The phases of life and social roles
Quarter-life: Navigating through the 20s to midlife transition
Each year, millions of baby-boomers turn 40. While there is celebration for reaching the Big 4 per se, turning 40 also signals the beginning of a midlife phase - the transition from young adulthood to midlife, of introspection and re-evaluation that occurs generally during the 40-something years.
Millions of people have encountered a midlife transition in the 1990s. Why does this occur? How does it affect people? And how can individuals marshal the emotional and spiritual resources to deal with these changes?
The leading edge of the baby boom generation has now hit this time of transition. Born in the mid '40s and '50s, they grew up in a world brimming with economic prosperity, with a promise for more in their lives. Millions in this generation may repeat questions like these in the next two decades: Is this it? Where is the great dream that our parents assured? Add to these other questions like: Where is my life going? Is this all I am ever going to achieve?
In some ways, these are strange questions coming from the leading edge boomers who enjoyed the fruits of the post-war economy. They achieved a measure of success and yet they are asking questions that signal a coming crisis of purpose. So, why is there a crisis of purpose? And, why is it now?
Part 2 of this series will attempt to address some of the issues.
The quest to define ourselves begins during childhood, but when twentysomethings enter the "real" world, the process can seem to start all over again. This experience is difficult during a time when many aspects of life are already in pandemonium. It is under these circumstances that the quarter-life crisis is truly an identity crisis. When recent graduates are tossed from a structured academic setting, they have to figure out everything in the real world quickly; but at the same time, and more important, they have to remember to also figure themselves out. The twentysomethings are often heard to say that they have coped, or are coping, with this transition using a combination of the right attitude, determination, open-mindedness, and some luck.
The twentysomethings face startling challenges as they transition from school to the real world. While the midlife crisis has been thoroughly explored by experts, there is another landmine period in young adult development that can be just as devastating. Young adults emerge at work or university from almost two decades of schooling, during which each step to take, is clearly marked. As workers or undergraduates, the young adults encounter an overwhelming number of choices regarding their careers, finances, homes, and social networks. Confronted by a whirlwind of new responsibilities, new liberties, and new options, many feel helpless, panicked, indecisive, and apprehensive. This is termed as the quarter-life crisis.
What is quarter-life?
Quarter-life is the transition from childhood to adulthood, from school to the world beyond. It involves the twentysomethings in personal struggles to carve out individual identities, to cope with their fears of failure, to face making choices rather than avoiding them, and to balance all the demanding aspects of personal and professional life. For example: What do all my doubts mean? And, how do I know if the decisions I am making are right? These are some of the hardest questions facing young adults today.
What is quarter-life crisis?
Quarter-life crisis is a previously overlooked phase of life. It is the period between university graduation and one's 30th birthday, when young adults struggle to find their place in the world. While the assertion that this period can be wracked by crisis rings true, their overall effort, though uplifting, lacks the substantive advice that many people need as they enter adulthood.
And so, a mid-life crisis is not the only age-related crisis that individuals experience. This other crisis can be just as, if not more, devastating than the midlife crisis. It can throw someone's life into chaotic disarray or paralyse it completely. It may be the single most concentrated period during which individuals relentlessly question their future and how it will follow the events of the past. It covers the interval that encompasses the transition from the academic world to the "real" world - an age group that can range from late adolescence to the mid-thirties but is usually most intense in twentysomethings. It is what is called the quarter-life crisis, and it is a real phenomenon.
Life after high school, TAFE or university can be tough and if young adults are having a hard time making the adjustment, they are not alone. Research indicates that the difficulty arises when 20-somethings are ejected from the structured educational environment and forced to choose a career, find a home, carve out social niches and manage money (or the lack thereof). Making decisions, facing self-doubt, seeking alternatives to further education or career options as well as finding romance are just a few of the issues that they need to address. This period can indeed be rocky, especially when a young person is told that the world is their oyster, only to find difficulty in getting a satisfying job.
In this connection, Robbins and Wilner (2001) discuss spirituality, job-hopping and living with parents. Most of their account in the Quarter-life crisis: how am I supposed to figure out who I am? is anecdotal from other 20-somethings that make for more of a pastiche than a guidebook. But while the book may not have all the answers for members of Generation-Y, it provides evidence that this generation is not alone in feeling pressured, depressed or disappointed.
During an interview for the magazine Mademoiselle, Robbins presented an example of this catchy idea of a pre-midlife crisis stating:
Physically, you are an adult. You have, or are actively seeking, a job. You manage a hill of bills. Dating may come with the possible goal of cohabitation, marriage and family. Emotionally, you might as well be wearing a sailor suit, clutching a dirty sucker in one hand and a deflated red balloon in the other.
You want happiness and power, not a soul-sucking career. You're not sure about your finances, your lover or your friends. That overall feeling of ennui is followed by subtle panic at the thought of enduring decades more of this kind of existence!
The midlife crisis is caused by too much stability and too much predictability, whereas the quarter-life crisis is caused by too little stability and too little predictability. But just like the midlife crisis, it is a response to a major life turning point. In this case, it is the transition between young adulthood and adulthood. Now it has a name - Quarter-life crisis: it stems from an opposite event from the midlife crisis.
The quarter-life 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 quarter-life crisis and the midlife crisis are about a 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 their past, in part to see if life to date measures up to the life that was envisioned as a child (or as a twentysomething). The midlife crisis also impels a middle-aged person to look forward, sometimes with a sense of haste, at the time they feel is left.
In contrast, the quarter-life 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 higher education - many young adults undergo some sort of culture shock. In the educational environment, goals are clear-cut and the ways to achieve them are mapped out distinctly. To get into a good graduate school, it helped if one graduated with honours; to graduate with honours, one needed to get good grades; to get good grades, one had to work hard.
So while the midlife crisis revolves around a sense of strategy and stage management of a life the quarter-life crisis is a response to overwhelming instability, constant change, too many choices, and a panicked sense of helplessness. Just as the monotony of a lifestyle stuck in idle can drive a person to question himself intently, so, too, can the uncertainty of a life thrust into chaos. The transition from childhood to adulthood - from school to the world beyond - comes as a jolt for which many of today's twentysomethings simply are not prepared. The resulting overwhelming senses of helplessness and cluelessness, of indecision and apprehension, make up the real and common experience that is called the quarter-life crisis. [Note: The recent ACU Forum on the role of values-based education]
Individuals who are approaching middle age at least know what is coming. Because the midlife crisis is so widely acknowledged, people who undergo it are at the very least aware that there are places where they can go for help, such as support groups, books, movies, or Internet sites. Twentysomethings, by contrast, face a crisis that hits them with a far more powerful force than they ever expected. The slam is particularly painful because today's twentysomethings believe that they are alone and that they are having a much more difficult transition period than their peers - because the twenties are supposed to be "easy," because no one talks about these problems, and because the difficulties are therefore so unexpected. And at the fragile, doubt-ridden age during which the quarter-life crisis occurs, the ramifications can be extremely dangerous.
20 august 2003
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