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Recent Grads Are Drowning in Uncertainty. Here’s How to Stay Afloat.

Recent Grads Are Drowning in Uncertainty. Here’s How to Stay Afloat.

There are nearly fifty million twentysomethings in the United States, most of whom are living with a staggering, unprecedented amount of uncertainty. And now, millions of new would-be workers have graduated, without the pomp and circumstance, into a global pandemic and likely recession. Research shows that, rather than long for certainties that do not exist, the best way to adapt to uncertainty is to change how we think about it — and to find a way to keep moving. If you’re feeling stuck, you should try to avoid mental time-travel, build identity capital, resist reassurance, forget regret, and build healthy habits.

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There are nearly fifty million twentysomethings in the United States, most of whom are living with a staggering, unprecedented amount of uncertainty. Most have no idea where they will work or where they will live in five years. They don’t know if they are a day or a decade away from a promotion, or when they will be able to pay their bills. And now, millions of new would-be workers have graduated, without the pomp and circumstance, into a global pandemic and recession.

As a psychologist who specializes in twentysomethings, I hear every day from young workers who feel overwhelmed because of the unknowns in their lives. If you feel this way too, you are far from alone. Research shows that, rather than long for certainties that do not exist, the best way to adapt to uncertainty is to change how we think about it — and to find a way to keep moving.

Here are some suggestions.

Avoid Time Traveling. When the future feels uncertain, we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about it. Yet, your twenties are no time for what psychologists call “time traveling,” or mentally transporting yourself to next month or next year. They are a good time to make plans for the future and to work toward those plans. But there is a difference between preparing for the future and pretending it is already here.

There is a Tibetan proverb that goes like this: “Take care of the minutes and the years will take care of themselves.” The best way to do something about the there-and-then is to do something in the here-and-now. If you catch yourself worrying about what life will look like at 25 or 35, figure out what that means you need to get going on today. It could be as simple as writing a cover letter, scrolling job listings, or reaching out to someone in your network that could help you get where you want to go.

Move from Identity Crisis to Identity Capital. Identity capital is your collection of personal assets. It is the skills and experiences and qualities that make you who you are…so far. The average young worker has eight jobs by the age of thirty. Your twenties, then, are less about finding that one-and-only “forever job” than they are about investing in yourself along the way. And most of you will need to find a job — any job — to stay afloat financially.

Whatever you do, do something that adds value to who you are. “Never have a blank year,” a mentor told me once as I headed out on maternity leave. What she meant was that, even if it feels like your future is on hold due to unusual circumstances, do something you can put on your resume. Whether it’s an online financial literacy course, or a tech certification, or studying for the GMAT, good jobs aren’t the only way to build identity capital.

Shift from “What if” to “What is.” The most common thinking error in uncertain situations is catastrophic thinking. It’s that worst-case-scenario thinking one of my clients calls being “a what if-er.” What if I never find a job? What if I get fired? What if my life doesn’t work out? Rather than letting your emotions run away with “What if,” slow down and practice evidence-based thinking or “What is.”

Write down the evidence for — and against — this catastrophe you’re imagining. Chances are that, when you reason with yourself, you’ll see your situation is not as dire as you imagined. Be willing to ask yourself, “What is the plan should this fear come true?” If you’re worried about losing your job, make note of what you will do if that comes to pass. Facing our fears makes them less powerful. It shows us that even our biggest problems can be gotten through.

Resist Reassurance Seeking.  Reassurance is a coping mechanism so prevalent — and problematic — that a national conference for psychologists included a session devoted to working with “reassurance junkies.” You might be a reassurance junkie if you call your parents a dozen times a day about what you should do with your life. Or maybe you text your therapist — again and again — wondering if your job or your relationship will last.

When I reassure clients they quickly — and more anxiously — return for more; it’s like a drug with a short half life. So, rather than approaching and re-approaching bosses or friends or partners for guarantees they cannot (or should not) give, shore up your own self-assurance.

Think of a tough situation you faced in the past. Remind yourself of what you did to get through. You’ll gain more confidence this way and begin to see yourself — and not just other people — as capable and strong.

Forget Regret. Regret is the feeling of dissatisfaction that occurs when we imagine the choice we made is worse than the one we did not. Yet, we can never know what would have happened if life played out differently. Research suggests that embracing this truth can stave off regret.  So get going and travel lighter without the fear of regret.

If you do find yourself weighted down with a particular regret, name what it is you think you missed out on. Work-life balance? A better boss? Stock options? Rather than looking backward at what you did not get, look forward and use regret as information about what you would like to set yourself up for next. Regret can lead to quitting, and your twenties are no time to give up.

Get Healthier (and Happier). Your brain and your personality change more in your twenties than at any other time in adulthood. Whatever it is you want to change about yourself, now is the time to change it by building good habits. Yes, mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression and substance abuse, tend to emerge in one’s twenties (often in response to uncertainty). But they also tend to improve in one’s twenties — with effort.

One of my clients started running to manage her mood. Another is using COVID lockdowns as a time to get sober. Another is looking at Instagram less and sleeping more. Yet another is getting ahead on her hobby while she finds it difficult to get ahead at work. Yes, twentysomethings are happier when they make strides at work — but twentysomethings who are happy and healthy outside of the office are better workers, too.

Think of your life as a twentysomething as a plane just after takeoff. It’s a time when a small change in course can make a big difference in terms of where you end up. Yes, it is an up-in-the-air and turbulent time. But, if you figure out how to navigate, even a little bit at a time, you can get further, faster than at any other time in life.

If our content helps you to contend with coronavirus and other challenges, please consider subscribing to HBR. A subscription purchase is the best way to support the creation of these resources.

Meg Jay, PhD, is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor of Human Development at the University of Virginia. She is the author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now.

Recent Grads Are Drowning in Uncertainty. Here’s How to Stay Afloat.

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