GREAT Article by Kate Carraway
Imagine a day in the life of a couple you probably know. He’s 27 years old, and she’s 26. They wake up beside each other in his downtown bachelor apartment and have sex that neither of them particularly enjoys. They’ve been sort-of dating for a while now, but they’re not willing to commit to each other: he likes her, but doesn’t know if he always will. She can’t decide if she likes him more or less than the other two guys she’s sleeping with. He bikes to work at an advertising agency, where he uses his master’s in English to proofread ad copy, and spends several hours reading music blogs and watching movie trailers, periodically Twittering updates about his workday to his 74 followers. He doesn’t really hate his job, but feels as if his skin is crawling with vermin most of the time that he’s there, so he has a plan to move to Thailand, or to maybe write a book. Or go to law school. At her government job, she instant messages her friends and mostly ignores the report she’s drafting because she’s planning on quitting anyway — and has been planning to quit for about a year now. She spends her lunch hour buying boots that cost slightly more than her rent, then immediately regrets it. He listlessly works through lunch, then goes to the bar after work to meet up with some university friends, where they talk about their jobs and make ironic jokes about other people. Back at home, he wonders why he feels so gross and empty after spending time with them, but it’s mostly better than being alone. She walks to the house that she shares with three friends and spends a few more hours on celebrity gossip websites, then clicking through the Facebook photos of girls she knew in high school posing with their husbands and babies, simultaneously judging them and feeling a deep pit of jealousy, and a strange kind of loss. “When did this happen for them?” she wonders. They both eventually fall asleep, late and alone, each of them wondering what it is that’s wrong with them that they can’t quite seem to understand.This phenomenon, known as the “Quarterlife Crisis,” is as ubiquitous as it is intangible. 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.When a contemporary 25-year-old’s parents were 25, they weren’t concerned with keeping their options open: they were purposefully buying houses, making babies and making partner. Now, who we are and what we do is up to us, unbound to existing communities, families and class structures that offer leisure and self-determination to just a few. Boomer and post-boom parents with more money and autonomy than their predecessors has resulted in benignly self-indulgent children who were sold on their own uniqueness, place in the world and right to fulfillment in a way no previous generation has felt entitled to, and an increasingly entrepreneurial, self-driven creation myth based on personal branding, social networking and untethered lifestyle spending is now responsible for our identities. IDENTIFIED FOR THE first time in 2001, the Quarterlife Crisis has been written about most notably by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner in the New York Times best seller Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties. The themes of twentysomething ennui are everywhere in pop culture (Garden State; Lost in Translation) but it’s also been explicitly addressed: on Gossip Girl, Blair Waldorf explains some bad behaviour with “I was such an overachiever, I was headed for a Quarterlife Crisis at 18”; in the John Mayer song “Why Georgia” (“I rent a room and I fill the spaces with wood in places to make it feel like home but all I feel’s alone / It might be a Quarterlife Crisis or just the stirring in my soul”); Quarterlife was a successful web series about seven twentysomethings with creative tendencies. There’s also a terrible metal band from Long Island called Quarterlife Crisis who look like an apathetic version of Insane Clown Posse. Says Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, “The Quarterlife Crisis is a kind of anticipatory crisis: ‘How is my life going to turn out? I don’t have a clue; I don’t have a map; I don’t have a vision for it.’ The mid-life crisis is a kind of ‘Is this it? I had a big plan, I had big ideas. Now I’m 48 and I guess I won’t get to do those things.’ The mid-life crisis is understood as one of resignation. A Quarterlife Crisis will resolve itself by hooking itself into a plan.” What that plan could be, though, might be vague, or feel altogether impossible to create.Attempts to manage the Quarterlife Crisis might be as banal as drinking a lot, doing a bunch of drugs, sleeping with idiots and myriad other kinds of self-flagellation, but broader attempts are made to find some sense of purpose. An obvious choice for panicking twentysomethings with a post-undergraduate sense of displacement and for the ones that aren’t fulfilled by their jobs is grad school. James, a 28-year-old student, says “Quarterlife crises are the reason that so many universities have turned lower-level graduate programs into a cash cow.” Graduate and professional school can provide a direction and delay other choices about career and stability. And, while it’s true that higher education can “help students improve their personal and professional competency,” it can also “leave students feeling insecure about their abilities and their job prospects,” says Marc Scheer, who is a career counsellor and educational consultant, the author of No Sucker Left Behind: Avoiding the Great College Rip-Off and an advocate for considering options beyond formal education. (He also has a Ph.D.) Scheer emphasizes making an informed choice. “Whether graduate school is a wise move depends on each individual student and what they want to study. Law school can be helpful, but mostly if a student can gain acceptance to a top-tier school. Getting a Ph.D. could be dangerous for some students, especially since Ph.D. graduation rates are obscenely low these days, and few tenure-track jobs are available. So it really depends.”Among the implicit promises made to this generation of twentysomethings was that they would have work that was engaging and creatively fulfilling. A 27-year-old freelance graphic designer with a graduate degree who is struggling to find work, Prescott says “You could always say the whole premise of education is that if you study, get good grades, acquire skills, you will have more options in a ‘career and life’ point of view. If you get a degree, you don’t have to work in a factory or have to work in a farm. That’s proving to be a huge lie, because you have people coming out of school and there are just no jobs, especially in ‘middle-class’ fields.” The dissonance between a twentysomething’s pre-career expectations and the dissatisfaction they feel as part of the working world can be hugely defeating. As Kimmel says, “They don’t have much of a life plan about how to move from Point A to Point B. What happens very often is they have very big ambitions, [but] there is a mismatch between their planning for their lives and their ambitions.” He also says that the conflict is made more difficult because 25-year-olds are living “in an economic environment which is the most inhospitable in our history.” David J. Rosen, the author of What’s that Job and How the Hell Do I Get It, a career guide based on interviews with young professionals with “cool” jobs across a variety of professions, says “Generally, being happy at work is huge part of having a happy life, and a cool and interesting job is one that leaves you fulfilled, not bitter, or not with that existential career angst that you were meant for ‘more than this.’” SPENDING MONEY IS as fraught as making it. Multiple degrees, trips to Peru, and keeping up appearances on Saturday night all communicate values and desires, and having no consistent sense of “want” can reinforce the problem, often with trail of debt. Anya Kamenetz, who is a 29-year-old staff writer at Fast Company magazine and the author of the book Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young, says “As recently as the early 1990s, Americans had less than $10,000 of student loans on average. Now the average is over $20,000. As of about 2006, young people had $4,000 of credit-card debt on average, and those with debt were spending a quarter of their income on debt payments.” Kamenetz says “Debt and lower income can affect your choice of jobs. It can take longer to move out of your parents’ house or stop accepting those cheques and become fully independent. And many young people find themselves asking the question: ‘Why haven’t I made more progress?’ It makes people feel like failures when really there are larger trends at work.” This is also, in part, what has led to the “Boomerang” trend, where adult children move back in with their parents after leaving for school or work. Scheer identifies another, more insidious problem with grad school, and with delaying career choices generally: “Graduate school presents some ‘opportunity costs’ in that students can’t work while they go to school. So, for example, someone who goes to medical school and doesn’t finish residency until their late 20s or early 30s won’t financially catch up to their friends until they are in their late 30s or early 40s or later. These are all important factors to consider and not be unrealistically optimistic about.”The Quarterlife Crisis remains largely a middle-class, Stuff White People Like kind of problem, and usually manifests itself where certain problematic social norms used to exist, like who had access to education and interesting work, and who was allowed adventure and self-determination. The twentysomething void is, in large part, due to the important evolution of sexual equality, and when sex, relationships, and family-building changes, everything does. Kimmel says, of men in particular, “Part of the Quarterlife Crisis is a kind of malaise that the end of your youth is really the end of fun. And that you’re never going to have any fun again, because you have to work. You’re never going to have sex again because you’re going to get married. Your life is over.” So why bother? Literal and figurative fucking around is infinitely more appealing to men who are still sorting out what they want their lives to look like.“Grown-ups understand that the choices we make also involve choices we don’t make,” Kimmel says. “We have some regrets and we carry [those] with us. Guys don’t get a lot of help in this from each other or from our culture. Culturally we have got to show guys that the other side of this is actually terrific.” He points out that, statistically, married men are happier and have more sex, and that fathers experience lower levels of depression. Still, Kimmel points out that very young marriage has the highest rate of divorce, and that men would do well to spend their unmarried years focused on their own growth, rather than Halo 3.WOMEN ALSO FIND themselves conflicted, usually more than men, about the trajectory of their twenties as they relate to relationships. Sarah, who is 27 and works at a non-profit, wants to travel and get a master’s degree, but feels conflicted about doing either. “I want to have kids, and every day that goes by, I have this number in my head. It’s 32. It used to be 30. That’s only a few years from now. I’m thinking, if I don’t do some of this stuff now, before I have kids, am I going to be able to do it?” Women are roundly considered to be in biologically ideal form for baby-making in their twenties and early thirties, which are also prime fun-having and career-building years. For women who want all of the things promised by (theoretically) equal education, work and sex lives, the conflict of desires can be catastrophic. Leah, who is a 26-year-old with a demanding corporate job, says “I feel tied down because of my job, but at the same time feel that while I am single and young I should travel because I don’t have any obligations to other people, and it’s only going to get harder as I get older.” Sarah says, “Am I going to have regrets? Once you have kids, your opportunities are over. That’s probably not true. But everyone seems to change. All of the women who I work with who have kids, they change. Their priorities shift.” Sarah’s boyfriend doesn’t feel the same pressure. “He doesn’t have that kind of timeframe. He says ‘I don’t even think about that.’ Of course you don’t think about it.... [Men] really don’t think about it.” In 1973, the average age for women to get married was 23, and for men, 25. By 2003, the average age for both rose about five years, a significant change that reflects both marriage-free cohabitation and purposefully delaying serious commitment. It also means that twentysomethings are increasingly going it alone in their financial lives, where they would historically be building assets and houses and portfolios alongside their partner. Women, especially, are buying homes on their own. It also means that loneliness and isolation are far more likely, particularly when being separated from the close friendships that make up university life happens without a family or back-up community in place.THE EMOTIONAL TUMULT reported during, or remembered after, a Quarterlife Crisis has a scarily ineffable quality. This isolation and its private anxiety are pervasive, as is a longing for the way things were in the predictably structured eras of high school and college or university. The directionlessness and resulting immobility is made worse when twentysomethings going through the Crisis compare themselves to their peers, past and present, further convincing someone in the throes of it that they’re not only alone, but the worst kind of failure. Says Leah, “A lot of [my friends] are settling down and getting ready to take the next steps towards marriage and families and it makes me question why I am not doing the same, and I realize that the amount of effort they put into finding a partner and getting married I put into my career. So how could I possibly have time for both?”Twentysomethings are also inundated with constant but mostly empty communication, as the increasingly primary social sphere exists online instead of real life. Nothing could be more alienating to someone in the midst of a crisis than a tool like Facebook. Says James, “All sorts of half-forgotten acquaintances and abandoned friendships reappear in this spreadsheet of potential reasons to feel terrible about yourself. If you’re as petty as I am, you spend a lot of Facebook time gauging your own feelings of inadequacy in direct relation to other people’s success. All these people you couldn’t give a shit about a couple of years ago are now these omnipresent benchmarks and counterpoints to measure against whatever you have or haven’t got going on in your life.” Adair, who is 30, found herself mired in a Quarterlife Crisis and sought professional help. She says, “I worked with a life coach, and he helped me a lot to realize that I was creating a vicious cycle in my life.... It was a cycle with four different phases, and I’ve followed it basically throughout my life. The steps were: I would get really excited about something, something new something different, something stellar, big. I went off to school totally excited and ready for an awesome experience. Stage two would be like ‘Oh, this is it? This is kind of boring now.’ After one-and-a-half exciting and non-stop years, I realized that I wasn’t excited about being there anymore. Stage three would be ‘What am I doing, why am I choosing to do this?’ In that third stage I would inevitably have some type of breakdown, [which] usually consisted of crying and talking through the feelings of emptiness and boredom with a friend or family member. Then I would have kind of breakthrough in that experience and get myself back up. At that point, I went abroad to Seville, Spain.... Now every time I’m faced with a change or new situation or find myself bored, I ask myself if this is a part of the cycle, or is this genuinely how I’m feeling.”Having so much — youth, ability, independence — can feel like the worst possible scenario. What remains, though, is the potential for the years with anxiety and without direction to be reclaimed. Scheer sees real opportunity here. “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.” Michael Kimmel says “There is life on the other side of this, and it’s actually a pretty good one. 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.