The Quarter-Life Crisis: The Realities of Twenty-Something Life Today

June 9, 2012 9:34 pm

A buzzing social life is expected of twenty-somethings, which brushes the Quarter-Life Crisis under the rug

Depression, anxiety and feelings of isolation and worthlessness all too often lurk beneath the shiny veneer of the myth of twenty-something life. Typically seen as a chain mail of career success and blossoming relationships, knitted together by glamorous social events, lazy brunches and exotic mini-breaks, the realities of life during the transition to ‘real’ adulthood can be very different to popular perception.
At 18 Adam’s future appeared full of promise, opportunity and success. By 23 he was on the brink of destruction: dependent on alcohol, underweight, unable to sleep and dabbling in fantasies of ending his existence. Sarah’s story is not dissimilar – after graduating from a first class university she found herself slipping into a paralysing depression complete with plummeting self-esteem, evaporation of enthusiasm and failure to progress towards the future. Less Carrie Bradshaw and more Royle Family Sarah alternated between dead end jobs and isolating herself from the outside world, her glittering future slipping further and further out of reach as she continued to grind to a sluggish halt.

Who’s to blame?
So why are we suffering from this early onset of the more traditional and better recognised mid-life crisis? Who, or what, is to blame for this growing trend of disillusionment and despair among promising individuals as they move beyond adolescence and fall flat in the face of building their future?
A number of factors can be viewed as contributors to the increasing prevalence of the Quarter-Life Crisis (QLC). Subscribers to the school of tough love may say that people today lack strength of character; they should learn to put up, shut up and be thankful for what they’ve got, which is a hell of a lot more than previous generations have ever experienced. Others may argue that the QLC has always been latent but it is only recently that people have started to vocalise the issue. A developing culture of cotton wool and spoon-feeding could be blamed for creating a world of ill-prepared youngsters who have forgotten that only hard work will lead to a life of satisfaction, whilst fault could be attributed to materialism and financial greed which has caused us to lose sight of what really matters in life. And what of the role of popular culture and the media in bombarding us with images which popularise the myth of how life in our twenties ‘should’ be, not to mention the unprecedented ascent of social networking promoting the creation of the ‘profile persona’, where one can be whoever they want to be and comparisons with our peers reign?
But for whatever reason a generation of young adults are struggling to work it all out against a background of uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety. Increasing numbers of twenty somethings are spending more time worrying about debt and mortgages, relationships and careers than out on the tiles enjoying themselves. And, of those who apparently are doing the latter, one can’t help wondering how much is just a cover up.

Social media and constant comparisons with peers can add to a QLC

The power of ‘should’
The expectations and pressures placed on young people in today’s world are a major player in the growth of the QLC. The notion of ‘should’ has become the backbone to modern living as people increasingly develop in line with perceived expectations rather than what they really want, and ‘faking it’ has become the law of the land. We are driven by a desire to succeed, but too few of us stop to think about what success truly means to us as individuals.
Adam reports that by the end of university ‘everyone and everything seemed to be telling me how I should be, from what I should wear and what I should drink to the job I should be doing, the salary I should be earning, the goals to which I should be aspiring and the women I should be dating. Amongst all this I began to find it impossible to determine who I really was and what I actually wanted out of life, so I slipped into living according to everyone else’s standards and expectations. By the time I was in my mid twenties I was so lost that I had no idea who I really was or what I was doing. I wasn’t sleeping or eating properly and was drinking dangerous amounts just to make life bearable. It all came to a head after a particularly bad break up when I felt the depression start to drown me once again and I finally went for help.’
It’s a common complaint. Think about it for a second: how frequently do you induce those feelings of guilt because you should go for a run, you should eat more fruit, you should aim for promotion or you should get a mortgage? You should be married by this age and should managing by that? When do we stop dwelling on ‘should’ and start focusing on ‘want’? And not ‘want’ in a spoilt, immature sense, but with a mature ‘this is what I choose for myself, because this is best for who I am’ approach?

Welcome to the twenty-first century
Young people of today are growing up in an age that is incomparable to any other. Each generation has its struggles and trials, as well as its advantages and benefits. But we are the only people who know how difficult it is to come of age in the post-modern technological world, because we are the only people who have ever done it. Freedom of choice and multiple possibilities are liberating but can contribute to anxiety and uncertainty as we are continually wondering whether we should have done things differently, and how we could do things better. Twenty-first century life is a maze of paths leading off in different directions, sometimes crossing over and sometimes diverging along completely different courses. Most of the time we have no idea which path a decision will take us down, even if we do feel informed, and there is little we can do to change this beyond accepting the uncertainty and embracing the unknown, and ultimately trusting in ourselves and our personal choices and goals. Even if these differ from those of people around us.
‘There are so many options that it’s overwhelming,’ says Sarah. ‘I know that sounds ungrateful but it’s hard to know what to aim for when making a decision to open one door can close off another dozen. Of course we can go back and change things and we don’t have to stay stuck in one particular job, relationship or even country, but I think people prefer to think that they’ve got it sorted the first time. It’s hard to admit that you made a wrong decision and to go back and start again. Especially when it seems that everyone else around you has got it all sorted out.’
Perhaps the key word we need to focus on here is ‘seems’. Deception, both of others and ourselves, is scarily simple in the modern world, thanks in part (but not solely) to the advent and popularity of social networking. We can create and re-create ourselves as much as we want, and a well written profile can make even the dullest job seem desirable. Status updates allow us to brag and embellish, or even lie outright, about how successful we’ve been and how happy we are. And few things make us feel as rubbish about ourselves as comparing our lousy lot to friends who ‘absolutely love their wonderful partner’, ‘have just had an amazing promotion at work’ or are ‘just so happy with life that I could go out and hug a stranger.’ Even a negative status seems primarily employed to encourage a barrage of solicited compliments or assertions that your friends still adore and accept you; self-love, apparently, is no longer sufficient.

Starting to ignore the 'should's and doing what you want for yourself is one of the best ways to overcome a QLC

Onwards and upwards
But it’s not all doom and gloom. As we begin to understand the phenomena of the Quarter-Life Crisis and question what we really want out of life we can begin to re-knit the fabric of our own existence under our idiosyncratic desires and ambitions. Tuning out the ‘shoulds’ is difficult and requires strength of character, but it can be done. ‘Getting help was the beginning of the end of my QLC,’ says Adam. ‘I had a course of therapy, left my job, stopped partying and took some time out to really get to know ‘me’. After a year or so I was able to start rebuilding my career in line with my own ideals, and spending my free time doing what I wanted. I stopped partying so frequently and took up cookery, a hobby I’d enjoyed as a child but that had long since fallen by the wayside, and began to read again. I’ve changed enormously, from extroverted party lad to a quiet boy next door type, but I’m more confident and fulfilled and I’ve never been happier.’
Sarah, too, sees that period of her life as having been beneficial in the long run. ‘It was an awful time,’ she recalls, ‘I hit rock bottom, and I never want to go back. And I won’t, because I won’t let myself get into that state again. I know the signs so I know how to keep them in check and stay focused. In a strange way it was a blessing in disguise, because at least now I’ve turned my life around and I’m living for me. All around I see my friends and peers trying to convince themselves that they’re happy and having a good time, but I can see through it. I wouldn’t change my past for anything.’

Nothing lasts forever
So there is a silver lining to the experience of the quarter-life crisis, and Sarah and Adam are living proof that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But the quagmire effects of the QLC should not be underestimated. Strong and reliable support networks are essential, as is giving yourself space and distance to figure it all out in your own time. The one thing I wish I’d done in the midst of my QLC? Trusted in my own instincts and listened to myself, not to the voices of everybody else. I hope this can be of some help to you.

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