What Is the Quarterlife Crisis?
Jim, the neighbor who lives in the three-story colonial down the block, has recently turned 50. You know this because Jim's wife threw him a surprise party about a month ago. You also know this because, since then, Jim has dyed his hair blond, purchased a leather bomber jacket, traded in his Chevy Suburban for a sleek Miata, and ditched the wife for a girlfriend half her size and age.
Yet, aside from the local ladies' group's sympathetic clucks for the scorned wife, few neighbors are surprised at Jim's instant lifestyle change. Instead, they nod their heads understandingly. "Oh, Jim," they say. "He's just going through a midlife crisis. Everyone goes through it." Friends, colleagues, and family members excuse his weird behavior as an inevitable effect of reaching this particular stage of life. Like millions of other middle-aged people, Jim has reached a period during which he believes he must ponder the direction of his lifeand then alter it.
Chances are, if you're reading this book, you're not Jim. You know this because you can't afford a leather bomber jacket, you drive your parents' Volvo (if you drive a car at all), and, regardless of your gender, you would happily marry Jim's wife if she gets to keep the house. But Jim's midlife crisis is relevant to you nonetheless, because it is currently the only age-related crisis that is widely recognized as a common, inevitable part of life. This is pertinent because, despite all of the attention lavished on the midlife crisis, despite the hundreds of books, movies, and magazine articles dedicated to explaining the sometimes traumatic transition through middle age and the ways to cope with it, the midlife crisis is not the only age-related crisis that we experience. As Yoda whispered to Luke Skywalker, "There is another."
This other crisis can be just as, if not more, devastating than the midlife crisis. It can throw someone's life into chaotic disarray or paralyze it completely. It may be the single most concentrated period during which individuals relentlessly question their future and how it will follow the events of their past. It covers the interval that encompasses the transition from the academic world to the "real" worldan age group that can range from late adolescence to the mid-thirties but is usually most intense in twentysomethings. It is what we call the quarterlife crisis, and it is a real phenomenon.
The quarterlife crisis and the midlife crisis stem from the same basic problem, but the resulting panic couldn't be more opposite. At their cores, both the quarterlife crisis and the midlife crisis are about a major life change. Often, for people experiencing a midlife crisis, a sense of stagnancy sparks the need for change. During this period, a middle-aged person tends to reflect on his past, in part to see if his life to date measures up to the life he had envisioned as a child (or as a twentysomething). The midlife crisis also impels a middle-aged person to look forward, sometimes with an increasing sense of desperation, at the time he feels he has left.
In contrast, the quarterlife crisis occurs precisely because there is none of that predictable stability that drives middle-aged people to do unpredictable things. After about twenty years in a sheltered school settingor more if a person has gone on to graduate or professional schoolmany graduates undergo some sort of culture shock. In the academic environment, goals were clear-cut and the ways to achieve them were mapped out distinctly. To get into a good college or graduate school, it helped if you graduated with honors; to graduate with honors, you needed to get good grades; to get good grades, you had to study hard. If your goals were athletic, you worked your way up from junior varsity or walk-on to varsity by practicing skills, working out in the weight room, and gelling with teammates and coaches. The better you were, the more playing time you got, the more impressive your statistics could become.
But after graduation, the pathways blur. In that crazy, wild nexus that people like to call the "real world," there is no definitive way to get from point A to point B, regardless of whether the points are related to a career, financial situation, home, or social life (though we have found through several unscientific studies that offering to pay for the next round of drinks can usually improve three out of the four). The extreme uncertainty that twentysomethings experience after graduation occurs because what was once a solid line that they could follow throughout their series of educational institutions has now disintegrated into millions of different options. The sheer number of possibilities can certainly inspire hopethat is why people say that twentysomethings have their whole lives ahead of them. But the endless array of decisions can also make a recent graduate feel utterly lost.
So while the midlife crisis revolves around a doomed sense of stagnancy, of a life set on pause while the rest of the world rattles on, the quarterlife crisis is a response to overwhelming instability, constant change, too many choices, and a panicked sense of helplessness. Just as the monotony of a lifestyle stuck in idle can drive a person to question himself intently, so, too, can the uncertainty of a life thrust into chaos. The transition from childhood to adulthoodfrom school to the world beyondcomes as a jolt for which many of today's twentysomethings simply are not prepared. The resulting overwhelming senses of helplessness and cluelessness, of indecision and apprehension, make up the real and common experience we call the quarterlife crisis. Individuals who are approaching middle age at least know what is coming. Because the midlife crisis is so widely acknowledged, people who undergo it are at the very least aware that there are places where they can go for help, such as support groups, books, movies, or Internet sites. Twentysomethings, by contrast, face a crisis that hits them with a far more powerful force than they ever expected. The slam is particularly painful because today's twentysomethings believe that they are alone and that they are having a much more difficult transition period than their peersbecause the twenties are supposed to be "easy," because no one talks about these problems, and because the difficulties are therefore so unexpected. And at the fragile, doubt-ridden age during which the quarterlife crisis occurs, the ramifications can be extremely dangerous.
Why Worry About a Quarterlife Crisis?
The whirlwind of new responsibilities, new liberties, and new choices can be entirely overwhelming for someone who has just emerged from the shelter of twenty years of schooling. We don't mean to make graduates sound as if they have been hibernating since they emerged from the womb; certainly it is not as if they have been slumbering throughout adolescence (though some probably tried). They have in a sense, however, been encased in a bit of a cocoon, where someone or somethingparents or school, for examplehas protected them from a lot of the scariness of their surroundings. As a result, when graduates are let loose into the world, their dreams and desires can be tinged with trepidation. They are hopeful, but at the same time they are also, to put it simply, scared silly.
Some might say that because people have had to deal with the rite of passage from youth to adulthood since the beginning of time, this crisis is not really a "crisis" at all, given that historically this transitional period has, at various times, been marked with ceremonial rituals involving things like spears and buffalo dung. Indeed, it may not always have been a crisis.
But it has become one.
Maybe it is because the career and financial opportunities for college graduates have skyrocketed in the past decade and, therefore, so has the pressure to succeed. Maybe it is because the crazy people out there who amuse themselves by going on shooting rampages seem to have proliferated in recent years, leaving young adults more fearful of entering into relationships with new friends, lovers, and roommates. Or maybe increasing competition from the rising millions of fellow students has left twentysomethings feeling like they have to work harder than ever to stand out from their peers. Whatever the reason, the quarterlife crisis poses enough of a threat to the well-being of many graduateshowever well-adjusted they may be-that it has to be taken seriously. Here's why.
Although hope is a common emotion for twentysomethings, hopelessness has become just as widespread. The revelation that life simply isn't easya given for some twentysomethings, a mild inconvenience for others, but a shattering blow for severalis one of the most distressing aspects of the quarterlife crisis, particularly for individuals who do not have large support networks or who doubt themselves often. It is in these situations that the quarterlife crisis becomes not just a common stageit can become hazardous. Not everyone at the age of the quarterlife encounters some sort of depression, which is why we relegate doubts and depression to only one chapter. But we are addressing depression as one common result of the quarterlife crisis here so that we can illustrate why it is so important to acknowledge this transition period.
After interviewing dozens of twentysomethings who said they were depressed because of the transition, we ran our conclusions by Robert DuPont, a Georgetown Medical School professor of psychology who wrote The Anxiety Cure. "Based on my experience," DuPont said, "I have found that there is a high rate of all forms of disorder in this age group, including addiction, anxiety, depression, and many other kinds of problems because of the high stress associated with the transition from being a child to being an adult. And that has gotten more stressful as the road map has become less used. The old way of doing this was to get out and get it done right away. There was an economic imperative to doing it. It's not like that anymore. And as the road map has disappeared, the stress has gone up. People have to invent their own road map. It used to be that it came with the college graduation. Now you have to go out and figure it out yourself."
These high rates of disorders, however, have gone virtually unacknowledged. That's why we can't bog you down with statistics on this age group. They don't exist. Psychological research on twentysomethings, including statistics on depression and suicide, has not been performed. We asked major national mental health associations such as the National Institutes of Mental Health, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association for any information they had on people in their twenties. They didn't have any. As one psychologist told us, associations don't cut the data to incorporate this age group. "It's not a subject that's interesting to them. They just lump everybody together," he said.
We can only speculate as to why there are no psychological studies on our age group:
The public and the media largely ignore 21- to 35-year-olds as a generation.
Because many twentysomethings cannot afford therapy, professionals do not have accurate and representative records of graduates' depression.
Twentysomethings tend to attach a stigma to therapyso they do not talk about it.
So we can't tell you the percentage of people who experience depression at some point during their twentysomething years. We can't tell you the likelihood that the transition from college to the real world will create such a jolt that a twentysomething will experience something more than the normal anxiety. And we can't tell you how many twentysomethings see therapists. All we can do in this book is provide you with our interview-based conclusions (lots, high, and many more than you think) and the stories of more than one hundred of the twentysomethings with whom we spoke.
How Do You Recognize a Quarterlife Crisis?
While at its heart the quarterlife crisis is an identity crisis, it causes twentysomethings' conflicting emotions to show up in different ways. Sometimes they reach a state of panic sparked by a feeling of loss and uncertainty. When the carefree euphoria that accompanies graduation wanes, many twentysomethings realize that things seem to be missing from their lives. The friends who were just around the corner in college have scattered, the social life that had been as easy as meeting someone in the bathroom down the hall has dissipated, and the mandatory assignments that provided structure and purpose have (however thankfully) been completed. Whether they immediately begin a frantic online job search or collapse into a vegetative state in front of Comedy Central, it eventually sets in that things have changed. The world is suddenly unfamiliar as graduates come to realize that four or more years of higher education have hardly prepared them for the decisions they will have to make and the ways in which they will have to learn to support themselves. Twentysomethings often feel that the only means they have for navigating the seemingly endless choices looming ahead of them is trial and error, which is really just a productive-sounding euphemism for guesswork. Welcome to the casino: the confusion and helplessness that strike millions of twentysomethings soon after graduation is frequently the result of the feeling that they are about to gamble. Often. On their lives.
For some people the quarterlife crisis is both a cause and an effect of procrastination and denial. Building on the image of that guy who is vegging in front of the television, a big part of twentysomethings' attempts to adjust to their new lives involves stalling like they have never stalled before. Granted, many ambitious students line up jobs while they are still in school. But by the same token, many do not. And even the ones who do still find their transition is far from seamless. Some of this difficulty may have to do with the fact that the once-reliable support network of parents and relatives is not quite sufficient anymore. The economic landscape, which is even now constantly changing for twentysomethings, differs greatly from the landscape of their parents' generation. Dot coms did not exist. The technology sector was piddling compared to what it is now. Aspiring doctors went to medical school, lawyers went to law school, and teachers attained degrees in education. Job and life patterns were more clear-cut, and there was less emphasis on "love what you do" in favor of "support the family." People married and had children at a much younger age. Things were different. What this means for today's graduates is that, because job opportunities have changed so drastically in the past generation, they must place much more accountability on themselves. Frequently that is something they are not yet ready to accept.
Another way the quarterlife crisis can show up, particularly in the mid- to late twenties, is in a feeling of disappointment, of "This is all there is?" Maybe the job turns out to be not so glamorous after all, or maybe it just doesn't seem to lead anywhere interesting. Perhaps the year of travel in Europe was more of a wallet buster than previously imaginedeven with nights in youth hostels and meals of ramen. Or maybe the move to a hip, new city just didn't turn out to be as fabulous a relocation as expected.
While these are, according to older generations, supposed to be the best years of their lives, twentysomethings also feel that the choices they make during this period will influence their thirties, forties, fifties, and on, in an irreparable domino effect. As a result, twentysomethings frequently have the unshakable belief that this is the time during which they have to nail down the meaning in their lives, which explains why they often experience a nagging feeling that somehow they need to make their lives more fulfilling. This is why there are so many drastic life changes at this point in life: an investment banker breaks off his engagement and volunteers for the Peace Corps; a consultant suddenly frets that consulting may not really have that much influence on other people's lives; a waiter chucks the steady paycheck to live in his car and try to make it in Hollywood; a law school graduate decides she doesn't want to be a lawyer after all and seeks a job in technology.
The changes hurtling toward a young adult, as well as the potential for more changes ahead, can be excruciatingly overwhelming for someone who is trying so hard to figure out how to feel fulfilled. A lot of people don't realize just how suffocating this pressure can be. The prevalent belief is that twentysomethings have it relatively easy because they do not have as many responsibilities as older individuals. But it is precisely this reduced responsibility that renders the vast array of decisions more difficult to make. For instance, if there were, say, a family to consider, a mother might not be as inclined to take a risk on the stock market. If a guy's elderly father were sick, he probably wouldn't take that year off to travel in South America. Twentysomethings, for the most part, just aren't at those stages yet, which is why they are sometimes envied. But because their choices aren't narrowed down for them by responsibilities, they have more decisions to make. And while this isn't necessarily bad, it can make things pretty complex. Figuring out which changes to make in order to make life more fulfilling is hard enough. But deciding to make a change and then following through with it requires an extraordinary amount of strength, which is sometimes hard to come by for a recent graduate who has not had to rely solely on himself for very long.
The most widespread, frightening, and quite possibly the most difficult manifestation of the quarterlife crisis is a feeling that can creep up on a twentysomething whether he is unemployed, living at home, and friendless, or in an interesting job, with a great apartment, and dozens of buddies. Regardless of their levels of self-esteem, confidence, and overall well-being, twentysomethings are particularly vulnerable to doubts. They doubt their decisions, their abilities, their readiness, their past, present, and future...but most of all, they doubt themselves. The twenties comprise a period of intense questioningof introspection and self-development that young adults often feel they are not ready for. The questions can range from seemingly trivial choices"Should I really have spent $100 to join that fantasy baseball league?" to irrefutably mammoth decisions"When is the right time for me to start a family?" It is healthy, of course, for people to question themselves some; an occasional self-assessment or life inventory is a natural part of the quest for improvement. But if the questioning becomes constant and the barrage of doubts never seems to cease, twentysomethings can feel as if it is hard to catch their breath, as if they are spiraling downward. Many times the doubts increase because twentysomethings think it is abnormal to have them in the first place. No one talks about having doubts at this age, so when twentysomethings do find that they are continuously questioning themselves, they think something is wrong with them.
What Do You Do About the Quarterlife Crisis?
Hopefully, this book will help to change that perception. This book won't solve the quarterlife crisis, just as the hundreds of books on the midlife crisis won't make anybody any younger. But the first way to confront the quarterlife crisis is to acknowledge that there is one. We came up with some of the deepest questions that are plaguing twentysomethingsthe questions that they ask themselves but do not ask each other and the types of inquiries that might have come up during one of those three A.M. philosophical discussions that were so common in college and so rare after graduation. Then we asked these questions to twentysomethings across the country. In this book, they share their uncertainties, their indecisiveness, and their failuresas well as their successes and how they achieved them. When other twentysomethings realize that the barrage of doubts they face on a regular basis is not that uncommon, maybe these limbo years will seem a bit less daunting.
The lack of psychological studies on relatively recent college graduates ties in to a larger problem for individuals in this age group: twentysomethings are virtually invisible in the marketplace. Perhaps one of the most noticeable differences between the midlife crisis and the quarterlife crisis is that, until now, no one had bothered to name and to address the twentysomething years as an often traumatic and wholly unrecognized difficult turning point in life. This lack of acknowledgment, of course, has simply fueled the quarterlife crisis into an even more difficult experience. Because graduates are not made aware that other graduates are experiencing the same cyclone of doubts, they doubt themselves to an even greater extent. Considering the fact that nearly every possible mental ailment, confusion, or inconvenience has a name now, from the well-established postpartum depression and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder to the lesser-known medical students' disorder and inanimate object phobia, we found it surprising that no one had yet come up with a name for the tough shift from student life to real life.
Our critics, once they surface, might counter that no one had named the quarterlife crisis because such a crisis does not exist. The reason we wrote this book is precisely because of that mind-set. Nearly all of the twentysomethings we spoke to believed that their identity crises were unusual, which only made them feel more isolated. But the funny thing was that all of them were going through pretty much the same experience.
One reason today's twentysomethings may feel so alone could be that it is so difficult to lump them together as a group. They do not have a strong, collectively shared historical moment that helped to define them and continues to shape their identity. The baby boomers had the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the Kennedy assassinations, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches, and the civil rights movement. Americans older than the baby boomers had the Great Depression, the World Wars, and the Cold War. Today's children and teenagers are the first generation to grow up in the Information Age, with computers as a necessity and the Internet as a primary method of communication. They also share the horror that schools simply are not safe anymore. What do twentysomethings have? They have the Challenger explosion, which was unquestionably a tragic event, but it did not leave a legacy that caused them to debate issues or shift principles. It was just sad. They have the Persian Gulf War, which seemed too distant, too minor to those who weren't fighting in it or who didn't personally know someone stationed in the Middle East. There were no protests or parades akin to the attention America devoted to the other major wars of the century. The death of Kurt Cobain may be the closest thing twentysomethings have to an event that gave them a collective sense of tragedy, of shared grief, of a historical mark that influenced all of their lives as a generation. But it didn't, really. It hurt, and it frustrated, and it angered, but it didn't draw twentysomethings together as one common unit. Nothing really has.
By now you will probably have noticed that we refer to the people who are prime targets for the quarterlife crisis as twentysomethings. We do this for two reasons. First of all, "quarterlifers" somehow just doesn't sound rightwe don't call 40-to-60-year-olds "midlifers," and we certainly don't call centenarians "endlifers." Dude, that would just be mean. Second, the term that the public and the media most often use to describe this age range is "GenXers." People completely gloss over the fact that twentysomethings simply do not have the sense of collectivity that the boomers and the horrifically named younger "GenYers" supposedly share. Generation X was the name of Billy Idol's band and the title of a 1965 British self-help manual. For some reason, in 1991, Douglas Coupland used the term to describe twentysomethings in his book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Marketers pounced on the term, and suddenly the members of this thirteenth generation since the Pilgrims landed found the label Generation X affixed permanently to their backs. It stuck. But the phrase Generation X means absolutely nothing to the generation it is supposed to encompass. We are not going to refer to ourselves and our peers with a label that we do not understand. In our opinion, there are really only two things that apply to most twentysomethings: they are, obviously, the same age; and they tend to fall into crisis mode at this point in their lives.
We realize that this book at times may come across like a program on the Nature Channel: "Here we observe the twentysomething in its natural habitat. See it feed on Pop-Tarts and caffeine. Watch as it struggles to decide whether to return to its birthplace or strike out on its own." But for other generations, twentysomethings can be a bit of a mystery. That is why, while we are primarily gearing this book for twentysomethings, we are also writing it for the people who want to get a better grasp of what it is like to be a twentysomething today.
The twentysomethings in this book are a diverse crowd, from dozens of universities and dozens of geographical areas across the country. They are people who earned their undergraduate degrees some time during the past ten years. They come from a variety of ethnic, economic, moral, racial, and religious backgrounds. We intend this book to represent their voices, not as one collective expression, but rather as a collage of different voices that speak separately, yet largely come together. Currently, the twentysomething generation has no spokesperson, no one who represents the interests of recent graduates as a group. We are hoping that the twentysomethings in this book will emerge as a group of voices that can in some fashion, however vague, speak for all of us.
You might be reading this book because you yourself are a twentysomething who is in the midst of or has already experienced the quarterlife crisis. Or you might be a college or graduate student who is curious about this sometimes shattering shift and wants to prepare for the transition to come. Or maybe you are a concerned parent, friend, colleague, teacher, neighbor, or relative who merely wants to understand what it is like to be a twentysomething in the twenty-first century and how to help the twentysomethings you know ease into adulthood as smoothly as possible. Then again, perhaps you are the middle-aged Jim after all, complete with leather jacket and Miata, in which case you should probably pay particularly close attention so that you can better understand the mood swings of your brand new girlfriend.
Reprinted from Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner by permission of J.P. Tarcher, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 May 2001 by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.