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What being 25 means today — and how to make the most of it

What do you know now that you wish you knew at 25? Think about it.

Twenty-five is a unique age. For many people at this stage of life, there's been a straightforward path up until this point. High school led to college, and college led to a first job in the real world. And then all of a sudden, there's no obvious direction.

Some people pursue a graduate degree. Some people get married. Some people get pregnant. Others might decide to pick up and move halfway across the world. And some people stay right where they are.

The options are overwhelming, and it's hard to know which path to choose. The idea that life could go so many different ways can be paralyzing. There are no more semesters, no more summer jobs, no more birthdays that magically allow you to do something that was illegal before you turned a certain age.

Deadlines like these demand prioritization — you're forced to figure out what comes next — and without them, it's difficult to know when the right time is to make which move.

I just turned 25, and I'm trying to figure out how to claim this age. So I want to hear from you. I'm interested in getting advice from readers on how to approach this important, challenging moment in my life.

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self? Email your thoughts to lauren.katz@vox.com, and I'll round up your responses in a new story so that other people can benefit from your experiences and wisdom.

New science and new social norms lead to new obstacles

We're still growing and changing and learning at age 25. In fact, some psychologists think the cutoff age for the category of young adults should be 25, not 18, due to brain development and hormonal activity.

I spoke with Leslie Bell, a psychotherapist in Berkeley, California, to learn more about the science behind this period of life. Bell says the final phase of development of the brain's frontal lobe isn't complete until age 25. This is the area of the brain that lets us make decisions and develop our capacity for delayed gratification, as well as the capacity to think things through logically.

When psychologists first established theories of development, Bell explains, they weren't necessarily based on the brain but were rather based on observational and social norms. Marriage and childbearing used to happen much earlier, both of which had to do with economic realities and the status of women in society. Now society has shifted, and new science has emerged in the past 10 to 15 years on the subject of young adults.

Bell stressed that it's only in the past 20 or 30 years that the particular meaning of 25 as in between being an adult with responsibilities and being more dependent has really existed. The parents of most 20-somethings today, she adds, didn't have this same period of endless choices in their lives.

"It's not often something we can refer back to and say, 'Oh, this is how my parents did it,' or, 'This is how earlier generations did it,'" she says. "That's a large part of what's uncharted about it. Historically, this didn't exist."

Why your 30s aren't the new 20s

In her popular TED talk, Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist and author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now, argues that the 20s are a developmental sweet spot.

"As a culture, we have trivialized what is actually the defining decade of adulthood," she says.

Jay encourages people to embrace their 20s as a time to prepare for the rest of their lives. She breaks this down into three things she believes everyone deserves to hear.

The first is to develop "identity capital," or skills and aspects of yourself that stay with you for a lifetime. Do something that adds value to yourself and is an investment in who you might want to be next, Jay explains in her TED talk. This could be accepting a cross-country job, landing an internship, or starting a small business. Jay argues that it's perfectly fine to take the time to try out different options, as long as you explore them in a mindful way.

Smart networking is Jay's second piece of advice. New capital and new identity (jobs, relationships) almost always come from new situations; 20-somethings who huddle together in the same circles, she says, can be limiting in various ways.

Instead, it's important to lean into weak ties to find the new opportunities. How do you find out about the many job postings that go unlisted? You have to reach out to your neighbor's boss to hear about the unlisted position. This isn't cheating, Jay says: "It's the science of how information is spread."

Last, Jay encourages 20-somethings to be smart about the people you choose to surround yourself with. You don't necessarily have to settle down in your 20s, but you also don't need to just make it work with whoever you're with when all your friends on Facebook start tying the knot. The key, Jay says, is to be as intentional with love as you are with work.

"Claiming your 20s is one of the simplest, most transformative things you can do for work, for love, for your happiness, maybe even for the world," she says.

Remember: Nothing is permanent

For the most part, Bell – who went to graduate school with Jay at University of California Berkeley – echoes the general idea that your 20s are formative years to figure out relationships with friends and partners, and people shouldn't just think of it as extra time.

Her advice? Take your development in your 20s seriously, in terms of your personal life and your career, but at the same time – if possible – recognize and enjoy the freedom you have.

Bell knows, however, that it's a hard tension to hold because all the time and the decisions tend to be anxiety-provoking.

The advice she would give on that front is to really consider what it is that you want, make choices, and take action. The advantage of your 20s, she points out, is that choices you make don't need to be – and probably won't be – the last ones you make.

"Choosing something and sticking to it can be a solution to anxiety in some ways, because it commits us," she says. "It gets us engaged instead of being stuck in thinking about and considering what we're going to do."

Now, we want to hear from you. Email your advice on being 25 to lauren.katz@vox.com, and we might use your response in an upcoming story.

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