Is the Quarterlife Crisis still real? Or was it ever?

I teach three spring semester Advanced Practicum courses to students in Boston College and Merrimack College‘s Higher Education Masters programs.  One of the readings I like to assign for the first class is a selection from Robbin and Wilner’s Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties.  Although the work has a few outdated references (it was published in 2001), I’m amazed at how the concept of the “quarterlife crisis” continues to resonate with my students, many of whom fall into this twenty-something range.  Admittedly, the quarterlife crisis refers to an experience for students with a certain degree of privilege, but for my masters-degree-pursuing students, it seems to fit relatively well.

The following is an excerpt from the book about what the quarterlife crisis is:

“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 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 or her] past, in part to see if [his or her] life to date measures up to the life [he or she] envisioned as a child… The midlife crisis also impels a middle-aged person to look forward, sometimes with an increasing sense of desperation, at the time [he or she] feels [he or she] 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 setting–or more if a person has gone on to graduate or professional school–many 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…. But after graduation, the pathways blur.  In that crazy wild nexus that people 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… 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…

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.”  (pp. 2-3).

The question I am posing to my students is this:

Is the quarterlife crisis real?

My students will be posting in reply to this blog entry for class, but for other visitors, I encourage you to add your thoughts and perspectives.

63 thoughts on “Is the Quarterlife Crisis still real? Or was it ever?

  1. I truly enjoyed reading the article and all of the insights in this thread. I agree with many people’s comments that part of what causes the “quarterlife crisis” is that people in that age group are left to figure out their plans without being able to rely on the traditional milestones of high school or college graduation.
    One aspect of the reading that resonated with me was the disorientation that can come from trying to figure out your identity in a new setting. I feel as though many of the people profiled in the reading faced their biggest challenges when they had to reevaluate their ideas about themselves and their beliefs based on the new situations that they were in. While this experience can certain feel like a crisis of sorts, I also feel like the opportunity to begin to define oneself outside of the structure of high school or college can lead to a more complete sense of one’s identity in the long run, even if it does feel like a slow process.

  2. I bike to school every day even in this freezing weather. On my way home last night, I was riding down a slope on Chestnut Hill, which in warm days is my favorite part of going home because it takes less energy to pedal. The gushing wind froze my exposed facial parts and made my eyes tear in an unbearable way. I thought to myself, why am I doing this? Is it worth it? Where is this path leading me to?

    Before reading this article and all the amazing comments, I never associated myself with this concept. I did have doubts and puzzles during the past few years, but they never came to me as something I couldn’t cope with until very recently. Two weeks ago, I was having dinner with a Chinese friend who’s currently finishing up his doctoral degree in Physics at BU. We shared very similar experiences in previous choice making and are both experiencing troubles in making the next move – up to this point, we both achieved what we always wanted to do as goals were clear and skills were set, but the future seems too vague to get a hold of it. We both felt that there are too many options to choose from and yet nothing seems perfectly ideal. We both face traditional Chinese pressures (get a job, buy a house, get married, have kids and take good care of your old sick parents). Many paths are laid in front of us and we are afraid once we make the first step, there will be no turning back.

    Two nights ago, my landlady who’s also a good friend of mine came to the house to chat with me. She just came back from NYC to visit her daughter who was a Harvard College and HBS graduate and is currently working for McKinsey&Company. Her tuition at HBS was paid by M&C in exchange of a two year commitment. According to my landlady, her daughter is not very happy with her job because she was a straight A student, has won numerous awards and placed top 5% when graduated HBS. She always knew what to do to reach those concrete goals. She said she got a loss at what to do because now her job is case-based, there’s no obvious set of goals to achieve and yet she doesn’t know if she really likes her job. Many would admire her life, but she’s experiencing similar troubles as many of us do.

    Why? Is it really because we are too privileged and have too many options? Sometimes I have to agree that having too many choices is if not worse, just as devastating as having no choice. Coming from a different cultural and educational background, I can’t help but think of what my classmates and friends back in China are doing. Are they experiencing the same puzzles? Maybe, only those who are super qualified and bright. I agree with the concept of first world problems partially as in a country where good jobs are scarce and a luxury, choice is limited and people are more focused in making life changes. If a job pays 4,000-6,000RMB ($650-$900) a month, many new college graduates would kill to get it despite the lack of interest. In fact, money is the interest. Some people believe interests can be developed while doing the job, or love can be developed once you are married. :(. Although many young people at their 20s’ now are worried about their future, but that has a lot to do with their unrealistic expectations and disappointingly low qualifications – the clash between fancy dreams and cruel reality. If there has to be one major cause to quarterlife crisis in China, that would be meeting parental expectations. Parents are very good at using other people’s achievements to pressure their own kids. The fact that almost all students have their college tuition (which is very low in China compared to the US) paid by their parents, they are expected and obligated to do what they parents expect them to. The pressure of not meeting expectations creates tremendous amount of pressure that many young people avoid having serious conversations with their parents because they fear to let their parents down or are simply annoyed of being lessoned on how their life should go.

    Personally, to deal with the crisis, I agree with Robbin and Wilner that we should acknowledge the existence of the issue and to have less doubt on ourselves. We should tell ourselves that life is meant to be filled with changes and that we are learning from all of them to better ourselves. Second is to find what we truly love to do. It’s easier said than done, but as Steve Jobs said, “the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. And you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future”. Maybe, a good way to face these crisis is to “stay hungry, stay foolish”.

    1. Nick- I really appreciate you bringing an international perspective to the table. I think it’s interesting how some of these experiences may be cross-cultural. Thanks for the insight.

  3. I will start by admitting that I am a loyal Michael Kimmel follower and share Emily’s views that our notion of “life crises” tend to be gender-biased. I do believe the quarterlife crisis can exist, but I believe what it manifests as – and how it’s dealt with – varies depending upon that second chromosome. Considering I a) am a twenty-something guy myself and b) work with twenty-something guys every day, I will focus a bit on them in this post.

    First, there are some experiences we can safely call similar in both gender transitions. The reading is right that the chaos stems from uncertainty; if the midlife crisis is a final attempt to assert self-identity than the quarterlife crisis is the ever-more-fearful first attempt. And regardless of gender, the transition has to be placed in the context of our globally connected, technologically integrated, multicultural world. In simple terms, the “seemingly endless choices” before twenty-somethings have never been so truly endless. I’d also be remiss to not emphasize Tara’s assertion that 9/11 represents the “strong, collectively shared historical moment that helps define” the Millennial generation (I prefer this term over Generation X for a variety of reasons). The reading was published shortly before that day, but how that tragedy mediates our experience of the aforementioned global possibilities proves its point about “shaping our identity”.

    Beyond this, the experience of college and postgraduate life is generally quite different for men and women. I would point people to Kay Hymowitz’s great book “Manning Up”, which outlines just how the achievement gap between male and female undergraduates carries over into the professional world. In conjunction with Kimmel’s “Guyland”, one can see that the quarterlife crisis is not just an isolated experience, it’s an anthropological phenomenon.

    It was at the turn of the last century (1900) that we saw a similar shift. Due to new labor laws and Supreme Court rulings, children were no longer let work long hours in mines and factories. America quickly passed compulsory education laws to get these kids into schools rather than loitering on the streets. Suddenly allowed socialize with those their age and allowed to focus on just their studies, these children began acting differently than their predecessors. Soon, noted psychologist (and founder of Clark University) G. Stanley Hall declared them a new stage of human development: adolescents. Hall borrowed from the poetry of Goethe in describing adolescence as a period of “sturm and drang” – storm and stress. Apparently teenagers haven’t changed much in the last 100 years. However, society has.

    Robbins and Wilner note how ubiquitous the quarterlife crisis is, and so do Hymowitz and Kimmel. Couldn’t it be possible that we are experiencing the creation of a new stage of human development, as we were 100 years ago? With life expectancy getting longer, college attendance getting more regular, and job searches getting more global (and thus more competitive), it seems almost necessary to define this period as more than just a temporary crisis. After all, as the reading points out, the “crisis” seems to extend several years, and tends to delay major life events such as marriage, steady employment, and child-raising, much the same as the adolescent stage did a century ago.

    The reading seems to claim that to be a bona fide stage of human development, this post-adolescence/guyland/quarterlife-crisis would need some sort of representation in our cultural canon. As the reading points out, the midlife crisis is well-used media entity, but claims suffering twenty-somethings are “virtually invisible to the marketplace”. This statement was only partially true in 2001, but it’s blatantly out of place in 2013. While writing this, I took a tour through my residents’ rooms to look for signs of media that endorsed this “I don’t know what lies after college” quandry. What I found was what I called in my senior thesis on this topic “The Pantheon of Slacker Films”: Old School, Wedding Crashers, 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, Superbad, Stepbrothers, and the king of them all, the Hangover. Every single one of these films features men trying to escape having to be men.

    In conclusion, if we want to talk about our concerns about the quarterlife crisis (living at home, playing video games, going out on weekends, and not thinking about the future), we first need to ask if our young men even think that’s a problem.

    1. FASCINATING take on the gender angle. You should also check out Michael Kaufman’s work. Good stuff.

      The discussion of the changes in how American’s vview childhood and the emergence of adolescence is also an intersting take. REminds me of Huck’s Raft by Mintz.

  4. This thread has been extremely enlightening and interesting to read– thank you to everyone who has commented! I agree with those that have focused on the quarter-life crisis being about faced with too many opportunities, too much change, or too drastic of a transition. I think it’s perfectly normal to feel a bit of shock when staying in school for so many years to suddenly have to face the 9-5 day after day. Since I went straight from high school to college to a graduate program, I too expect to be shocked by only having to focus on whatever job I have and not having to worry about school work as my main preoccupation and priority- especially if that job isn’t as stimulating as academic work. Graduate school, however, has been excellent transition between full-time undergraduate and half-student/half “real world” worker and I’m very thankful that I have gotten to experience a sort of ease-in and preparation for full time work.

    There were a few points in the assigned reading that I really liked and hope to carry with me as I go through my own set of transitions and changes after graduation. The trial and error method, from what I’ve heard, appears very popular nowadays. Many of my peers during our senior year accepted the first job offered to them simply because they wanted to be employed and not worry about it anymore. Now, a good amount of them are disappointed, bored, or have already quit their first job and are looking for a new and happier path- and many of these feelings come in a bit of crisis form. While some of them may have been too hasty, I think they’re all learning from the trial and error process and will hopefully find a new position better suited to them. I agree with the reading that many first jobs will be boring and not ideal, and I think it’s important to remember that nothing will be forever and the people featured in the chapter ARE lucky enough to have other opportunities.I also really liked the parts about finding something stable (like spirituality, a hobby, an interest) that likely won’t change with these life transitions. Whatever it may be, during these tumultuous times, there will be something to keep you grounded and to give perspective. I really would like to take that away with me and utilize that if (and, let’s be honest, probably when) I have my own crisis. All in all, a very relevant read!

  5. It’s amazing to read this and realize how much of today’s students are in the same boat that is described in the literary piece above. Perhaps the argument for privileged, and lack of coping skills articulates well with the idea of having quarter life crisis. My quarter llife crisis came as i decided to walk out of medical school, walk to the beach and question myself “Now what”. At the time everyone in my life thought I was headed for failure. I did too. But what changed in those few seconds as i walked out of the gross anatomy class at JABSOM was that I questioned my very existence and what else i wanted to do, since i no longer fancied practicing medicine, and so began my career in higher education and student affairs.
    Perhaps the issue was that I had never given myself option to pursue anything but medicine, or perhaps the issue was that I never really questioned what i wanted to do if medicine wasn’t an option. Sure I was given options, but did i really embrace my options. I often think that people don’t know how to use their options. And so the crisis is meant to question your options, – is it a bad thing yeah it can be if the crisis ends up depriving you from life, but if ti leads to an evaluation of your life, then to me that is catharsis.
    So while students may worry — just as I do from time to time about life after college and grad, school I am forced to remember that such crisis will inadvertently lead to a self-catharsis which will then lead to a better career.

  6. I have really enjoyed reading this discussion and the excerpt, but I feel more than anything – relieved. I came across a blog post a few months back, not scholarly to say the least so excuse that, but I read and I thought to myself, is this person talking about my life?? Did write this in some sleep-stupor?

    But NO! Other people felt the way I was feeling.

    Feel free to read the whole thing, but number 1 says in part “There is a nagging suspicion in your brain that there’s something missing. Not missing as in ‘Shit I lost my cell phone.’ But missing as in, you wake up in the morning not really sure of your path in life, if this is really what you want to do.”

    I shared it with some friends, and I couldn’t believe their response, they felt the same way, we all were in this together, we just refused to admit it or have any real conversations about it. Now, of course not all of those things apply, but I sincerely feel like part of this extended adolescents has caused this quarter-life crisis in adulthood. I had a plan. We all did. And nowhere in my plan was living-in as a Resident Director and seemingly never graduating. Yes, I will graduate in May with my second master’s, which I feel pretty good about, until I run into a lost college friend and they ask what I am doing, and then there is that pause, before they say, “So, you are still in school? At BC? Living in Walsh? Oh. Wow. No no, that is fantastic.” But, when I turn it around and ask them, they inevitably say something about having an “okay” job, but they are thinking about going back to school for “something” they just haven’t figured out what. We will always want to progress and better ourselves.

    Not to speak for my generation or age group, but when my friends, colleagues, etc started actually talking about these things, we found out that most of us certainly thought we would be in a different place. We were supposed to have it all “figured out” by now, whatever that means. We can’t help but compare ourselves to those estranged high school friends who have it “all together” or that friend who lives in the nice apartment and has the job where they make more money in a year than I will in a lifetime, or that colleague in the office… whoever it is. It is human nature. But, I honestly believe if everyone spent a day in anyone of their shoes, we would run screaming for our real life. Perhaps we should spend a little more time looking at how far we have come, instead of how far we have to go?

  7. This concept of a “quarter life crisis” is a term seems applicable to many of my classmates that I graduated with in May. For the majority of us, going to college after high school graduation was a natural path to take, and in my experience I was expected to go to college. After graduation a lot of us were left with uncertainty, and for the first times in our lives we were unsure of what to do. Despite the fact that we have bachelors degrees, there is no guarantee that a college degree with get us a job, let alone a desirable one.

    Being a current graduate student, I do not feel like I have truly his this patch of uncertainty, but I anticipate it once I graduate in May. However, I don’t think this “quarter life crisis” happens as a result of being a certain age. I believe this occurs after the passing of a milestone in life. This is one reason I believe a quarter life crisis differs from a midlife crisis.

    I look at some of my high school clasmates, some of which did not go to college. Though these people are the same age as me, they are not all going through a quarter life crisis. Some of them obtained jobs after high school graduation. Others are still pursuing their bachelor’s degree, and this patch of uncertainty has not hit them.

    1. I agree that a quarterlife crisis occurs after a milestone rather than around a certain age. Looking back on my life, I also was expected to go to college straight from High School, it wasn’t until my looking into Graduate school that so many unknowns began to surface in my life. I was finishing work and did not know where I wanted to go with my life, nor if I would get accepted into a program, which would have left me without a job prospect or a way to further my education. This crisis will rear its head in May when looking at job prospects for after Graduate school, there will be so many options but not necessarily any guarantees just due to the further knowledge I will have obtained.

      1. I have to agree with you both. It does seem that going to college right after graduating from high school has become the norm. This causes people to have to worry less about what they will do once they hit the “real world” after they graduate. Since they are so used to their lives they have settled into from high school all through out college, this massive stressor of change hits them like a brick wall, causing them to have no idea how to handle this oncoming change.

        Also, the more pressure that gets put onto finding a career after you graduate, and thus pressuring students to get more education, leads to this quarterlife crisis. The combination of the stress of going post college life and pressure of finding a job is someting very difficult to get over. I also knew a handful of people in college who had a hard time coming to terms with graduating and moving on. It got to the point that they spent more time around juniors rather than fellow seniors in order to pretend that they were not actually graduating. I personally was unsure about my life after graduation, but I was accepting of whatever was going to happen, which seems to be the key to lessening this quarterlife crisis.

        1. From what has been said, it is clear that we all have had a plan or a path to follow. Up until our mid twenties, this path was our safety net which keeps us from thinking about the future. When I graduated I did not realize how much freedom I had. I could choose to do anything I wanted. I found myself being excited and scared due to the uncertainty. I think it is the uncertainty that =t fuels the “quarter life crisis”. After I graduated from undergrad I was tempted to go right back to school to avoid dealing with the real world. Instead, I decided to use the trial and error approach that was discussed in the reading. I knew that I had lost interest in the industry I was prepared to work in, but I wanted to try it out anyway. After that did not work out, I knew it was time to go back to school. I think it is important to embrace the risks and to use the uncertainty as a fuel to keep discovering ourselves. I think that by taking small steps now to be more risk taking, like trying something new at the cheesecake factory, will prepare us for when we hit our “crisis”.

          1. I agree with Jess and the point about how uncertainty fuels the “quarter life crisis.” For me, I think that having too many options made me feel out of control. I could chose anything I wanted to do and I was clueless about where and how to start making those decisions, so it was just easier to not deal with it. As I began this Master’s program, I wanted to keep an open mind and be willing to try any and everything to see what interested me the most. After taking risks here and there I have been able to discover what values I have and what I want in a career.

  8. I was prepared to call shenanigans on the 1/4 life crisis. I agree with the other comments about privilege, the luxury of choices, etc. And even as a privileged white, middle class, American woman the 1/4 life crisis still sounded like… well… life. Don’t know if you’re making all the right choices at 23? Sorry, but that doesn’t really change with age.

    But then I went to the theatre and I saw a musical and changed my mind…a little.

    From the 1972 script of Pippin:

    Leading Player: Charlemagne sent Pippin to the University of Padua. And the faculty of the university granted him the special title of Scholar of the House. Pippin replied to this offer with deeply moving words…

    Pippin: Thank you gentle tutors, respected members of the faculty… I’m very grateful for the knowledge you have given me, but I’m afraid what I’m looking for can’t be found in books. I promise not to waste my life in commonplace, ordinary pursuits. You see… I know there is something… something completely fulfilling… And I’m going to find it… I’m not exactly sure or where I want to go…

    (and then, it being a musical, he bursts into song about rivers rambling and eagles flying, and finding his corner of the sky)

    So, I thought more about the 1/4 life crisis… And music… And I realized some of my favorite songs are also about this post-adolescent search for meaning…

    Boy, don’t you worry… you’ll find yourself.
    Follow your heart, lord, and nothing else.
    And you can do this, oh baby, if you try.
    All that I want for you my son,
    Is to be satisfied. – Simple Man, Lynyrd Skynyrd

    Every time that I look in the mirror
    All these lines on my face getting clearer
    The past is gone
    It went by, like dusk to dawn
    Isn’t that the way
    Everybody’s got their dues in life to pay. – Dream On, Aerosmith

    On the road of experience, I’m trying to find my own way.
    Sometimes I wish that I could fly away
    When I think that I’m moving, suddently things stand still
    I’m afraid ’cause I think they always will
    And I’m looking for space
    And to find out who I am
    And I’m looking to know and understand
    It’s a sweet, sweet dream
    Sometimes I’m almost there
    Sometimes I fly like an eagle
    And sometimes I’m deep in despair. – Looking for Space, John Denver

    (What is it about guys wanting to fly like eagles??)

    And yes, these guys are all white American men- the same privilege argument applies. But… it’s harder for me to argue that life = uncertainty. At every age. The particular angst expressed here by these men when they were young is indicative of *something.*

    1. Another white American man writing about uncertainty, despite seemingly being on track with a car, apartment, and potential significant other.

      I am driving up 85 in the
      kind of morning that lasts all afternoon
      just stuck inside the gloom

      Four more exits to my apartment but
      I am tempted to keep the car in drive
      and leave it all behind

      Cause I wonder sometimes
      about the outcome
      of a still verdictless life

      Am I living it right?
      Am I living it right?
      Am I living it right?
      Why, why Georgia, why?

      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 quarter life crisis
      or just the stirring in my soul

      Either way, I wonder sometimes
      about the outcome
      of a still verdictless life

      Am I living it right?
      Am I living it right?
      Am I living it right?
      Why, why Georgia, why?

      So what, so I’ve got a smile on me
      but it’s hiding the quiet superstitions in my head
      Don’t believe me
      Don’t believe me
      When I say I’ve got it down

      Everybody is just a stranger but
      that’s the danger in going my own way
      I guess it’s the price I have to pay
      still “Everything happens for a reason”
      is no reason not to ask myself

      If I’m living it right
      Am I living it right?
      Why, tell me why
      Why, why Georgia why?

  9. The quarterlife crisis is real, but it isn’t really so much a crisis and is different for everyone. I feel that it is a period of time in a 20 somethings life in which something scary has occured or they are experience a long period of time without any change (similar to the midlife crisis). I have seen for my friends that this crisis can come at the end of college, grad school, with a big move, with the break-up of a relationship, or after being at a job for more than 2 years, and each of these individuals deal with their ‘crisis’ differently. Some freak out and feel they have no purpose, some make a huge career change and/or move states, some leave home for the first time, or buy a house!

    As much as this quarterlife crisis is real, a lot of times it isn’t related to an actual crisis at all. Once these 20 somethings take the time to step back, reflect, and realize they are healthy, loved, and blessed, they are able to take control, make a change, and find true success: happiness.

  10. This is such a hard topic. I certainly have gone through my own quarter-life crisis which involved changing careers and breaking up with my long-term boyfriend. There is a part of me that agrees with the fact that this is a privileged response to a period of life that everyone goes through – those that are lucky enough to not have to work solely for the purpose of supporting themselves and their families have much more opportunity to explore options that make them “happy.” The idea that your life’s work NEEDS to be fulfilling in every way seems to be a relatively new phenomenon, and I personally feel that it relates to the vast use of social media where everyone portrays the least imperfect version of him or herself. If a twentysomething is on facebook 2 hours a day, seeing everyone else his or her age being (supposedly) blissfully happy with family, friends, partners and work, it’s very easy to start to see cracks in one’s own life that “need” to be filled.
    Previous generations seem to have found small bits of fulfillment in various aspects of their lives, with it all adding up to a general feeling of satisfaction and contentedness. Nothing was perfect, but everything together could make up a pretty good picture. Again, I went through my own crisis so I’m particularly sensitive to the idea of it, but I can also see that a lot of the privileged sector of this generation has become so dependent on the idea that a perfect life is owed to them, that I think it’s hard for them to see the forest through the trees.

  11. I understand the concept of a mid-life crisis and support the thinking behind a quarter-life crisis. However, I believe 20 somethings suffer from a certain type of “constant crisis”. In my experience crisis has become a mind set that knows no age or descriptors. Instead, constant crisis is directly perpetuated from a lack of consistency. Each stage of life is met with great ambiguity creating a glass house that can easily implode or expand based on a person’s environment and crisis management. The reading suggests that 20 somethings cannot be grouped due to history… the baby boomers and the vietnam war, the depression, world wars etc. I agree that our generation lacks the proximity to an event of this caliber but suggest that 9/11 introduced a constant threat of terrorism. School’s lack safety and security and leave our most helpless vulnerable to violence and bullying. Students pursue degrees only to be met with depression. The unknown is a constant, and around every corner. I encourage 20 somethings to focus on the tangible’s, set realistic goals, take a deep breath and live. Yes, life is not perfect but like mom always said the imperfections are what make us. Life is not short of lessons, and while I fully acknowledge to be going through crisis I’m still hopeful that in some capacity I will find adventure, success and happiness. If all else fails I’ll move to Sweden… I’ve heard its a nice place.

  12. I agree that the quarterlife “crisis” is real because it’s natural for individuals to feel disoriented when they are faced with a new environment, new choices, and uncertainty. However, I think that by labeling this uncertainty a “crisis,” we are making it into a big issue that people could blame bad decisions on. After all, isn’t the process of figuring out how your life can be more meaningful a lifelong process?

    Does it start in the 20s and end before the “midlife crisis” of the 50s. Younger individuals can already be challenged with such ideas, and people in their 60s can still search for a more satisfying job. For Jim, his ridiculous and unfaithful actions are blamed on a “midlife crisis.” What if there was no midlife crisis to blame it on. Would people have any excuse to leave their family for a younger lover, or quit their job for no reason? Penny and Samantha went through a lot of changes because they didn’t know what they wanted. Scot achieved what he wanted to do, but is still not satisfied. Maybe it has less to do with a crisis, and more of a personality trait.

    Some people can see options as adventures, trials and errors as opportunities. Some people get more anxious about facing the unknown. Some people find a job, change their job to find a more satisfying one, and keep working until they find a vocation. There’s nothing unusual about people trying things out if they have the opportunity to, cry when things don’t go well, and take a break when they really don’t know what to do next. By labeling this uncertain period (which really has no definite time limit) as a quarterlife crisis, it could make twentysomethings feel like they have an excuse to make bad decisions or cling onto depression and listlessness because they can’t decide on what job to take or whether their job could be better. Uncertainty is feeling that we all most likely go through because it’s a part of life. Like what Mikal said, “if students are equipped with a sense of what they are called to do, it becomes less about finding that ‘perfect’ job and more about finding ways to use their talents in any job they might find.”

    If we hold onto this attitude, then we will be able to go through our twenties and thirties and whatever -ies with more joy, a positive atitude, and less anxiety. It’s okay to not have a job right away. It’s more than okay to desire a better job. But in the end, our job is not everything. And whatever life we lead, to dust we will return. So why make a crisis of things when life is so short anyways?

  13. One more thing I wanted to add to my previous comment…I just remembered a great excerpt on this topic from the book “Helping college students find purpose: The campus guide to meaning-making” by Robert Nash and Michele Murray (2010):

    “I believe the need for trusted guidance and a support system are, in some ways, more important than at other transitional life stages. Those of us facing the transition from college life into the Real World need people to turn to who understand the plethora of options facing us. Having professors and professional mentors that are aware of the challenges facing quarterlifers and the common themes of people in this period of life, will help us to navigate our way to a more meaningful and fulfilling journey. The problem, or “quarterlife crisis,” really emerges when you cling too tightly to where your life is supposed to be or allow the negative thoughts about where you life is run rampant. Compassionate educators and mentors have the opportunity to help their quarterlife students be fulfilled by the middle” (p. 17).

    This excerpt reflects one of the main reasons that I chose to go into higher education!

    btw, I highly recommend this book!!

    1. Thank you for posting this excerpt, Jessica! The part that particularly caught my attention was “the problem, or “ quarter-life crisis,” really emerges when you cling too tightly to where your life is supposed to be or allow the negative thoughts about where you life is run rampant.” Reading through other folks’ comments about GPS analogies and being at a crossroads all ring true for me–the quarter-life crisis is very real, and being a twenty-something today is totally different than what being a twenty-something was in decades past.

      Looking at friends’ Facebook status updates and celebrities’ tweets no longer seem to be innocent distractions, but reminders of what we do not have, what we have not done. It is kind of incredible to me that we can use a phone to check email, post a picture on Instagram, message a potential mate on OkCupid, and pay bills….who even uses their landline anymore? That sense of being so connected by technology and at the same time so isolated by technology makes me feel both in awe of human intelligence and kind of sad for the future. I think that can kind of create a crisis that is definitely real.

  14. Reading these comments are definitely great insights however I think that the quarter life crisis, as well as the mid life crisis are issues of the privileged. Working in various environments in college, and reflecting upon my different encounters with various people I realized that it is a luxury to have this issue. Those who do not have the time to think about what is going to happen after college, and to expend time on that affects a small population of people. Those who are low-income/ first generation college students do not have this luxury. I agree with some points that Emily makes that there is a point in everyone’s life where they are put at a crossroads and the future does seem bleak but at the end of the day it should be a wish for us that more people can have this “luxury dilemma”.

    I also feel that it is a generational difference as the book chapter mentioned. We as a society are more reliant on quick responses, and instant gratification. We want to see the results of our college education the moment we have a degree but that does not happen for all of us. I feel like the dissatisfaction that happens is when people realized that the dream job isn’t really the dream. It was better a dream than in reality.

  15. Wow. This is an awesome thread. I have some perspective on a lot of the angles mentioned above. I worked in residence life in undergrad and loved it. I did not, however, consider pursuing Student Affairs at that time. I wanted to get out and get a job! And I did. And when that first October rolled around I felt like I was depressed. It was pointed out to me that I was likely just experiencing a withdrawal of some kind. I was used to pace of a new school year beginning and the rigor of classes and homework. And here I was, just commuting to and from work in the same manner I did all summer. It was like I finally realized this was the path stretching out before me and it wasn’t just for the summer (as all other jobs had been in the past).

    It was a kick in the ass for me at that time. I went to an extreme though and started applying to graduate programs in Student Affairs. I went out and took a GRE for god’s sake. I got letters of recommendation! And then part way through applying I realized I had certainly not thought this through. How was I going to pay for this? Did I want more loans? Did I want to be moving around for a job for the rest of my career? So I stayed at my job.

    Fast forward about six years and I am not 28 or 29 and I have received promotions and I am running a staff and making good money. I even have a Director title! I had arrived! And I wasn’t even 30! But I HATED my job. It was not fulfilling. My husband was going to a job he loved every single day and I was getting jealous of him. I had a degree. I had experience. I was a smart cookie. Why wasn’t I finding that kind of passion in my career? Was this even a career?

    I started seeing a therapist. She told me I had “existential depression.” Ha. I couldn’t even get real depression correctly. After seeing a therapist and brainstorming about what I wanted to do as a job, I landed back on working in the education field. (My 22-year-old self was kind of a bad ass, apparently. I should have listened to her.)

    So now what? I worked in marketing and web design and I had ZERO experience in this new field. But after sobbing alone one night about how I hated my job, my husband said to me, “Just quit.”

    And without getting into the play-by-play, I kind of did just that. I put myself into a certification course at UCSD for college counseling and started applying for jobs. No one would hire me. No one. And then I interviewed for my current job (as an independent college counselor) and they took a chance on me. I have been here for about two years now and I LOVE MY JOB.

    So all that is to say that I most definitely went through a quarter-life crisis, but it peaked around 28. I would say some of my crisis stemmed from stagnancy though, so in some ways I identify with the idea of a mid-life crisis as well. But it seem as if there were so many paths before me and here I had chosen one and didn’t like it. So what then? Where to go… what path? I think the quarter-life crisis is real. I think it may not be experienced by everyone though. My husband didn’t experience anything like that. So I assume that I have a mid-life one to watch out for when it comes to him.

    Paul, I am totally putting this on my blog now. I will link to yours. Thank you for the provocative discussion!

    1. Bree, I just wanted to say thanks for sharing your story, love it!

  16. After posting, I had another thought regarding the quarter-life crisis …

    First, I should state that I do think it is real. I believe it’s only natural for individuals to experience a sense of disorientation after leaving the relative comfort and structure of college — and the excitement of their first post-college job/life experience wears off. (And yes, I realize this applies more often that not to students who experience a particular level of privilege).

    For me, as a Student Affairs practitioner, the issue isn’t how to help students avoid the crisis — I think that crisis points in life are what help us to discern what is truly important in our lives. Instead, I believeI have an obligation to assist students in developing the skills to successfully navigate this crisis. At my institution, we focus a great deal on the concept of vocation — helping students identify their innate talents/gifts and strengths. In part, because we feel that if students are equipped with a sense of what they are called to do, it becomes less about finding that ‘perfect’ job and more about finding ways to use their talents in any job they might find … and the knowledge that vocation and jobs are not synonymous — you can (and should) impact the world around you in all facets of your life, not just through your job.

    In short, I want to students to find purpose and meaning in their life that isn’t contingent on a job title. I believe that if they can cultivate this strong sense of self, they will not only weather a quarter-life crisis, but come through with even more knowledge of who they are and what really matters.

  17. I am moved to think about how the dawn of the mass consumer society (c.1950), a more mobile society (ex. affordable air travel), and now the global, connected society has influenced the present scenario of discussion. These generally recognized societal developments created an explosion in the number of voices in our world with limitless ideas, opportunities, etc…many of which contradict one another. Our present reality is thus one that might be defined as largely relativistic, discordant, unreliable (people constantly on the move)…confusing and disappointing?

    So now connect this with the reality that college is, I would argue, the only truly “grounded” reality we have (families, cohesive communities/neighborhoods, churches, etc. are not there for many, either by choice or a result of circumstances suggested above). The world of college is thus, for many, the fulfillment of something incredibly meaningful. Achievement / advancement in positions, clubs, honor societies, recognition by professors/administrators, etc. all happens within four(ish) years. Living is comfortable. Resources are prevalent (counseling, committed community, etc.). All one is doing is consuming an experience, being served, and can freely view the world from a removed, idealistic perspective. As such, it is my feeling that higher education not only creates the quaterlife crisis, it can (along with the rest of societal norms) set people up for crisis at any point in life because it plays a huge role in delivering the larger narrative of what life is.

    As a student in the Catholic University Leadership track, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least suggest that the decrease in the value of faith in society might also have something to do with the mindless, aimless, constantly dissatisfied wandering that we call a crisis. Life is never really a crisis if one subscribes to the notion that this life really isn’t the goal anyway (which I recognize can be a radical concept in academia) and that discernment of vocation is a powerful life tool. Certainly, if one lives life by how much money they have, the kind of car they drive, how beautiful their wife/husband/partner is, the pleasure they get out of experiences, and constant comparison with other people (simply, all the ways one subscribes to a radically superficial, materialistic world that humanity built and defined), then of course it will be a slew of crises. But if one taps into a deeper sense of spirituality, greater purpose, self-perfection, and the historic, intellectual tradition of faith(s), then it all becomes incredibly meaningful. Even when life doesn’t always feel good…but for which there is an answer.

    Of course, we’re a society that always has to look good, feel good, be right, be in control, have the power, etc.; unfortunately, getting caught up in any of those will always be a source of crisis. Maybe a Ferrari, a new girlfriend, or a trip to Africa will make it all better. But, then again, maybe that’s the whole problem.

    1. Derek, you should read some Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self. If you take Student Development Theory, you’ll read part of it.

      Also, you’d probably like Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

      1. Derek–this was a much more articulate way to state what I was reflecting on with spirituality. I agree with Paul–you would really like Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. We actually read it as part of a Theology of Marriage and Family class, pointing to many of the points you made about how these cultural realities can wreak havoc in committed partnerships.

        All I can say is that my faith is what keeps me (more) centered and less trapped in the quarterlife crisis cycle. Through reflection and prayer, I have been able to temper my anxieties about the series of transitions I have been through with career and relationships. I find I am more centered in gratitude and trust that I will have what I need at the next step in life.

  18. Sometime I feel like I didn’t experience this type of crisis because I went straight from my undergrad to being a Student Affairs professional. Although my friend-group changed, I still experience the comforting and predictable annual cycle of the academic year. Also, with the exception of one year at another institution, I work at the same college I attended as an undergrad. I fear that when I do finally leave to pursue new job opportunities I’ll finally have to deal with a delayed quarter-life crisis!

    1. Interesting. You made me think of something I hadn’t thought of in a while. (I’m not saying this is your case, you just made me think of it.) Sometimes when I interview new professionals or interact with higher ed grad students I can just tell that they’re still trying to delay their “graduation.” It’s strange, but I think a number of people go into this field because they were helped or supported by a student affairs professional and they want to be just like them, without thinking if this is really what they want to do or are suited for it. They haven’t figured themselves out (not that any of us probably have, but at least enough to get our “hot mess-ness” under control ;). Sometimes I just want to say, “You’re not an RA anymore!” It’s hard, we’re all on a different path, but especially at the beginning of a student affairs career, it’s hard to give up being a student and hanging out with students. It’s not just about pizza in the lounge anymore.

      1. Yes!!! I work with a large number of student staff members who are seniors each year, and it never fails that about two months prior to graduation, a good portion of them all of a sudden decide they want to go in to Student Affairs. For some, this really is a field they want to pursue, but honestly – for most – it’s simply a knee-jerk reaction to the ‘holy crap, I’m graduating soon and have no idea what to do!”.

        And yes, I often feel like a total hypocrite when I encourage students to think about whether they want to be a SA professional simply because it’s the comfortable option … because here I am, having followed the path that I’m trying to have them reconsider. 🙂

        Finally, your comment about delaying graduation hit me – when I think back to some of the new Hall Directors I’ve worked with who have had a harder time in their role, it’s usually because they really are trying to continue being an RA. Makes me wonder about possible interview questions that could possibly get at that …

  19. I am really impressed with all of your insights, and like Maureen I am on the same page as many of you. As someone who is sort of experiencing a “quarter-life crisis” herself, I think that it is very real, and agree that the idea should not be ignored.

    Mary Cate- your GPS analogy is spot on, and I experienced similar things after I graduated from college (as I’m sure many of us did). I must say that it seems like my GPS is functioning fine at the moment, but I am experiencing more and more malfunctions as I approach the “real world”. This has caused me to do a lot of thinking about how the current level of uncertainty in my life is impacting the interactions I have with my students at my placement, especially the seniors who are experiencing this uncertainty themselves. It’s kind of ironic- I think I do a good job of being supportive and guiding my students through these times of uncertainty, but I am struggling to navigate my own uncertainties. I like what Emily said about trying to remember not to let the anxiety of where you are going ruin the chance to live in the moment and enjoy life. I am ALWAYS telling my students to do this, and I think I need to start remembering to do this myself.

  20. My classmates are SO insightful. I’m very impressed, and I share many of the opinions you all expressed. Although I didn’t have a name for it before today, I definitely experienced “the Cheesecake Factory effect” after college (and still to a certain extent today). As Paul mentioned, this is undoubtedly a privileged perspective, and I know I should be grateful for the seemingly countless graduate school and career options available to me at this stage in my life. Yet, as someone with a variety of career and academic interests, I can’t help but wonder: have I chosen the right graduate program? Is higher education *really* my calling, or just something I’ll do for a few years before moving onto something new? Should I have pursued a PhD in psychology instead? If higher education is, in fact, where I’m supposed to be, how will I decide on a job after graduation (especially considering that I can’t even decide on an internship for the fall)?

    As Jess mentioned, this array of choices can sometimes become paralyzing…or at least make your head spin a little bit. It often seems like my peers (particularly those in my master’s program) know what they like and in what careers they will end up, and I feel indecisive and scared that I don’t know those things. There are so many possibilities, and it sometimes feels impossible to choose just one (and then feel confident that you’re made the “correct” choice).

    Despite the potential anxiety from all of these choices, however, I think Joan and Katie are onto something in terms of viewing these choices as a blessing and with gratitude. Those of us experiencing (or having experienced) a quarter-life crisis are in an incredibly lucky position to have many options and potential paths, particularly compared to the 40- or 50-something who feels like those paths are nearly all closed off.

    So, to answer your question, Paul, I absolutely believe the quarter-life crisis is real (and may or may not be going through it now). I also agree with Emily that it is one of those often laughed-about #firstworldproblems, but I don’t think that means that we should ignore it or pretend that it’s unimportant. It’s very real and anxiety-provoking for many 20- and 30-somethings, and we should talk candidly about our struggles…while also acknowledging the blessing of having oodles of great possibilities.

    1. Maureen-I completely agree with your points. Having gone straight from undergrad to this degree program, I have considered (or freaked out) numerous times over the past year and a half about my program/vocational decision. I wondered if, like my college friends, I viewed graduation as a “deadline,” and worried too much about finding plans for the next year before I entered the “real world.” Many of my friends are experiencing this same uncertainty, particularly one who is in a PhD program and struggling with her decision to commit to 6+ years of school at this point in her life. I have the interesting perspective of being the youngest in my family by quite a few years, so, while I experience and observe my friends experiencing this quarter-life crisis, my older siblings give me the “first world problems” and “privileged life” speech already discussed here. It’s definitely a tough position to be in, with both the knowledge that this uncertainty will “sort itself out” and the crisis will resolve itself, but still feeling the nervousness of not having everything “settled.” I think Joan’s point about keeping everything in perspective is a good one, but I think that if she really has this perspective than she is lucky! I don’t think class/gender has any effect on the fact that this crisis WILL happen to most people at SOME point in their 20s-30s.

  21. Imagine a time when you’re getting ready to leave on a road trip. Your car is all packed. You’ve got a full tank of gas, plenty of snacks and some awesome mix tapes ready for the ride. You plug the address into your GPS and get on the road. You drive 20+ hours according to the digital instructions, following every turn exactly. You’re just a few hours away from the destination and your GPS loses signal. All of a sudden, you are not sure where you are—and even worse, you have no idea where you are going.

    For some people, when the GPS malfunctions—that’s where the fun starts. For “planners” like myself, it’s my worst nightmare. With no solid map, or in this case GPS coordinates, to follow—it is a lot easier to panic and feel lost. That’s how I know that the Quarterlife Crisis is real.

    About 3 months after I graduated from college, it felt like my GPS has failed me. I learned a great deal in undergrad, but did I really learn how to independently make decisions about my future? In my own case, it took a few “wrong turns” and “dead ends” after college before I found the freeway again. But before I did, I met a lot of great people who, just like me, were a little lost without directions. I also learned that it’s kind of fun to just stop and check out the scenery for a bit before asking for directions.

    1. What a GREAT analogy. I often find comfort in others along this journey. It’s amazing how they seem to come out of the woodwork at just the right time.

      1. I really appreciate the GPS analogy as well! It can be a lot more challenging to find your way, but a lot more rewarding. Thank you!

  22. To determine if the quarter life crisis is actually real, I think one needs to also question the validity of the midlife crisis. With the author’s example of Jim, a middle aged man experiencing a midlife crisis, he highlights what a “midlife crisis” is supposed to look like. I think gender plays a key role here, because if a woman did all of the same things I don’t think it would receive the same label, even if her breakdown of the status quo was brought on by the same feeling’s that Jim experienced. Therefore I would argue that just because there’s no single “image” of a quarter life crisis, that is not enough reasoning to say it doesn’t exist.

    The primary difference is what these two age groups are afraid of. One is fearful that they are picking the wrong path when there are so many roads to follow, the other fears that there are no paths left in front of him/her and therefore he/she must make a U-turn immediately. I also think that as a child we (or at least I) assigned ages where I expected certain milestones to be crossed. We think “okay my college boyfriend will propose when we graduate and then I’ll be married by 23, and start a family by 25.” Then we graduate from college realize that our college partner has no idea what he’s doing with his life and we need to find someone who we are not just with out of habit but for love, passion, common beliefs, and interests. So then we shift our focus off our relationship and onto our career… but wait there are so many options, “what am I going to be when I grow up?” I think this idea is especially prevalent among recent college grads and 20- something master’s students because they have had the “luxury” of time to reconsider their path. (Most often in the year + spent back at their parent’s house post-graduation while they get their #@!$ together).

    Our high school peers who got married right after graduation and are already posting their children’s photos on facebook are not yet facing this self-deprecating reflection, because their life purpose surrounds their spouse and children. However to build upon Jessica’s point I would add that these are the people who experience your stereotypical quarter life crisis, because at 50 they fear that they didn’t consider all of the paths before taking the traditional route. One might hope that young adults who successfully work through their quarter life crisis will age with greater clarity and confidence in their current state. But clearly there if nor right way or perfect life, I’m making generalizations here.

    My point is that while the quarter life crisis may be considered #firstworldproblems #whitepeopleproblems I don’t think it can be denied that most people face a time of reflection at some point in their lives. The quarter and mid life crises get categorized because our society has created certain expectations during these “landmark” years. I think the important thing for anyone to remember at any time of life evaluation, is to not let anxiety of where you are going ruin the opportunity to enjoy where you currently are in life.

    1. I found your thoughts FASCINATING. Interesting pointing out about high school graduates who may get immediately married perhaps experiencing their crisis later… at mid-life. The gendered perspective is also interesting. Double standard?

      1. I think there definitely is a double standard on perception. However I think all genders face the possibility of having unclear expectations for how to live through their twenties.

        Hypothetical question: Are we entering higher education because we are not ready to face the “real world” and prefer to live in a bubble that at its heart centers around idealistic ideas of purpose and student development? The author claims that our graduate level peers face “culture shock” upon graduation. Are we trying to avoid this state of anomie all together? Or are we just trying to live in a setting of the structural and appraisal that we crave? In a field where there are numerous lateral and upward career opportunities, where success is based on achievement will we find our purpose?

        I took as year in between undergrad and graduate school that I spent waitressing, attempting to save money. It motivated me to find direction because I know I was unhappy staying still. But I do wonder if the “higher ed master’s student” has experienced a somewhat unique reaction to the quarter life crisis that has driven back to a college environment. The need to help others, to make a difference, and to support college student development have given us what we hope is a meaningful purpose. It seems that ultimately any-stage life crisis involves an individual reevaluating their “life purpose.” But it is interesting to think what was the point when we found this purpose and sense of direction… or are we still flailing because to many other elements of our lives seem to exist without direction?

    2. I would like to respond to this one since I was married during my junior year of college and had my first child 3 months after finishing my degree coursework and one month before walking for my diploma. I hadn’t planned things that way, they both just sort of happened. I planned to go to grad school and took the GRE, despite not being sure what I wanted to do, I did pick a field and applied, but, as I shared in another class last week, got hit with post-partum depression and didn’t mail the application. But, at age 23 I had a husband, a child, a house, a degree and I had “settled down” and I was ok with that. Some of my friends actually thought I was lucky that I had found ‘the one’ and seemed to have everything worked out. At 26 I had house number 2 and child number 2 and my crisis did come a little bit later as mentioned above, but was more of a “now what?” moment. If you make a plan for your future, it often includes all of those things I had done already but I imagine much more spread out. I had done everything that I considered the “next steps” from college before most of my friends and I wasn’t sure what came after that, if anything. I enjoyed being home with my kids, or at least felt it was important, but I also couldn’t help but see my friends going to grad school and starting careers and wondering if I took the right path. I felt a little inferior and like I hadn’t done anything with my life, despite what some would say about that I had been doing the most important job in the world. Long story short, I continued battling depression and anxiety and was unhappy in my marriage, having rushed in to it and done it for partially wrong reasons, I ended up divorced at 32. This is where I probably had my delayed quarter-life crisis where I was out on my own for the first time, i had a degree but no real experience, I had to figure out which way to go, I had to support myself for the first time, finances were an issue, I didn’t want to go back to school because I still had loans on my undergrad and didn’t want any more debt. I kind of fell into my first higher ed job as an admissions assistant, but I felt like for the first time, it was something that could lead to a “career”, more than other assistant jobs that I had that led nowhere. That job helped me get the job at BC where my boss said “hey, there’s this higher ed program here, you should take advantage of your tuition benefit”. I didn’t even know they had a degree for that but I couldn’t turn down my first real hope for a better job and actual career, especially while accruing no additional debt. Now I’m 37, single, and getting my masters degree, finally. I don’t love being in school but at least I have in my mind that I’m again on the path to “somewhere”. There is probably a point in here somewhere but I do agree that my path probably did delay the typical quarter-life crisis and I also agree with the reading that a crisis can happen with any major life change, and in our society/culture, those moments happen to frequently occur at common ages such as in our 20’s. Maybe in a culture where your marriage is arranged at 14, this occurs younger, or in a culture where there are less options and less pressure to succeed, maybe it occurs at an older age. At any rate, life has it’s ups and downs and you can’t plan for every contingency or know the consequences of every choice so you just have to do the best you can with the hand you are dealt and “keep swimming” (Finding Nemo). Sorry for rambling :).

  23. As a 27 year old I can confirm that the quarter-life crisis is real in theory but that it may not always happen at age 25. It can occur at any stage in your twenties, and can sometimes happen more than once. Currently, as I watch college seniors prepare for graduation, shooting for the stars and hoping for the best, I am continuously brought back to my senior year. I have a theory that when you begin to plan your life, down to the very detail, you’re begging for uncertainty and unpredictability to arise, which is exactly what happened to me five years ago. As I confronted the unknown, I began to weigh my options and realize the endless opportunities available to me, because, in reality, I was only in the first quarter of my life and if that was a crisis than at least it happened early in my life and would help prepare me for a ‘real’ crisis later on.

    1. I agree. I’ve been saying I’ve been having an early mid-life crisis, but now I’m beginning to think I had a delayed quarterlife one. For folks that work at colleges and universities, I think this may be more common. You, in a sense, never need to fully graduate.

  24. Joan, I really appreciate where you are coming from that this “Crisis” of too-many choices is certainly a gift and absolutely needs to be put in perspective in a person’s life. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that at times the experience of too-many choices was challenging, particularly when I wasn’t sure about my career path or where I was living. These feelings/quarterlife crisis can be a great opportunity to embrace spirituality and gratitude.

  25. I call the overwhelming amount of choices the “Cheesecake Factory Effect”: the menu of options is so long it can almost paralyze someone to the point of not being able to choose anything at all! And then often once you finally pick something, you question your choice…and then your friend’s meal arrives and it looks SO much yummier than your own, and you’re left feeling less excited by the meal in front of you. I think the same thing happens for many of the (albeit privileged) population of today’s 20-somethings. With virtually unlimited career opportunities, social pressures, personal pressures, and various definitions of “success”, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, confused, and stressed about making the “right” choices. Looking back, one may end up feeling grateful for the privilege of having so many choices. But in the moment, it is often experienced as a stressful, anxiety-inducing “crisis.”

    I believe the “midlife crisis” often stems from unresolved Quarter-Life issues. Many midlifers get to a certain point when they ask themselves “Is this all there is to my life?” The best way to bypass this and maintain a sense of purpose, direction and fulfillment is to start with an honest, hard look at what you truly want your life to be like as early as possible. So if that means that today’s 20-somethings are asking these questions at a younger age than our parents’ generation, I think that can only lead to increased levels of happiness later in life, and decreased occurrences of midlife crises.

      1. It is so overwhelming…now I end up ordering the same thing every time I go!

          1. Jessica and Paul I think that you just proved that the quarter-life crisis is real, although the analogy is a little ridiculous as you say. Crisis may be too strong of a word, but the paralyzing effect of overwhelming choice is very real, whether you are deciding between chicken dishes or career paths. What is certainly real is the overwhelming pressure of choice (and expectation) that college graduates often face. Ironically, colleges may be playing a role in the immensity of this difficult transition.

            College (in the traditional sense) is often the first time away from home for students, and marks some similar (albeit more contained) crippling freedoms and choices for students. This may help to explain why so many college first-years struggle academically, have issues with social life (example: drug and alcohol moderation), and join the listserve for fifty organizations. But college is designed to expose students to these new opportunities. There are professional administrators and counselors, safe (and beautiful) campuses, and systems that encourage students to try and catch them if they fail (or are headed that way).

            After graduation, students face another substantial shift, but this time they do not have the support networks of college. Without res. halls and roommates, twentysomethings frequently feel isolated and that no one else is experiencing similar struggles to them. Meanwhile, expectations from friends and family have increased and ramifications have compounded (literally, because your loans have started to accrue interest!). This overwhelming opportunity, expectation, and pressure to perform can leave the most driven, intelligent, and level-headed twentysomething to flip-flop, trial and error, or just be paralyzed. I’m still not convinced that this is a crisis because, since we are generally talking about a relatively priviledged group, the survival and physical well-being of these twentysomethings is not usually at stake here. But on the flip side, it is plausible that this is the greatest challenge and vulnerability that these people know, and so for them it is a crisis. As student affairs administrators I think that we must appreciate the reality of the quarter-life crisis because our jobs are critical in preparing our students for the impending doom – just kidding, but seriously, the impending tough decisions – that they will (and already) face.

          2. On crisis:

            Let’s not focus on the definition as it is necessarily invoking a moment of danger, trouble, or difficulty (despite the fact that there are plenty of new professionals I know who would be evidence to the contrary), but rather a “time of an important decision.” When we discuss ‘critical’ moments, we may not discuss dire circumstances but rather just a moment of importance. Wes Welker dropping that 3rd down and 7 pass from Brady yesterday, announcers called it “critical” because it had a major impact on the game. It wasn’t life or death. Just focuses on the degree of impact. Crisis… critical… same root word, one just carried a lot more weight than another based on social context.

            Mid-life crisis and quarter-life crisis are all based on Erickson’s psychosocial stages of development when everyone confronts a crisis, an important developmental stage in their life. The quarter-life crisis is Erickson’s sixth stage, Intimacy vs Isolation. It’s where love and affiliation are truly developed. It’s at a time when an individual usually has a good sense of their own personal identity and move forward to make connections. It’s these connections, the people you love, the community you become a part of, and the work environment you choose to keep.

            Now, I would argue that this stage of life and this psychosocial crisis probably endures longer than it ever has. Young adults typically only stay in the same job for 2-3 years. Young adults are less likely to own a home and would rather rent. Young adults are pushing back the age of marriage to get settled after (graduate) school or their first job. But maybe that first job isn’t so great, so they hold for their second job. And then we are building or rebuilding our own online community, which is as mercurial and transient as any, and to stay in it, we have dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money. I mention rebuilding because there are some communities we loved that we can’t let go of… maintaining high school connections is just one of them. And just like when our parents lived in that neighborhood and complained about that the neighbors yard looked so much greener, we do that to ourselves in comparing our “yard” with someone else’s.

            This is what young adulthood is like now, and it’s far different from my parents who confronted it just 20 years ago. Technology, education, approach to work, social networking… these are all things that have changed how we navigate this crisis. And for some of us, it may take years. Myself included. Because gone are the days where a Friday happy hour with co-workers would suffice the demands of an active social life.

          3. I love the term “Cheesecake Factory” effect! I recently wrote a blog post about this very issue, as it relates to career choice in particular. I think the quarterlife crisis is alive and well, for this among many other reasons. But, yes, it isn’t a worldwide phenomenon by any means.

  26. defines “crisis” as “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger”…do too many choices, constant change, and instability constitute “intense difficulty”? I think having too many choices is a good thing…much better than not having any choices! Some may say that being in one’s twenties and not knowing what the future holds may cause panic and anxiety, but others may say that it is just another part of one’s life to experience and overcome for a better future.

    I think it it is important to put the “quarterlife crisis” in perspective. If by having too many choices for the future constitutes a “crisis” then what is it called when someone in their twenties has no options?

    1. The work certainly represents a privileged perspective… Not to discount the experience of people that may have it, but it is a luxury to have these kinda of choices.

    2. I appreciate this insight. Some might say I’ve been living a quarter life crisis for the last decade, let me assure you, parts of it are very real and have very serious effects on health, career, & relationships.

      I have the privilege of working with a fairly diverse group of associates with varying racial, economic, and educational back ground. Many of these associates could fit into the latter category you bring up – having no choices. They have a job, many of them have families to support, so they have no apparent option but to come to work each day, with little chance of advancement. Through my conversations with them, some of them could be described as “being in crisis” or even in a “state of despair,” while others are content with who and where they are.

      I am reminded of one associate who has small children at home, has worked to be promoted to a supervisor role, and is taking classes towards a BS as her schedule and finances allow. She faced her quarter life crisis of being a young mother making $10.50/hour and CHOSE to try something different. At the same time, I think of another associate in a similar situation who has CHOSEN to do her job and support her family.

      We all have choices, some of us have more, and some of them are easier than others.

    3. I think this post (and many invocations) assumes that the word “crisis” as necessarily negative. There’s a number of arguments out there that would attempt to demonstrate that the reason quarter-life crisis is a privileged experience precisely because of the multitude of choices available. Lack of choice can be a freeing experience though, allowing or forcing others to focus with what limited time they have. I think this is the underlying factor in some student engagement theories. Students do well when they are committed and involved, because they develop a structure that limits the choices available to them. Without choice, there is no crisis. The choices are already made, whether the experience is a positive or negative one is based on a lot of factors, levels of privilege being one of them. First-year college students face a similar crisis in their first year. They go from structured routines invoked on them by schools, parents, teachers, coaches, and community engagements to an expanse of options, which can very easily be overwhelming for someone who isn’t prepared.

      The same holds true for quarter-lifers like myself. Since obtaining my first full time position just over three years ago, I’ve obtained a lot of options. I have more money. How will I spend it now that I’m not such a poor college student? Do I invest because I know that’s the smart thing or do I enjoy my 20s and rock out a bit? Do I pick up some new (and expensive) hobbies like photography? rafting? Should I take that trip to Europe I’ve been thinking about?

      Thinking about my future, I ask myself these questions: Do I apply to go back to school? Do I apply for parallel positions in a job or location that better suits me? Do I suck it up to have some upward mobility in a career I’m not confident I want to stay in just for the sake of the experience (and more money)? Or do I just jump ship, and go back to school to study what I always should have in the first place because I’m tired of asking myself… “Why on earth did I get this degree?”

      And on a personal level, I’m seeing so many friends move away, get married, have kids, and buy houses? Am I ready for that? Those are some long-term decisions and perhaps I’m not so confident making them right now, but then I’m wondering… Is she the one? Or perhaps that other woman from the gym could be? Or maybe the woman I talk to at Starbucks once a month that I’m dying to ask out?

      Then whether or not we like it, or can help it, we compare ourselves to our high school friends (Damn you, Facebook!), college friends, colleagues. Even those of us who are completely comfortable in our own skin, grass is always greener, and we sometimes ask ourselves, “If I did blah-blah and so-and-so, would I be that, have that, go there, with whoever?” It’s the human condition.

      So, yes, it happens and is very real. But it’s not a negative thing unless the choices themselves are so overwhelming and the support so lacking that you can’t function. The thing is this though… just like in those first years of college, you start making decisions. You choose your commitments. You fill your schedule. And eventually, you fall into patterns… the comfort we enjoy from knowing what we’re doing, when we’re doing them, and who we’re doing them with… that happens because we’re no longer making so many of those large, life-altering choices all at the same time.

      And one last point: I am very hesitant to stick to ‘privilege’ in our conventional social justice-oriented terms in this conversation. It’s certainly a factor, but rural America has a number of stories of people just picking up, moving to a city with more opportunities, and trying to make something of their dreams. I’d say the same levels of anxiety over choices exists there when someone is faced with staying to a common, meager lifestyle available at home and daring to go somewhere with limited experience, knowledge, or guidance. And similarly, any choice that involves dependents can significantly alter one’s experience with crisis, privileged or not. Having a child or getting married young, caring for sick parents or the family business… these things can make it feel like choices are already made or that there’s too much to risk by making other choices. The experience of crisis can thus be greatly reduced.

    4. Not to sound like the immigrant that I am, but I’ve grown up my entire life with stories of how there were few-to-no choices available behind the iron curtain. It is things like these that my dad (for instance) would scoff at. I’ve taken a more bi-cameral perspective and I agree with Joan that too many choices is definitely a better thing as compared to too few. I myself decided to go through this process in the opposite direction: by deciding things that I do NOT want to do, and that has helped immensely in my decision to go into HE.

      On the other hand, however, there is defintely something to this idea of a quarterlife crisis. I say we blame the system. (Warning: tongue-in-cheek humor coming up.) The liberal arts education that so many students in the article graduated from has given them a tast of too large a pallet of colors – in other words, because they have experienced a broad, comprehensive education, now it is more difficult to choose where to go. For some, it works out that the one history class they took opened a new door to a life path, but for others, it can cause a crisis resulting in an inability to choose. I was hounded by the academic dean because I didn’t choose a major by the dealine, and that was because I was interested in pretty much everything. And at that point one says… “And what am I supposed ot do with that?!”

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