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August 6, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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It’s All Downhill From Here

The quarter life crisis and you.



Google ‘quarter life crisis’ and you’re likely to find a slew of blog posts and yahoo message boards rife with hippy remedies and John Mayer songs. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll come across the tide of legitimate articles about the rising phenomenon. Since 73 per cent of you will experience some degree of ‘QLC’, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to look beyond the layabout stereotypes and get a professional opinion. Cue the acoustic guitar music.

“Waiting on the world to change” 

When you enter your early twenties, life begins to transition. The initial sense of endless potential and hope that makes youth so great is replaced with the uncertainty of limited opportunities and new pressure. The realities of growing up, facing debt, finding employment, and changing relationships can lead to a crisis of confidence that shakes your sense of self to the core. These are the signs of a quarter life crisis.

Despite the dippy name, QLCs affect an estimated 73 per cent of 20-30 year olds, with most people in the age bracket experiencing its hallmark feelings of isolation, doubt and uncertainty. According to British Psychological Society guidelines, the QLC can be divided in to five stages, which are explained on the next page.

The all too familiar mid life crises is described as a time when the older folk go from focusing on external measures of achievement to internal measures of personal fulfilment. By comparison the signs and symptoms of a QLC are similar, but the specific reasons behind them differ (think marriages, mortgages, menopause, and male-pattern baldness).

According to VUW sociologist Dr Kathy Stuart, potential triggers for young New Zealanders range from the evident economic climate to personal existential issues. “Obviously things like student debt, inadequate and expensive housing, and high unemployment rates will contribute to anxiety, a sense of entrapment, and identity loss in societies such as ours”.

She makes special mention of the governmental cuts to the education system. “Changes in the student allowance are making it more difficult for someone with a bachelor’s degree to continue on with their education in spite of the shortage of jobs, which could well add to a sense of anxiety and entrapment.”

It might sound like 21st century yuppie lexicon, but while the term ‘quarter life crisis’ might be new (cropping up in 1998) the phenomena is not simply a symptom of our time. Dr Stuart thinks there’s long been a difficulty associated with finding a career path and following through with the transition from education to employment.

She notes, however, that the last few years have seen a sharp incline in the stresses of youth. “A person has put in 3-5 or more years of university education, come out of that with a significant financial debt, and then can’t find an entry-level job in an area that bears some relationship to the degree they’ve worked hard for. It seems pretty reasonable for them to experience some kind of crisis moment.”

Dr Stuart also points out the grey area between expectation and reality. “One question that I have about the quarter life crisis is whether it is an indication of the disappointment some young adults might be feeling when they’ve done what they thought was necessary to secure fulfilling and well-paid employment, and been met with conditions that are outside their control—like the current global financial downturn.”

Sure, we’re weathering a storm of crappy prospects, but does that make the rising levels of hopelessness any more legitimate in the eyes of society at large?

Kind of. Dr Stuart mentions the good work of campaigns such as Like Minds, Like Mine, which aims to reduce the stigma around expressing your feelings. On the other side of the coin, people like (securely employed) James Russell of the New Zealand Herald exemplify ignorant thinking about the issue, albeit conceding that maybe “they aren’t just having a whinge”. How gracious.

Dr Stuart is less impressed. “There will be others who agree with Russell and who think it’s absurd to think that New Zealand’s young adults have anything to be in crisis about.” Though our unemployment rates aren’t as dire as, say, Greece, she emphasises that comparing personal turmoil isn’t a productive way of tackling the problem. “I don’t believe that makes it okay to be dismissive about the anxieties and fears that young New Zealanders are expressing,” she says, “We just feel like we don’t have the means to rise above and beat it”

Despite all this talk of societal dynamics, QLCs affect people on an individual level.

Psychologist Dr Paul Jose spoke to us about the psychological factors at play. When asked what personality types were most susceptible to QLCs, he presented a broad view. “The personality you’re alluding to is something that affects the way we approach life tasks rather than life.

If someone is a happy-go-lucky three-year-old then they tend to be more easy-going when they go through the QLC. “On the other hand”, he continues, “a personality can be modified and changed. If you know that you tend to overreact emotionally to challenges, then you can seek out support”.

One of the more prevalent existential troubles of the 20-30 year age bracket is the fear of bad decision-making and its potentially disastrous effects on their futures. “People this age worry that if they do x, and not y, it will destroy their life, that if they decide to take


this job, drop out of school, or get married, it will adversely affect them”.

The good news is that, at our age, nothing is irrevocable. If we decide to delay something, it won’t necessarily mean that we’ll be in a worse situation, and more often than not, our blunders are correctable.”The message I like to give to people”, says Dr Jose, “is that young adults are very malleable and adaptable. Most young adults can bounce back from their mistakes”.

Another significant apprehension for those suffering a QLC is the notion that they’re in it alone. “There’s often a kind of paranoia that ‘everybody’s doing it better than me’ and that’s usually quite overstated, even false. There’s a sense that ‘I’m not dealing with this as well as everybody else is’”, which Dr Jose says is a pretty unhelpful self-cognition.

“This is normal” he insists. “It may feel bad when you’re in the middle of it because you’ve got that anxiety, but it means that you care. If you didn’t care, you might be more likely end up in a dead-end situation.”

Try to see the positive side of being motivated to make the right decisions, “but don’t be paralysed by possible scenarios about how things may turn out”.

At the end of the day, those who endure the QLC come out stronger on the other side. “If we think of a crisis as a turning point, as a time for critical reflection”, says Dr Stuart, “then the decisions made at a time like that could give new direction to a person’s life – including their work life”.

Play us out, John Mayer…

“One day our generation is gonna rule the population..”

Help is out there, but it can be difficult to know where to start. Although professional advice is the best kind to seek, we’ve scoured the books, blogs, and internet to find the guidelines most likely to set sufferers on the right path.

Speak to someone: Loneliness and isolation come with the territory on this one, but people experiencing these emotions often find it difficult to admit them to others. Compounding this is the notion that everyone else is doing well and loving life, and therefore can’t possibly understand what you’re going through. This is not the case. Opening up to friends and family is likely to be therapeutic, and finding out you’re not alone is a start to beating the QLC funk.

Own thy feelings: As important as it is to share your problems, be wary of flippant advice. You’ll come across uninformed responses like “you’re just being dramatic” or “buck up, it’ll pass”, and it’s essential that you don’t let them guilt you or trivialise your feelings.

Dr Stuart finds it worrying when people are dismissive about the stresses and concerns of others. “I think one thing that most people need is to be heard and to have their experiences validated”, she says. “I can’t tell you how to tell if someone is experiencing existential turmoil or a quarter life crisis, but I do think it’s important to listen and to express our concern if we’re feeling anxious about a friend’s mental health.”

Re-evaluate: One of the largest roadblocks to overcome is the complete loss of direction in your life. While it can be confusing and disorienting, this is the time to stop comparing yourself to others and take a moment to chill. When the traditional goals on your personal checklist don’t seem appealing anymore, it’s time to step back and figure out what really makes your happy.

Even if your passions seem unachievable, just recognising what they are can be enough to give you something to strive for (or at least knock you down a peg on the ladder of aimlessness). Once you knuckle down an idea, set a few short and long term goals for achieving them. It may sound like something out of a bad self help book, but taking small steps towards an actual objective can give you back a sense of control.

Don’t be so hard on yourself: guilt, self-loathing and inadequacy plague most of us at some point, but are exacerbated during the 1-2 year periods that QLCs tend to last. Try to redefine your definition of success by changing your perception and trying new things. Join a club, try out a sport, volunteer with the SPCA, or just do something you normally wouldn’t. Reflect on your achievements and remember what used to make you happy. ▲

Thanks to Dr Kathy Stuart and Dr Paul Jose for their insights. 


PHASE 1: A feeling of being trapped by your life choices. Feeling as though you are living your life on autopilot.

PHASE 2: A rising sense of “I’ve got to get out” and the feeling that you can change your life.

PHASE 3: Quitting the job , relationship , or whatever else is making you feel trapped and embarking on a “time out” period where you try out new experiences to find out who you want to be.

PHASE 4: Rebuilding your life.

PHASE 5: Developing new commitments more attuned to your interests and aspirations.

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