It’s no secret that young people entering the workforce today are facing very different issues and challenges than their counterparts of generations past.
You may have heard of the term “quarter-life crisis.” You may even be thinking to yourself, ‘I’m pretty sure I’ve had one of those!’ Or maybe, you’ve watched the HBO series Girls, which is reportedly all about the issue. Yet, would you be able to define exactly what we mean by the phrase? Is it simply some kind of younger version of its cousin, the mid-life crisis? Is it one half of a mid-life crisis?
To me, the “quarter life crisis” was always one of those things laughed about among friends, as we mocked our own perceived inability to “grow up, get a real job, and move on.” We didn’t really pause to give any thought to what was meant by the words – we just felt like we were stuck inside some kind of gray area – an in-between place that wasn’t quite the same as the last time we felt we identified with a group (i.e. students/adolescents), and wasn’t yet what we thought we were supposed to be (professionals doing meaningful work).
Not only would I later discover how real a quarter life crisis could be, I would also learn a fancy new word to describe the “in-between” phenomenon described above: anomie. In plain language, it means the absence of social norms.
This makes sense. There is a social understanding of what it’s like to be a student, or a young person who is simply trying to absorb as much of life as they can. Similarly, we have a clear idea (at least we think we do) of what it’s like to be a responsible working adult. That sense of collective norms seems to be absent, however, when we consider the period in-between.
For some, this sense of in-between-ness can result in what’s now legitimately coined a quarter-life crisis. There are other symptoms, of course – depression, feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, fear of failure, and uncertainty about the future seem to be common (article). Directionlessness seems to be an important theme, but there’s also the illusory feeling of falling behind your peers, thanks to the constant updates provided by sites like Facebook.
Exactly when this happens is up for debate. Some say 18-29, some say 25-30. What seems to be understood is that this is not a phenomenon that necessarily happens a quarter of the way through one’s life. Rather, these experiences often occur a quarter of the way through adulthood, with educated professionals most likely to be afflicted. Why? Well, this article mentions a survey that found that 86% of ‘young people’ felt pressure to ‘succeed’ in their relationships and careers before age 30. Additionally, 40% felt they didn’t earn enough money, and 21% wanted a career change.
So, these are people who are experiencing a lot of pressure at a time when life is shrouded in uncertainty. Combined with the aforementioned lack of social meaning, it would seem we have a recipe for a potential quarter life crisis.
Still, this explanation lacks both relatability and narrative structure, so I decided to interview someone who self-identified as experiencing a quarter life crisis, to see what her story could add to the picture.
“Where did the last 20 years go, and how come I have nothing?”
Upon graduation from high school, “Angela” (a pseudonym) found herself in a situation I’m personally familiar with. “I came into the university thinking I was going to be a science student, and I realized pretty quickly on that that was absolutely not going to work for me.” Not surprisingly, this left Angela feeling confused and dismayed. “Realizing sciences wasn’t “it” really confused me because I was so set in high school on it. I didn’t know how come I changed my mind – it just didn’t make sense.
“I find myself comparing myself to a lot of my friends. It seems like everybody else has their lives together, and they have a direction they believe they’re going in. One of my friends is overseas right now doing exactly what she loves, and seeing her blossom really messed with my head. I’m not sure what I’m doing, and I see all these people that do, and it’s just extremely frustrating.”
Aside from the feeling of falling behind her peers, Angela doesn’t feel she’s getting the kind of support she needs from the people around her. “I talked to my friends about it, and most of them either don’t know anything about what I’m going through, or they think I’m crazy and imagining things. It seems like I’m pretty much alone. My dad’s very set in the ways that the world was when he was a kid in a very different country, so the fact that I’m directionless is infuriating to him. My mom seems disinterested. She’s letting me make my own decisions, but that’s not exactly what I feel I need.”
Not exactly a recipe for feeling good about oneself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Angela went on to talk about her feelings of self-doubt, and fear of failure. “I don’t feel like I can make the big decisions that need to be made. There was so much structure in the past. Now you have to make all these life decisions, and you just don’t know how. I’m starting to wonder what the heck is wrong with me – is it something that I’m doing wrong? Is it the way I’m approaching things? Can I just not make a decision? Am I just hopeless? I can’t seem to commit to anything, because if I do, I might miss out on something else. I might fail at it, and then where am I after that? What’s going to happen if I don’t go anywhere with it? It’s scary.”
Confusion, directionlessness, self-doubt, and fear of failure – all of which were mentioned. It seems like Angela’s experience matches pretty well with the descriptions of a quarter-life crisis given above. It seems cruelly ironic that her story sounds like so many others I’ve talked to, yet the experience of that story is almost always one of feeling alone.
For those readers who might still be scoffing at the quarter-crisis phenomenon, Angela had some final words she wanted to share here. “There are people who are actually struggling with this. I really think some sort of discussion should be had, and there’s just nothing. Even when universities come to high schools to do their sessions, they automatically put you in a category – you’re either a sciences major or an arts major – and you just don’t really know that those might not be “it.”
“It’s okay if it’s not the right one for you and you don’t know it yet.”
A familiar message, but one that bears repeating.
*Cross-posted in Dave’s Diary at the Career Services Informer.