for advice, and it’s always the same spiel. They are in their early- to mid-20s. They can’t decide between a job that pays and a job they are passionate about. They want to hear from someone in their 30s who has "done it." They turn to me for this advice because I host and produce a television show about food, which means my career seems to hit all the right notes for a generation that wants jobs that offer both creativity and autonomy. They start by asking me what they should do to get into food/media/communications/any gig where they’re not chained to a desk. But the questions I end up asking them seem foreign: Do you know if you want kids? Does your passion job include real healthcare? Do you think you’ll eventually need a house with a yard to be happy or is that studio you live in now enough?
I swear, it’s like I am asking whether they want to go in a spaceship to Mars.
Somehow, in between our mothers’ and grandmothers’ fight for us to "have it all" and our current battle to take down the patriarchy, we have completely lost the plot for the path to adulthood.
As teenagers, many of us planned, dreamed, and prepared with anticipation and excitement for the expectedly life-altering new period that would begin when we turned 18. But when it comes to adulthood, we don’t plan for the future in the same way. There are no AP classes to get you ready to enter your 30s.
There is a fundamental problem with the current bill of goods young women have been sold. In a bid to undo the generational trauma of women having no agency, we were told to spend our 20s focusing on our careers, leaning in, and working hard figuring out what job gives us meaning. Everything else — love, kids, home, etc. — would fall into place later. Then we enter our 30s and suddenly feel immense pressure to get married and procreate or have some phenomenal career that transcends it.
It’s as though we are told to be young and singularly focused until one day everyone is shocked that we don’t fit into the mold of being "an adult." And it’s not working.
In recent years I’ve seen the effects of this emotional whiplash that stems from only planning for the near future. I’ve had friends move to cities that make them miserable just to follow a job. I’ve seen friends completely burn out, quit to have kids, and then wonder how to go back to a career that won’t work anymore. I have a lot of friends who’ve always wanted kids who are freezing their eggs and wondering why they didn’t date more seriously in their 20s. And I’ve seen a lot of friends end relationships when they finally admit they don’t want kids.
Your career doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Creating the whole package — whatever version of life you want — should be the goal. Society wants to reinforce the idea that "adulthood" means hitting certain milestones, but in a world where women now can define the milestones ourselves, you have to define what it looks like for you. Stop waiting around until a series of unintended choices start to define you. Adulthood can mean whatever you want it to, so long as you give some thought to the path you actually want to take.
You can’t fully plan your life, of course, but you can work towards something. In this climate, it feels unfathomable that a 24-year-old would also ask me questions about my childcare, mortgage, and why I have even chosen that particular path. But I’m not sure when that essential part of the conversation got lost.
So it’s time to fix it and it starts with an exercise. A "check the box," if you will. Consider these questions:
*Is there any woman in your career path whose life you admire and want to emulate? And would you work as hard as she did to get there?
*Can your career fit the type of family you have imagined for yourself?
*Can you move forward in your dream career and still live in the type of city or town that would make you happy?
*Can you make enough money in your dream career (on your own — no cheating and including a potential spouse who may or may not stay in the picture) for you to live the life you need? (Key word here is need. We all would like more money in the bank. The question is about your lifestyle and whether when you are older if you think you will derive more happiness from money than other lifestyle factors.)
*Would you eventually (and realistically) marry the person you are currently dating?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, you need to rethink your strategy. You cannot go through your 20s without any thought into your 30s and beyond.
You don’t need to quit your current job. On the contrary, the world is now full of inspiring women who have bent paths to fit the lives they want — from Jacinda Ardern having a baby while serving as New Zealand’s Prime Minister to Oprah’s active choice to not have children in order to be able to put work fully first. But you have to have the goal in order to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You have to think through the potential path that could get you there, even if it is currently uncharted. And if it is uncharted, are you willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get there? At every moment you should be asking yourself if the thing you are doing is moving you forward. People often get tunnel vision on winning this month’s race, and they don’t stop to think if there is an actual goalpost worth having.
The same goes for terrible relationships — romantic or otherwise. You don’t have to want to get married now (or ever), but you do have to stop wasting time on people who are "just for now." I am so tired of going to weddings of two people who happened to meet at 32 and just wanted to be done searching for the one. Good relationships rarely fall in your lap. It’s okay to make marriage a priority in your 20s and have conversations about when you want to have kids. And if you’re not ready to make those kinds of moves, then freeze your eggs instead. Just don’t settle. Friendships are the same: Skip out on that birthday party for the girl you would not keep in touch with when she inevitably moves back to Ohio. Work towards your own goals by investing in people who are worth it for the long haul.
You may think you have a lot of time for all of this — and this is certainly the time to do things like move to a foreign city or take a career break — but you will save yourself the emotional toll of wasted time or lost opportunities if you start thinking through your goals now. These can still be far off, even purposefully delayed, just know what they are.
I’m going to let you in on a pretty terrible secret: You will never feel like an adult. Ask your parents — they probably still feel like they are 20- or 30-somethings in the bodies of older strangers. You know that feeling in your first job where you think you’ll have to fake it 'til you make it? Well, it’s like that when you have a kid, too. Or when you get a big promotion and suddenly have to start leading people. Or when your back starts to hurt. Or when those wrinkles pop up while you still have acne. No one ever feels ready. So if you just read this entire thing and decided to give it some more time until you "are an adult," sorry. It won’t ever happen. Sometimes I walk down the street with my son and assume people are wondering if I’m his young babysitter until I remember that, oh right, no one is thinking that because I actually am a totally age-appropriate 30-something mom. I just don’t feel like it. Someone calling me ma’am is the worst. We are all just figuring it out. We never feel like we’ve made it. So it’s okay if you feel like a fraud when thinking about your life goals. We all feel like frauds forever. That’s just part of moving forward and pushing ahead.
So future ma’ams of the world (sorry, it’ll happen), do me a favor: Step away from the clever quote you’re working on for an Instagram post and give your mind a moment to step off the treadmill. Take a few long walks. Write a pro and con list. Hell, you could even ask your parents (they’re not as old as you think, something else you will tragically discover soon). But think it through. Write down some life goals and then take steps forward: Dump that terrible boyfriend you don’t want to marry, ask for that raise, research that grad program, think through career options in a city you want to live in, make new friends, and ask the scary questions.
You are already an adult. Do your future self a favor and start acting like one.