Emo moment: Quarter-Life Crisis!

26 January, 2007

Forget about midlife crisis; today’s 20-somethings have issues of their own
They were a group of friends who were all just about 25. After college they had moved to
Boston, the closest city to their respective universities, and were now experiencing what some have dubbed a quarter-life crisis.

So this past spring, they had a party. The invitation read:

“Are you between the ages of 22 and 29? Are you directionless, apathetic, or dissatisfied with your job? Do you even HAVE a job? Have you been in a state of `limbo’ since you graduated college while you start from scratch building a career and a life? If you have answered `yes’ to one or more of the preceding questions, you just might be dead inside.”

About 40 of them gathered in
Somerville. They made it a costume party, and guests worked out their quarter-life angst by dressing as what they hoped they’d be by their mid-20s — working professionals, artists, poets, and musicians.

A few guests dared to show up as themselves, claiming to be satisfied with life at 25.

“I almost kicked them out of the house,” said 25-year-old Alexandra Checka, one of the party’s hosts.

The concept of experiencing angst in one’s 20s is nothing new. It has been explored in movies spanning generations, from “The Graduate” to “Reality Bites” and the recently released “Garden
State.” Musician John Mayer, 26, who spent some pre-crisis years in
Boston, sang about it. He crooned about what “might be a quarter-life crisis or just the stirring in my soul” and asked, “Am I living it right?” in his song “Why Georgia.”But there is a new movement afoot of professionals studying today’s 20-somethings. They maintain that there’s a phase of life — quarter-life — which, like adolescence and midlife, has its own set of challenges and characteristics. People get married later and have more transient careers than before. They are in debt longer, sometimes in school longer. The early to late 20s represents a time of extreme instability, according to the experts.”The way I look at it is a transition to adulthood,” said Abby Wilner, a 28-year-old who is working on a second book about her peers. “It’s taking longer than ever today because of college loans, debt, competition for jobs, more and more people living at home with their parents, and people taking longer than ever to get married. This phase, this transition, is becoming a more tumultuous process.”In 2001, Wilner turned the new concept of this life phase into a nonfiction guide for those out of school. The book, “Quarterlife Crisis: the Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties” (written with Alexandra Robbins) quickly became a best-selling explanation of post-college angst.Twenty-somethings responded so enthusiastically to the quarter-life concept that Wilner created a website with message boards and information to set up regional support groups. People visit www.quarterlifecrisis.com throughout the day disclosing their fears, questions, excitement, and misery. She now has about 10,000 registered users with 1.5 million hits per month. Postings and emails come from all over the United States as well as Australia and the Philippines. She said she aims for the organization to eventually serve as “the AARP for people in their 20s.”The posts on Wilner’s website tell a story of a purgatory experienced after college, before adulthood. Members write to one another about everything from their cars to their spouses. They talk about whether antidepressants will help. They wonder where their friends went. They can’t decide what to do next. Most, but not all, share a sense of humor about the confusion. One quarter-lifer recently posted his dilemma on the site: ” . . . basically been Quarter-Life Crisis-ing it for over a year now . . . graduated school, fell into corporate hole of boredom, watched bottom fall out of corporate hole of boredom during prime job market downturn, felt as though the world was full of opportunity, moved around a lot in search of happiness, lost a relationship, fell into deep depression, fought said depression . . . grappled daily with concept of happiness, success, and value of venture and pursuits, and now am here before you hoping that somehow writing this all down will precipitate a solution.”……

A lighter post read, “Last night, while playing the literary version of Trivial Pursuit, I started crying because I couldn’t remember the names of the authors/book titles, etc. Everyone thought I was insane and I ended up leaving the party to go home and cry some more because I am stupid. . . . I was an English major and I got beat at literary Trivial Pursuit.”Wilner planned to host a quarter-life crisis convention last month in her hometown of
Washington D.C., but it was canceled. The quarter-lifers couldn’t commit to the date and the cost.”Not surprising,” Wilner said, laughing.
Quarter-lifers around
Boston say they believe the crisis concept is legitimate.

In explaining the feeling, Checka cited that rare perfect day of weather one experiences in
Boston. “You can do anything. You can go to a museum or a sports game, but you know there’s not going to be another nice Saturday for the rest of the year. What do you do? Do you do everything? Do you do one thing? Are you going to be sitting in a museum thinking, `I’m missing the day?’ ” said Checka, who added that with the help of a new job, she’s recently been able to escape her crisis. Christa Bosch, 26, a
College graduate who attended the
Somerville quarter-life party, believes she entered a second phase of her quarter-life crisis when she decided to go to law school. She has her own take on what the concept means. “It’s like a film of anxiety over everything that I’m doing,” she said.

Jeffrey Arnett, a University of Maryland psychology professor, has created a field of study surrounding this phase of life, which he calls “emerging adulthood.” Last month, he released a book called “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties.”
When describing the concept, Arnett cites Douglas Coupland’s book “Generation X,” which dissected the 20-something years of those who are now in their 30s. Arnett said that Coupland’s concept was right on, but that generations beyond X will experience a segment of transition before adulthood.

While Wilner and her website members consider the phase one of crisis, Arnett believes quarter-life is a positive time, what he calls the “age of possibilities,” specifically for those in the middle class. Arnett concedes that those in their early 20s spend more time alone than anyone except the elderly. But he has found that, if anything, 20-somethings nowadays are overwhelmingly optimistic.

“Almost everyone thinks things are going to work out well for them in the end,” he said. “Everyone thinks they’re going to find their soul mate and their dream job. Fifty percent of them get divorced from their `soul mate,’ and there are not enough dream jobs to go around.”

In Somerville, not far from Inman Square, Sara-Beth Zoto, a Syracuse University graduate, recently packed for a move to Los Angeles. She had no specific reason for leaving, but said she hoped a gigantic move, one without reason or purpose, would mark the end of her early 20s, a segment of her life that has been polluted by soulless jobs and confusion.

Zoto decided to pick up and move this past April, one month after turning 25.

“I’m looking for recruits,” she said, eyeing her roommates, who threw her a going-away party earlier this summer and all claim to have quarter-life problems of their own.

Zoto agreed with Arnett that being in a quarter-life phase shouldn’t have to involve a crisis. She said she had learned to embrace her lack of roots.

“My thing is, here I just work to pay bills,” she said. “I can just work to pay bills over there, too.”

Wilner said for those who are having a quarter-life crisis, there is good news. She believes that if people work through a quarter-life crisis honestly and thoroughly, they’ll skip the midlife crisis. The insecurity that has led 40- to 60-year-olds to question their choices will not haunt those who spent their 20s taking time to consider all of their options, she said.

“We won’t want to go back and change anything,” she said. “We’ll welcome stability.”



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