Quarter Pounder
For some twentysomethings, the quarterlife crisis hits like a sledgehammer

By T.J. DeGroat

Lisa Warden had never considered Lady Luck a close friend, but in the fall of 2002, she was beginning to think the old broad was a malicious enemy.

The Chicago native had moved to the Bay Area two years earlier, hoping to ride the dot-com wave toward the promised land, where a two-story loft, sporty Jetta and stock options were sure to be waiting. But after two years of battling crazy roommates in cheap sublets and fruitlessly searching for a full-time job, Warden decided to quit. Everything. Two years out of college, she felt hopeless and lost.

“I was a 23-year-old woman, but I felt like a lost, little kid,” said Warden, now 25. “I was so frustrated and angry that I could barely motivate myself to leave my bedroom some days.”

Imagine an outline for a triumphant life. Warden spent many afternoons picturing such a checklist -- only hers was blank. Promising career? No. Loving boyfriend? Nope. Cute apartment? Not even close. Supportive family? Yes. And that was the only bright spot, her one saving grace, she said.

Treading water, Warden decided to give up her stubborn desire to create the perfect life by age 25. Instead, she moved home, admitting to her parents that she was having a quarterlife crisis. Many people find the term absurd -- depression doesn’t always provoke compassion from friends and family -- but for Warden it was as real as a brick wall.

Panic Room

Warden’s story is not an uncommon one. The current climate of terror threats and economic uncertainty coupled with an undying need to achieve success as quickly as possible is causing the Y2K generation of twentysomethings to struggle as it transitions into adulthood. College students are programmed to believe that they’ll be able to accomplish anything they put their minds to -- and that’s a good thing, but when post-graduation success is elusive, panic sometimes sets in.

Feeling lost at age 24 makes sense, considering that Americans believe someone isn't a grown up until they reach age 26, according to a 2003 report from the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. College-educated Americans surveyed chose an even higher age -- between 28 and 29, according to the study of nearly 1,400 people over age 18.

The survey found that people expect twentysomethings to be self-supporting and no longer living with parents by 21, in full-time jobs by 22 and finished with school that same year. They should be able to support a family halfway through their 25th year, married before they turn 26 and welcoming a child into their lives shortly thereafter.

30 is the New 20

With these results in mind, and the ubiquitous phrase “30 is the new 20,” the transition from student to full-fledged adult is taking longer than ever. Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland, calls the period between 18 and 25 “emerging adulthood.”

“People take longer to reach adulthood than they used to,” Arnett said. “They don’t really feel like adolescents, but they’re not really feeling like adults yet either. It’s a kind of limbo.”

The idea of emerging adulthood and quarterlife angst is a relatively new one, but its traces can be found in the 1991 book “Generation X,” in which author Douglas Coupland talks about the mid-20s breakdown. He calls it “a period of mental collapse occurring in one's 20s, often caused by an inability to function outside of school or structured environments, coupled with a realization of one's essential aloneness in the world. Often marks induction into the ritual of pharmaceutical usage.”

In the late ‘90s, the TV show “Ally McBeal” referenced the quarterlife crisis, but the term didn’t spread until 2001, when Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner wrote the book “Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties” (see Q&A with Abby Wilner).

In the successful book, which has sold more than 100,000 copies and was a New York Times bestseller, Robbins and Wilner tackle job-hopping and living with parents, among other hot topics. Substantial quotes from other twentysomethings provide tips for coping with the twentysomething blues.

Even Oprah Winfrey, an uber-success who has inspired millions, has spoken out in recent TV shows about the pressure put on twentysomethings. In an interview on “Larry King Live” in December, Winfrey took a call from a young woman looking for some encouragement.

“The 20s are the time when you're finding out who you are. And so if you're ever going to be lost, 24 is the time to be seeking and finding yourself,” Winfrey said. “Don't beat yourself up about it... you always feel like you're not doing enough, you're not getting ahead. You wish you were doing more, and why -- why aren't things more settled? They're not supposed to be in your 20s.”

Taking Stock of Options

Emerging adulthood is representative of a societal shift that has taken place during the past 50 years, according to Arnett, author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties.” Marriage and children are coming later in life. School is taking longer. Gen Y is exploring life’s options, changing jobs, residences and partners. “Sometimes, exploration leads to instability,” Arnett said.

“Not too long ago, when our parents were kids, people would finish high school, jump straight into jobs, marry their childhood sweetheart and start a family,” quarterlifer Warden said. “Everything is completely different today. Getting married at 22 seems ridiculous.”

Indeed, the median age of marriage for women has gone from 20 in 1960 to 25 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Back then, “women didn’t have those college years; they went from one man’s home to another man’s home,” Warden said. “Now we’re going to college, establishing careers and taking our time before we choose to get married.”

Marriage is delayed by choice, but for many, finding the right career is delayed, as well. The average person holds 9 jobs between ages 18 and 34, with more than half of those coming between ages 18 and 24, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Money issues are a constant in the life of the average twentysomething. According to a recent study by Nellie Mae, an educational loan provider, the average undergraduate student loan debt is more than $18,900, up 66 percent from 1997. With a national unemployment rate of 5.7 percent in March, according to the U.S. Labor Department, many twentysomethings, including Warden, are struggling to survive independently.

“It hasn’t been as easy to get jobs as it used to be. It’s not as easy to afford living on your own, so a lot of people are living with their parents,” Wilner said. “During the dot-com era, people were used to luxuries. People were choosing between different job offers. There’s a sense of urgency now when looking for work.”

Great Expectations

Nevertheless, a striking characteristic about people in their early 20s, Arnett said, is that regardless of the health of the economy or the state of the world, almost everybody in the age group is optimistic, thinking things will undoubtedly turn out well for them.

“The economy is tanking, but no one in that age group thinks it’s going be bad for them,” he said. “Even if things are going to hell around them, they, almost without exception, have high expectations for themselves. That’s why there’s a sense of crisis. They expect so much out of life.”

Dr. Alan Reifman, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Texas Tech University, concurs. He teaches a unit on emerging adulthood in his course on adolescence and says his students usually are optimistic.

“As part of getting to know my students, I'll often chat with them individually and ask them what their plans or goals are after college,” Reifman said. “A good many of them give the same answer: ‘I don't know.’ They don't seem too distressed over this... they [simply] have not yet found their places in the world.”

Fresh Perspective

Jen Levin was 27 when she found herself wondering which life path to take. The San Francisco native decided to take a break and explore the world. The resulting four-month trip to Europe was revelatory, she said.

“I really saw how other people live. The U.S. is go, go, go all the time and very single-minded,” Levin said. “Going abroad allowed me to see a slower-paced life and to meet people from all over the world who do all kinds of things. Hearing their stories gave me insight into my own life. Before traveling I was very directionless, after traveling I wasn’t.”

Levin left London shortly after her 28th birthday. The trip “helped me decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and made me understand how I was going to accomplish it.”

Now in graduate school, studying nonprofit administration, Levin said her trip gave her a much-needed break. “If I hadn't done it, I probably would have ended up in a full-blown quarterlife crisis. I was able to stave it off by taking some control over my life -- travel was just one way of doing that,” she said.

Arnett suggests that the quarterlife crisis is due in large part to the increasing number of options Gen Y has to explore. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“The crisis idea comes from feeling like you don’t know how things are going to end up for you. Am I going to find a love partner? Will this career work out? There are many questions,” Arnett said.

Crisis or Choices?

But it’s important not to assume that all twentysomethings suffer from this kind of anxiety, he said. “There’s something to the idea of a quarterlife crisis. The idea clearly has hit a chord with a lot of people, but it’s important to note that this is a product of having so many options,” Arnett said.

According to his research, “everything seems to get better, including self esteem, between the late teens and early 20s.

“The peer culture of high school is so grueling. People have lots of insecurities,” he said. “But for most, things get better -- not easy per se, but the fact is for most people, they’re a lot happier as emerging adults than adolescents.”

It’s clear that many twentysomethings experience some anxiety, but there’s also a sense of exuberance and delight, Arnett said, and the freedom should be embraced. “Enjoy it, to the extent that you can, while it lasts,” he said. “Once it goes, it ain’t coming back. Sooner or later, you’ll have a family, a mortgage and a retirement plan.”

Reifman agrees, suggesting that people with career worries embrace the lack of constraints in their lives.

”Students will differ in terms of how much freedom they have, due to potential financial constraints, geographic mobility, etc.,” Reifman said. “Provided one has sufficient flexibility, I would suggest talking to people in different career fields to see what you might like to do, or even try out some career-related experiences directly.”

But above all else, Reifman said, “Try to keep options open.”

Also, try to be patient, Arnett said. “I’ve interviewed people from 18 to 29 and the closer you get to 29, the more settled people seem to be,” he said.

Levin agrees. “I am definitely wiser than I was at 23 or 24,” she said. “Back then, I took everything personally and let my emotions take control. I have learned, over the years, to be less dramatic and think through situations, and that has allowed me to be much more successful and happy.”

After moving back to her parent’s house, Warden took a few months to get back in touch with her passions. Without the stress of searching for a job, paying rent and finding grocery money, she rediscovered her passion for learning foreign languages and is back in school.

“I’m not sure what this will lead to, but I’m not freaking out about it,” she said. “I feel like I can cope now and I realize that things will come together in their own time. There’s no point stressing about things I can’t control.”

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