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What Are the Most Important 10 Years of Your Life?

An expert weighs in on the years that make or break each person's future.

Morgan DDL/Shutterstock
Source: Morgan DDL/Shutterstock

The 10 years from 18 to 28 comprise the most pivotal decade in a person’s life.

Decisions made during that period disproportionately shape a person’s future life trajectory—and mistakes made then have life-long consequences. Teens get second chances, but society is less forgiving of missteps made during the twenties.

It’s actually during the twenties, and not the teen years, that lives are most likely to go off track. It’s then that the young engage in the riskiest behavior—binge drinking, illicit drug use, unprotected sex, and crime.

Ironically, the worst mistake a young person can make today is to grow up too fast—to marry too young, to enter a full-time job too early, to bear a child too soon. Advice that made sense half a century ago—like, join a company at a young age and work your way up the ladder—no longer applies in a radically different labor market. Instead, prolonged education, internships, and other efforts to build up a resume pay off.

Today, an early marriage is a recipe for divorce, and delaying childbearing and marriage correlate with a more stable family life.

Of course, the young people who benefit most from delayed adulthood come from more affluent families that can afford to support their offspring through their twenties. These are the twenty-somethings who are best able to use these years as a period of self-discovery, exploration, and personal growth.

In contrast, those who lack parental support tend to find themselves mired in unsteady, low-paying jobs and unstable relationships, and burdened by credit-card and college debts that their income cannot support. It is during the twenties that the inequalities in contemporary society solidify.

These are life’s critical years. Where one goes to college exerts a powerful influence on whether one will receive a diploma. Whether one earns a college credential makes a world of difference in one’s future earnings and job stability.

Ours is a society that has, quite rightly, placed more and more emphasis on early childhood. But we mustn’t forget the twenties, the period when young lives take off or become locked onto trajectories that too few are able to alter.

[High school girls learn the art of automobile mechanics], [1927], LC-USZ62-111359, National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress.
Source: [High school girls learn the art of automobile mechanics], [1927], LC-USZ62-111359, National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress.

Steven Mintz, Ph.D., is the author of The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood

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