Navigating the ‘Quarterlife Crisis’

“My father never talked about buying a sports car in his middle years, but I sure feel like I could use one – or at least a six month trek across Europe”, said James, a 27-year-old client who worked for a federal agency and couldn’t stand sitting in front of a computer for nine hours each day at his third post-college job. He also frequently expressed disdain at the fact that he was living in a group house with four other twentysomethings, that he could barely pay all his bills (especially the student loan), that his mother kept asking him about his singlehood, and that he had no real vision for his future. James often spoke of feeling in crisis.

James may be just an amalgamation of some of the people I’ve worked with as a therapist, but his issues are very real. In fact, his plight has become so typical that experts have labeled it the “quarterlife crisis.” The last several decades have brought about societal changes that affect young adults in new ways. Some statistics about modern twentysomethings: about 50 percent of them currently live at home (a 50 percent increase since the 1970s), they average 8.6 jobs during their 20s, they are in the first generation who will not do as well financially as their parents, student load debt has doubled in the past decade to nearly $20,000, and 41 percent of them say they face nearly unbearable stress.

The changes are so extensive that people are now reaching traditional markers of adulthood much later in life. In the 1960s, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men at age 30 had left home, earned a higher degree, become financially independent, married, and had a child. Today, those numbers have dropped to 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men.

Young clients often come into my office feeling behind where they “should be” and say their lives don’t look anything like they thought they would while they were in school. Fortunately, this feeling of crisis can be an opportunity to become empowered through the therapeutic process. Some of my clients eventually decide to change jobs (often to lower-paying, but more fulfilling careers). Some chose to go back to school or start working with a financial planner. For others, the work goes deeper. They may choose to work to individuate from their parents, set more realistic goals for how they will influence the world, or name new priorities and create time for meaningful or relaxing activities.

I frequently find that the clients who work through these issues have a truer sense of self and a clearer understanding of their place among their friends, in their communities, and in their understanding of the world.