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Posts Tagged ‘quarterlife crisis’

By now, you’ve surely seen it. The cover story in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine went viral days before it landed on my doorstep. Robin Marantz Henig’s “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” focuses a lot on the work of psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who’s trying to get “Emerging Adulthood” identified as an official, distinct life stage. Arnett’s quest is an interesting one, but, regardless whether the label will earn approval, there’s little question that it fits.

Here is, as we geeks of the pen call it, the nut:

It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be–on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.

The subsequent discussion that’s hit the airwaves and the blogosphere comes down like this: Yes, for many 20-somethings, and opposed to maybe their parents’ generation, and certainly their parents’ parents’ generation, the decade is more about exploration than commitment. It makes sense: we live–and work–a lot longer now than ever before. And the interconnected nature of modern life puts all the options out there, front and center on our computer screen, the riper for the fantasizing. So is it any wonder that today’s 20-somethings would rather try before they buy? Rule things out as they make their way, honing in–circuitously… eventually… maybe–on what they ultimately want for their lives? Whether that’s jobs, locations, or romantic partners, the goal of this cohort, in the words of blogger Jessie Rosen,

is to get to the right place, not to get there at the “right time.” It’s not that we don’t know what it means to be an adult and how we’re supposed to do it–it’s that we do.

We are painfully aware that the decisions in our 20s lay the foundation for all of adult life. We know exactly how old our parents were when they had us, and exactly what they sacrificed as a result. We know that time is precious, age isn’t really just a number, and having kids changes everything…

What is so much better about becoming an adult faster?

What am I gaining by taking my time versus what I’m losing by just getting to it already? With every year I wait to be ready to get married, am I letting all the people there are to marry pass me by? Will I be a better, more mature mother at 35 or would I have been just as adept and instinctual at 25? If I live at home with my parents for one more year while I save up to be a full-time writer, will that leave an eternal mark of lame on my life resume? Does being an adult mean having the maturity to know you’re not ready for adult things, or having the maturity to dive in and just figure it out? Won’t I be a better, happier, healthier adult if I take my time getting there?

All of which begs the question: what is this “adult life,” anyway?

According to the NYT piece, sociologists typically define adulthood using a checklist comprised of five milestones (altogether, now!): completing school, leaving home, financial independence, marriage, children. In 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had ticked them all off by the time they hit the big 3-0. As of 2000, less than 50% of women and one-third of men had killed the checklist.

But, again, to quote–well, myself–is it really that simple?

While financial independence is one thing, as for the rest of it–marriage, parenthood, and one single Career–is making such commitments all there is to being an adult? Is signing on to something–one thing–forever and ever the only thing that can ferry you over the threshold, out of NeverNeverLand and into GrownUpDom?

The idea of checklists, commitments, clearly demarcated life stages, they imply a destination, rather than a journey. And I think the fact of the matter is that whether you’ve got the mortgage, the 2.1 progeny, and the pension plan or not, life is always a journey. We are always emerging, as Arnett puts it. And in that way, it’s apt, though not a stage at all. It’s just life.


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I came across this story in the Philadelphia Enquirer the other day about the new angst of quarterlifers. (I’ve buried the lead once again. But stay with me here.) The story revisited the book, Quarterlife Crisis, written back in 2001, and then went on to enumerate the ways in which the Crisis, thanks to the recession, is worse than ever:

Experts say the quarterlife crisis might be harder to navigate now than when the book came out. Entry-level employees, for example, are fighting for fewer jobs and lower pay, [Abby] Wilner, [coauthor of Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties] said in an e-mail interview recently.

“It’s absolutely a tough time,” she wrote.

Even those with jobs are in rough waters, said Dustin Williams, a career counselor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. A glut of older employees aren’t budging because they can’t afford to retire, so younger ones can’t move up. Plus, less-experienced employees are more likely to get laid off. Job security is a real luxury these days.

“Four or five years ago, “Williams said, “people would say, ‘Well, I’m not happy, so I’ll just change jobs and see how I do.’ “

Now, more than ever, it’s easy to get stuck in crisis mode. And recent college graduates are lucky if they land a job at all.

The story goes on to paint pix of doom and gloom, of how difficult it is these days to be twentysomething and trying to make your way in the world, noting a recent Harvard poll that found that 60 percent of young adults worried about whether they would ever end up better off than their parents.

Flipping to the upside, the story continues:

Yeah, becoming an adult and figuring out your future can be painful, especially these days. But it’s only natural, said Deborah Smith, a sociology professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City. Many people experience angst in their 20s because they’re reflecting on their lives for the first time in a long time, she said.

“In my mind, it’s not a crisis,” Smith said. “It’s a decision point, a pressure point, a life-stage change.”

Which brings me to my point, albeit a bit circuitously. But first, let me first say I know (from second-hand experience) about the presumed death of the dream for so many twentysomethings these days: no matter what their goals, it’s hard out there to reach them. At least at first. Money is tight, jobs are scarce and switching out the dream in exchange for settling — or moving back to your high school bedroom — is a real possibility. But yet.

It isn’t necessarily a crisis. At least right now. Unless, of course, you convince yourself it is. Which leads me to my point.

You have to wonder if quarterlife angst goes viral when you’re attached to a hundred different lives-in-crisis at any given time, when you’re inadvertently seeking out those who either share or validate your own personal misery. Call it over-sharing times, well, a number that may coincide with twitter and Facebook friends. A friend once described her Facebook page in terms of a cocktail party: You’ve got this conversation going on over here, but over there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of others you can eavesdrop on as you scroll down the page. I wonder if the better metaphor might be slumber party.

While all those connections might give a good sense of the zeitgeist, it’s not too much of a stretch to suspect that a certain amount of quarterlife angst can be contagious, especially among younger women, given research out of the University of Missouri back in 2007.

The study found that when adolescent girls did too much venting with their girlfriends over their problems, they ended up feeling worse. Yep, more miserable. Their friendships got stronger, the researchers, found, but the girls got caught up in a vicious cycle in which their anxiety led to more venting, which in turn – you guessed it – led to more angst. Getting off on the drama of it all? Who knows. But the more they talked, the worse they felt.

Not good, wrote Carol Lloyd on Salon’s Broadsheet some time later. She connected the study to her own childhood, growing up in 1970’s-era Northern California where, because her family …

used to process every five-minute spat with several hours of grueling self-analysis, early on I developed an acute case of communication fatigue. Feelings, I decided in my own little Idaho of tough love, could be crutches, disguises and distractions from the things we want to do, the people we want to become.

Clearly, feelings are not to be denied. (In fact, haven’t we said many times that gut instinct can be a good compass?) And yet. Despite the fact that we’re not teenagers, nor is life like a slumber party, you still have to wonder: Does angst beget angst? Is crisis mode contagious?

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Lately I’ve been getting a lot of emails from former students, wondering what to do with themselves when grown-up dreams get bitch-slapped by recession-era reality. One, from a talented writer, whose job fell through after only a matter of weeks, particularly hit home. Should she stay in the big city, where she had just scored the perfect apartment, she wondered, or move back to the comfort of her middle-of-the-country roots.

Moving home, she wrote, was “somewhat appealing. But then again, not at all.”

Which reminded me of an apocryphal story I once heard that speaks — in a very weird way — to the tyranny of the comfort zone. It goes like this: There was this housewife who for years cut the ends off a roast beef before she put it in the oven, until someone asked her why. That was the way her mother always did it, she replied, but then got to wondering herself. And so for the first time, she asked her elderly mother why SHE cut the ends off the roast. Her mother’s reply? Because the pan wasn’t big enough.

And therein lies the danger of sticking only with what you know — why, as Shannon wrote in Perfection: A Zero Love Game, comfort zones can morph into prisons of our own making: You stop asking why. You forget to explore.  It’s not just about moving back to your high school bedroom after college, or cooking dinner the same way your mother always did. It’s also about surrounding yourself with people just like you, people who think like you think and do like you do — whether they’re hipsters or jocks, high school buddies or sorority sisters, take-no-prisoners business types or stay-at-home moms. If you’re stuck in a homogeneous universe, as comfort zones so often are, your world shrinks. And there’s the danger. Before long, you not only become trapped by the norm of your own particular niche, you cease to question it. Choices that take you beyond it — in any direction — get scary.  Cognitive dissonance, the method by which we learn and grow?  Out the window.

To a certain extent, all this comfort zone business can be a cliche of the quarter-life crisis, which Washington Post reporter Lindsay Minnema tackled anew last month:

It’s not a new phenomenon, but today’s young people seem to experience it more acutely than the young people who came before them. And with the tumultuous economy and job market meltdown of the past year, recent grads are getting a double helping of quarter-life anxiety.

Unlike young adults of generations past, many of whom were married and settled in their careers by their mid-20s, today’s college grads experience a longer period of transition to the settled-down stage, said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts and author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From Late Teens Through the Twenties.”

“It is a unique time of life when people are not entirely dependent on their parents . . . but they don’t have a stable life structure with marriage and parenthood and stable work,” Arnett said. “They go in a lot of directions, change jobs a lot, change love partners. They go through a long period of figuring out who they are and how they fit in the world.”

Arnett believes this transition period can be positive, with its opportunities for growth and adventure. But for some people, the turmoil brings worry, fears of failure or of being trapped by responsibilities, or depression.

On that latter note, Minnema quotes Leslie Seppinni, a marriage and family therapist and doctor of clinical psychology in Beverly Hills, Calif., who suggests that one route out of their funk is for quarter-lifers to expand their horizons:

Instead of stewing in their misery, quarter-lifers should focus on what they can change, Seppinni said. “Although it is a time of depression, it is also a time of being creative in getting yourself to do something out of your comfort zone,” she said. “Embrace the challenge.”

Meanwhile, what did I write to that former student? Nothing profound. Just this:

I once held a job for three days. This is true. They were the longest, most awful days of my life. But at least I knew. Your next step will likely evolve, rather than present itself as such. Meanwhile, don’t give up. And yes, you should definitely test the waters in ——- to see if you like the city, by working as a barrista if need be. If you packed up and left right now, you’d always wonder if you had missed out. You may love it. Or you may hate it. In which case, you can skip away happily in search of something new…

In other words, you’ll give yourself the chance to figure it out.

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