The term "quarter life crisis" refers to the personal and professional angst of some of today's twenty-somethings.
Last month Eye Weekly published a good overview of the phenomenon and wrote:
Unrelenting indecision, isolation, confusion and anxiety about working, relationships and direction is reported by people in their mid-twenties to early thirties who are usually urban, middle class and well-educated; those who should be able to capitalize on their youth, unparalleled freedom and free-for-all individuation. They can’t make any decisions, because they don’t know what they want, and they don’t know what they want because they don’t know who they are, and they don’t know who they are because they’re allowed to be anyone they want.
In other words, it is a "crisis" that afflicts a privileged slice of the young adult group: the introspective urbanites who have the time and energy to wallow in their introspections and contemplate deeper identity issues; the people who can financially afford to think about what they love to do versus what they have to do. As this older Financial Times piece put it, the quarter life crisis is when highly educated young people are paralyzed not due to "lack of opportunity, as may have been true in the past, but from an excess of possibilities."
With generational proclamations it's important to ask whether a so-called "new" phenomenon is in fact new to the current moment or instead something all people of a particular age have experienced over the years.
I do think today's flavor of youthful existential angst is new. First, the generation in question, Gen Y, might be the most ass-wiped in history. We are called the self-esteem generation because of the way our Baby Boomer parents have coddled us: anything is possible, we are all uniquely gifted individuals, so on and so forth. This can result in expectations out of whack from reality. More young people today than ever before say they expect to be millionaires by age 30, as just one example. What follows monstrously unrealistic expectations? More intensely felt disappointment and confusion.
Second, the idea of an excess of possibilities is true in a real sense — we have grown up in a world of unparalleled peace and prosperity — but also in a newly magnified comparative sense. Today, if you're 24 and online, your sense of what's possible from a how-to-live-life perspective is limited by the bounds of a boundless internet. Sure, when you read newspapers from all over the world or follow blogs from people doing amazing things your arc of vision is broader than whatever is happening on your cul-de-sac. But this also means you can compare yourself, in vivid detail and in real-time, to whomever is at the top of the game you happen to be playing in. Possible consequence: feelings of inferiority, envy, slowness (there's always someone younger who's done more and read more), stupidness, loneliness ("Everyone has it figured out but me").
Neither article offers very good advice for those suffering from quarter life malaise. The FT piece says young people should just grow up. The Eye Weekly piece says, “If you feel you’re in crisis, this is a great opportunity to draft a five-year plan with steady concrete goals to help you get to where you want to be. Anyone can transform their life in just a few years.” Which is delightfully unhelpful advice. It goes on to say, "Growing up may be hard to do, but in the end, the gains outweigh the losses… In other words: it might just be time to grow the fuck up."
Ah, growing the fuck up, a great American pastime. One gets the sense that to grow up for these authors means to relinquish those lofty dreams and accept that you are a selfish piece of shit whose life is going to be unremarkable — which is to say your life is going to be like most people's lives, and to aspire for more is cute in that youthful idealistic borderline-precocious sense but "grown-ups" know it's is just needlessly stress-inducing; grown-ups know the Cold Hard Truth is that the secret to happiness is low expectations. Grown-ups, they would probably say, know that you should not try to find your calling and just find a stable job — that way you'll have a life during the evenings and weekends.
My own highly unqualified musings on careers and life strategy for the twenty-something years have piled up over the past five years: that people should adopt a centenarian life strategy (you're going to live till you're 100); embrace your 20's as the odyssey / wandering years; expose yourself to bulk, positive randomness; travel as much as possible; don't do what you love, do what you are; choose jobs based on the people more than company (reach out to heros); de-emphasize long-term plans or goals; default to 'yes' to avoid later regret; perhaps embrace uncertainty; see virtue in shade over light; work on your ping-pong backhand.
Here's an old NPR commentary of mine on the weak collective consciousness of Gen Y, and so why we should be careful about generational generalizations.