The Quarter Life Crisis

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.

(thanks to Charlie Hoehn for pointing out the article and Cal Newport for brainstorming parts of this post)

20 comments on “The Quarter Life Crisis
  • Thanks– this was interesting in that it gave a name to something I knew existed. Phew!
    I agree with you on the uselessness of the reporters’ advice, although it’s a losing battle to speak out against it because one risks becoming an example for the very whiny brattiness that supposedly gen Y embodies.
    Certainly it’s these kinds of feelings that encourage my entrepreneurial side– how about you?

  • The point about comparing yourself to the best is astute–this is not a good thing for mental health. Perhaps, then, the best advice for young people is to carve out their own niche–even if it’s not a career necessarily, just something that they can fall back on and say, well, at least nobody else has done/can do *that*.

  • I love neologisms. Putting a formal label always makes people take things seriously (which is a shame but amusing to those who knew things existed but just didn’t think to apply marketing 101 on the hapless around them who believe everything).

    I do not think the angst is new. In my generation – technically Generation X (another shorthand I dislike but hey, some of us appeared in the first cover story done in India on the topic so why complain?) – the experience was quite common too. Not rampant but common amongst those who were/ are high-achievers and having done rather a lot in early 20s, wondered about the next fix.

    Fast forward a few years later, those who quit the beaten track, despite the possibility of being tut-tutted over by our “type” of people, have morphed into the most interesting, well-rounded, well-read, well-travelled, likeable and even humbled people.

    As the urban myth about the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ goes, it is also an opportunity. To become self-aware as well as aware of the inconsequentiality of the self in the big schema. Some things just are a rite of passage. And universally so, not just in Americana.

  • I still think my sailing analogy is apt:

    The people you are describing have been sailing down a river their entire lives. During your education, you are taught to sail, but don’t have any choices as to where to go. You are sailing downstream. Some latitude within the width of the river, but always downstream. When you finish schooling (God forbid you EXTEND the river by going to Law School), it’s like you hit the ocean.

    Congratulations! You know how to sail! But you have no destination. You could sail all over the world, but where to go first? And do you really have the skills to sail to Asia (I picture the Columbia River where it dumps into the Pacific).

    This is the Quarter Life Crisis.

    The Mid Life Crisis is where you hit the ocean and you do have a destination. Perhaps given by your folks? A friend? A movie? The culture? But when you finally get there, you find out it was the wrong destination all along, and now you are bewildered. What to do?

    Buy a convertible, divorce the wife, move to Scottsdale, and shack up with some hot young blonde!

    Your career and life strategy ideas are great. Remember, however, that these strategies can only be enacted by that same “privileged slice of the young adult group” who have disposable income, low to no debt, and the vision to see the forest for the trees.

    Or something.

    Also, did you enjoy “YES MAN” (Jim Carrey movie about defaulting to yes)? I haven’t seen it.

    I think the Ping Pong trend is cresting, just like “Green” crap in ’07 and “elegant” in ’08.

    Play a man’s sport. Pickleball.

  • I think this is definitely one of the best articles you’ve written (perhaps I’m biased, as I’m in the given situation). Want to see more like this in the future if that’s possible.

  • I’ve read your blog for awhile now and this post perfectly sums up why I read it. You have a great perspective on our generation and an equally solid philosophy on how to live it.

    My take is that exploration is key. With all the possibilities around and the low risk while being young, trying new things should be standard. Whenever I feel hesitation, I always fall back on the saying “feel the fear and do it anyways.”

  • I thought the “quarter-life”
    crisis was a good post. Very thoughtful. “What to do with your life”has probably always been an issue for people in that age bracket, but it really has gotten harder for affluent kids in the current generation. One thing I would add is that not only are affluent kids “coddled” but also they simply live in an affluent environment – a nice house, a nice car, pretty much whatever toys they want, nice
    dinners, etc. Leaving college and getting an entry-level salary does not provide for these things, no matter what your degree is in.

    If you were to write a book about this, I bet it would be a bestseller. A section motivating why it’s such a big issue both
    historically and more-so now; an “anecdotal” look at how a variety of
    people have dealt or are dealing with it; a “theoretical” section with some sociological/psychological data; a how-to section that people can use as a way to try to figure it out. Hell, if you wrote that book maybe it would help you figure out how to deal with it yourself!

  • I think the advice re: being unremarkable and lowering your expectations is not as bad as it sounds.

    I mean, a quarter-life crisis is essentially about feeling that you are not where you think you should be at that stage in life – about feeling like you haven’t achieved what you feel you should’ve.

    And the act of lowering your expectations isn’t as much about going “well, I should just settle” as much as releasing yourself from the pressure of your self-imposed deadline.

    Finding a career is a lot like finding the right person, if you’re sitting there thinking “I should’ve found the right person by now, I should be married with 2.5 kids and a dog and a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence”, you’re not really giving yourself the mental & emotional space to be in the moment and feel your way to the right choice for yourself.

    Finding the right person or career is an iterative process for most people, a series of making not-quite-right choices and learning more about your preferences from the process so your next choice is a better one. And the longer the search, typically the better the ultimate selection.

    Life is a marathon, not a race, it’s the journey that should be enjoyed – blah blah blah – you know what I mean.

  • Agreed self-imposed deadlines are not helpful.

    If I thought the advice re: lowering expectations was total bullshit, I
    wouldn’t have included it in the post…

  • I think it really comes down to the second point that you mentioned…I like to call it the paradox of choice. Just like electronic networks become overwhelmed because of too much data, many college educated Gen Y’s find themselves with so many choices that it paralyzes them. This stems in part from their ability to (as you say) see other’s results in real time, and since they want to maximize their own lives, many young professionals cannot choose which path to take.

    There is an interesting book series called the Quarterlife Crisis that details many of the problems these young people are facing. I don’t know if you’ve already heard about it, but if not its a pretty quick and somewhat insightful read.

  • Great post!

    Unfortunately, too true in my case as well. It can’t be understated how the self-esteem and ‘we’re-all-uniquely-gifted’ propaganda planted the seeds of angst in our minds.

    The worst part is realizing you’re having this angst because you’re privileged and selfish!

  • Gosh you’ll kill yourself in your 40s if your 20s is posing a problem…. sheesh embrace life my friend it’ll all be over soon enough.

  • Nicely said. It shows how rapidly society is evolving when young folks are taking half the time to mature as their parents. Moore’s Law of human culture. In another decade or so, the 3D generation, as I’m calling kids born in the aughts, will be having their own existential crisis, and considering their place in the universe, when they are in junior high, and will have sorted themselves out, and matured quite nicely by the time they can get their driver’s license. I’m really, really looking forward to the future! 🙂

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