Meg Jay (Col '92) is a clinical psychologist at UVA who specializes in adult development, and in 20-somethings in particular. Her new book is The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now.

What is going on in the brain developmentally for people in their 20s?

We know the frontal lobe is the last area of the brain to develop and it does not fully mature until sometime during our 20s. This is the area of the brain where we tackle the tasks many 20-somethings struggle with: facing uncertainty, solving problems that don't have black-and-white answers, anticipating consequences, managing our emotions. Unfortunately, this fact about the late-maturing frontal lobe has been interpreted as a directive for 20-somethings to wait around until their brains grow up. But that's not how the brain works. We don't tell 3-year-olds who are in the midst of the critical period for language to go to their rooms and come out when they have perfect grammar. We say, "Read every day. Listen to books on tape. Talk at the dinner table." The same goes for young adult brain development. If you want to become better at managing your emotions and tolerating uncertainty and planning for the future, then now is the time to be practicing those skills.

Your background is partially in gender studies. Do you have different advice for women vs. men in their 20s?

Meg Jay
No, I don't have different advice for women and men. In fact, many young men would be happier and more successful if they felt the same urgency that many women do. We hear a lot about how young women are outperforming young men right now. Some of that is overblown but, to the extent that it is true, it happens because young women feel a greater sense of urgency about their lives. They are keenly aware that they need (and often want) to work and that they need to get somewhere with their careers in time to also add family into the mix. There is a great quotation by Leonard Bernstein that says, "To achieve great things two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time." Men feel less rushed about getting started because they feel they have endless time to have children, and this can backfire in terms of focus and achievement.

What do you say to a person in his or her 20s who is driven and focused but can't find a job in this economy?

I once had a fortune cookie that said, "A wise man makes his own luck." The single best thing a 20-something can do to make his or her own luck is to look outside of his or her close circle of friends. The 20s are portrayed as a time when you mostly huddle together with your best friends, but that group of friends is usually a homogeneous clique. New information and new opportunities—even new people to date—almost always come from outside the inner circle. That career opportunity is not going to come from sending out hundreds of résumés and trolling websites but from emailing your aunt's neighbor or your old professor or that friend of a friend from high school. A lot of 20-somethings hate the idea of asking outsiders for favors, but those who won't do this fall behind those who will. That's how people are getting jobs in this economy.