On paper, your life should be free of worries.
We are living in the richest, safest and healthiest time period ever. You are reading this article on your smartphone or computer, so I can assume you were born in a developed country with proper access to internet. You are likely to have a degree, a job that pays well and some forms of social security. As far as societal measurements of success go, you are right on track.
But more and more, you feel that there is something missing.
Is this really it? There has to be more to life than this.
You start comparing yourself to other people, and they seem to have figured it all out. They earn more money, they travel the world, they are getting married. Why are they succeeding at the game of life? You took every step you were supposed to take, and yet you feel miserable.
Is this my quarter-life crisis?!
What is a quarter-life crisis?
A quarter-life crisis is a crisis you may experience, in which you feel anxiety over the direction and quality of your life. It is a period of doubts about your career, relationships, financial situation, and basically all important life choices. This period is commonly experienced somewhere in your twenties or early thirties, hence the name. You could compare it to a mid-life crisis, only to happen 20 years earlier.
During this phase of life, we are presented with a lot of ‘firsts’. Your first serious relationship, your first ‘real’ job, your first apartment. We are exposed to the real world; no longer sheltered beneath the wings of our nurturing parents.
The term ‘quarter-life crisis’ was invented by Elliot Jaques in 1965, in the same paper he coined the term ‘mid-life crisis’ for the first time. But unlike ‘mid-life crisis’, the term ‘quarter-life crisis’ wasn’t immediately popularized. It wasn’t until 2001 that the phenomenon gained more attention, after American authors Robbins and Wilner wrote their bestseller titled Quarterlife Crisis. The book is a collection of interviews with twentysomethings and tries to define the problem they’re facing. Ever since, the quarterlife crisis phenomenon has received more attention in a few research papers, articles and oh so relatable Buzzfeed quizzes.
Does a Quarter-Life Crisis exist?
When I first heard ‘quarterlife crisis’, I wasn’t immediately convinced it was a real thing. I started to use the term mockingly, to ridicule those people who couldn’t stop complaining about their first world problems.
But looking back at the past few years, I have to admit that many people from our generation seem to go through an existential crisis to some degree. When I discuss the topic with friends and strangers, almost everyone seems to recognize the aspects I mentioned before. But the funny thing is that no person over 40 years old that I spoke to, had even heard of the term. When I explain to them what it is and how it affects ‘Millennials’, they see it as a one of our luxury problems. They do not remember having similar thoughts when they were our age. They say stuff like: “Back then we just got to work, we did not have much choice.”
Rather listen than read this article?
Listen to Episode 1:
2:01: What is a Quarter-Life Crisis?
3:20: Where does the term come from?
4:05: So is this quarter-life crisis a real thing?
7:00: In a broader context – 8 stages of psychosocial development
Quarterlife crisis in research
The existence of a quarterlife crisis is not universally accepted. Due to its recent popularization, the whole concept of a quarterlife crisis hasn’t received a lot of attention in research, certainly less than for example a midlife crisis.
In a 2011 study, Rossi & Mebert tried to find signs of a quarterlife crisis among students that recently graduated. They asked four groups of young adults to fill in self-assessments. The groups consisted of recent high school graduates and college graduates who are working and undergraduates and graduate students.
The assessment consisted of questions on identity development, future time perspective, social support, coping, depression, anxiety and job and life satisfaction. They found no support for the existence of a quarterlife crisis when they compared these four groups.
You can be critical of the term quarterlife crisis itself as well. The crisis is most commonly experienced in the period when someone is between 25 and the beginning of their 30’s. Given our life expectancies, a ‘thirdlife crisis’ would be more accurate. Especially given the term was invented in the 60s. But according to its inventor Jaques, a quarterlife crisis simply sounded better,
All in all, the empirical evidence for a quarterlife crisis is lacking, so it is hard to say whether it really exists.
Nonetheless, the term gained a lot of attention in popular media. The subject resonates with our generation. Many people feel like it exists. But some clever written articles or personality quizzes that go viral – with no scientific substantiation – could easily make the problem seem bigger than it is.
The 8 Identity Crises of Life
If we zoom out and look at all stages in life, we can see more existential crises. Let’s see where a quarterlife crisis would fit in.
Erik Erikson is a psychoanalyst known for his theories on the psychosocial development of humans and the identity crises we go through along the way. He states that an individual passes through eight stages from infancy to late adulthood. Each of these stages is characterized by a crisis between two conflicting forces:
Under 2 years
|Trust vs. Mistrust||Mother||Can I trust the world?||Feeding, abandonment|
|Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt||Parents||Is it okay to be me?||Toilet training, clothing themselves|
|Initiative vs. Guilt||Family||Is it okay for me to do, move, and act?||Exploring, using tools or making art|
|Industry vs. Inferiority||Neighbors, School||Can I make it in the world of people and things?||School, sports|
|Identity vs. Role Confusion||Peers, Role Model||Who am I? Who can I be?||Social relationships|
|Intimacy vs. Isolation||Friends, Partners||Can I love?||Romantic relationships|
|Generativity vs. Stagnation||Household, Workmates||Can I make my life count?||Work, parenthood|
60 and above
|Ego Integrity vs. Despair||Mankind, My kind||Is it okay to have been me?||Reflection on life|
Looking at Erikson’s distinction, the quarterlife crisis would occur during our Early adulthood phase. During this phase, our existential questions would revolve around intimacy and long-term commitments to other people. Questions like: Can I love? Am I willing to make the sacrifices that a relationship, or even marriage, requires? And yes, these are valid questions and this is existential crisis that might occur to you. But I believe the common definition of a quarterlife crisis is more about identity.
It seems to me that our definition of a quarterlife crisis has a better fit with the Identity vs. Role Confusion crisis that happens in the Adolescence phase. The identity crisis that some Millennials have, is more about who they want to become and whether their current path will take them there. How can we develop successful intimate relationships before we even have a strong sense of who we are?Not everyone will find these answers at the same time. For those still pondering on who they want to become, the dilemma of Intimacy vs. Isolation comes at a later age. We stay single for longer, we marry at a later age. The average age of marriage in the US used to be 20 in the 50s and 60s, but this grew to 27 in 2017. And overall, our life expectancies are increasing, so maybe it is a logical reaction that we’re stretching some phases.
And if we look at it this way, is a quarterlife crisis nothing more than prolonged puberty?
After graduation, many struggle with the transition from being a student to working life. We feel trapped in a demanding job with student debt and burnout symptoms looming. What are the hurdles we need to take in order to be happy in our job?