For more than a decade, there has been a sharp increase in the number of individuals in their twenties and thirties who are experiencing an existential crisis. They have reported feeling extreme anxiety and confusion about their life.
- Questioning the deeper meaning of life
- Not being clear about their adult identity
- Wanting a sense of purpose
In 2001, Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner coined this phenomenon as a quarterlife crisis. Their book presented the different issues that people in their twenties face but did not provide a psychological framework.
I define the quarterlife crisis as an existential crisis that is experienced by individuals in early adulthood. The quarterlife crisis is not an early midlife crisis. A person facing his or her own mortality usually triggers a midlife crisis. On the other hand, the quarterlife crisis stems from a lack of personal identity and/or meaningful purpose.
The quarterlife crisis can be viewed through Erik Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development. Using his model, the quarterlife crisis is focused around the developmental task of late adolescence of finding one’s adult identity. In the culture of modern day America, there is no system or structure that determines when an adolescent becomes and adult. Furthermore, there is a lack of proper role models and community involvement. Therefore, adolescents are rushed to grow up and pushed into the next stage without a foundation of what it means to be an “adult”. Distinctive in the late adolescence stage is the psychosocial moratorium. Erickson described it as:
A period of free experimentation before a final identity is achieved. Their experimentation with new role, values, and belief systems results in a personal conception of how they can fit into society so as to maximize their personal strengths and gain positive recognition from the community. (Newman & Newman, 2003, p. 357)
In the United States, the moratorium is not nationally recognized so young adults are often criticized for being indecisive or naive. However, this period is essential because without it, a person is forced to make hasty decisions. Individuals in a quarterlife crisis are instinctively drawn towards a moratorium because they were previously not given the proper time or space to wander and explore. Therefore, some will create their own moratorium by job-hopping, serial dating, traveling, or living in a new area. Its duration can vary from a few months to several years. Pressuring them will only exacerbate the struggle and can lead to prolonged anxiety. Therefore, honoring a person’s own sense of timing and space is invaluable during this personal endeavor. The end of the moratorium is usually signaled by the discovery and declaration of one’s identity and purpose.
The virtue that is obtained at the cessation of late adolescence is fidelity, which is the quality of loyalty, faithfulness, and dependability. In the case of the quarterlife crisis, a person is claiming fidelity, not to others but to themselves and to their inner-truth. They are determined to declare an adult identity that is more congruent with their true self.
This is but a brief explanation of the quarterlife crisis using one psychological developmental model. Hopefully, this has provided a framework for better understanding of this important and emerging phenomenon.
Causes of the Quarterlife Crisis
With the current landscape of society, individuals in their twenties and thirties are struggling to find their identity and purpose. During my graduate studies in psychology, I have identified some other major themes and contributing causes.
One factor is the culture of consumerism and materialism that has promoted the idea that identity can be bought. As a result, many Americans strive to live a lifestyle beyond their means. There is also a mentality that it is better to look rich than to be rich. However, living an extravagant lifestyle does not seem to lead towards happiness. This theme is illustrated in the movie, Fight Club (1999). In the film, Tyler Durden rallies a group of disenfranchised men and proclaims:
Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.
Another major influence is that for several generations, people’s identities were closely associated with their jobs. Therefore, the idea of a rite of passage may have shifted into a career development model. The career model neglects the significance of adolescents finding their own identity and replaces it with mastering a professional trade. Often a child would start their career in the same industry as their parent. However, with the advancement of technology, new industries have arisen without any mentors to pass along the trade. Therefore, this model seems to becoming outdated. Furthermore, most Americans spend more time at their jobs than anywhere else. Therefore, there is a sense that our jobs “should” be meaningful. Office Space (1999), takes a humorous look at issues faced during a quarterlife crisis. The main character, Peter Gibbons conveys his frustration with the work paradigm and argues:
[W]e don't have a lot of time on this earth! We weren't meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements.
Furthermore, the United States, there are no nationally recognized rites of passage. A rite of passage is an important process and ritual that transitions adolescents to adulthood. Our culture has no process to teach young adults how to make decisions regarding their career, partner, or lifestyle. Self-identity is often influenced by outside forces, such as popular culture, politics, family, and friends. This is counter to the process of self-identity that humans have used for thousands of years. It is essential and more effective for a person to undergo a proven process of self-discovery, guided by a qualified, initiated adult. Life coaching is an effective avenue that facilitates this deep level of self-awareness.
Through my personal and professional experience, the methods I have found most effective in self-discovery are ones that help quiet down outside influences in order to listen one’s innermost thoughts and feelings. As an individual becomes more secure with their identity and purpose, it is much easier for them to then decide the type of career, partner, and lifestyle they truly want. Most importantly, these processes will continue to provide further growth and insight that an individual can use for the rest of their life.