A Crisis by Any Other Name

By Aaron Britt '03

I had always called it “the malaise.” I saw it in my older friends who graduated from Amherst before me, and as my class left for the real world I started to see it in us. It’s that listless feeling—that sense of having choices and ambition but no clear idea of how to channel them into a satisfying job, an enjoyable lifestyle, an ever-expanding group of friends. It’s the old question: I’m out of college, so now what? What am I going to do with my life?

In his 1991 novel, Generation X, Douglas Coupland grimly diagnosed what he called the “Mid Twenties Breakdown” as a “period of mental collapse occurring in one’s twenties, often caused by an inability to function outside of school or structured environments, coupled with a realization of one’s essential aloneness in the world.” (He goes on to note that this period “often marks induction into the ritual of pharmaceutical usage.”) Some 35 years before, in On the Road, Jack Kerouac described “the beat and evil days that come to young guys in their middle twenties.”

This period after graduation from college is a time when one is rudely confronted with the next phase of life. For many it’s the first time the safety and structure of the academic routine fall away. Suddenly the sense of purpose and signposts of progress, like grades, evaporate, and you join the rest of the world.

It turns out the malaise now has a name that has stuck: the quarterlife crisis. This panic-inducing locution has been in around for years, but recently gained considerable cachet with the publication of Abby Miller and Alexandra Robbins’ 2001 book, Quarterlife Crisis.

Miller and Robbins don’t spend too much time dwelling on anybody’s “essential aloneness”; their book is too cheery for that. Relying on extensive interviews and anecdotal evidence compiled over many years, Miller and Robbins conclude that the quarterlife crisis is “a state of uncertainty and anxiety that accompanies the transition to adulthood.”

But do “uncertainty and anxiety” a crisis make, especially given that crises abound these days? Political leaders and media pundits are quick to proclaim each new snag a “crisis” (Twentysomething-gate, anyone?). Sometimes this is warranted (see Medicare), and sometimes (see Newsweek’s recent “boy crisis”) it’s not. Is the quarterlife crisis legit? Or is it just one more malady in a culture desperate to pathologize our shortcomings?

Miller says, “The term ‘crisis’ is simply a play on the midlife crisis, which is true in some cases, but symptoms can range from mild, everyday anxiety to more serious depression.”

If “mild, everyday anxiety” makes one eligible for a crisis, then only the comatose will get out of this one. Surely the transition to adulthood is a tough one, and some will be better equipped to deal with it than others. But shouldn’t we expect a few certainties once we leave college: unsatisfying jobs, bad dates, worse roommates, indecision and anxiety? Haven’t people always struggled when first setting out on their own? The name of the quarterlife crisis may be new, but surely the problem isn’t.

Miller and Robbins would disagree. Here’s how Miller parses it: “The quarterlife crisis occurs precisely because there is none of that predictable stability. After about 20 years in a sheltered school setting—or more if a person has gone on to graduate or professional school—many graduates undergo some sort of culture shock.” (That “culture” they’re shocked about, presumably, is the real world.)

Miller continues, “There is a mix of factors today that make this transition more intense and more prolonged than ever before—first and foremost, the enormous amount of college loan and credit card debt that recent graduates are facing. It’s almost impossible to conceive of paying for graduate school or taking a low-paying job at a nonprofit when you’ve got $20,000 in debt and a $1,000 monthly rent bill, let alone save for the future. Secondly, the pattern of this transition is strikingly different today due to job-hopping and delayed marriage. We are essentially taking longer to reach the traditional markers of adulthood.” Miller suggests that other factors that make transitioning to adulthood more difficult these days are the lack of employer-employee loyalty, an impersonal job search process, an increased number of college graduates (and therefore increased job competition and limited promotional opportunity) and young people’s shorter attention spans.

Miller and Robbins argue that past generations tended to follow a particular path: finish school (if you went), get married, buy a house, have kids, work for the same company for 40 years and then retire. They claim that today’s college grads are far less likely to follow that path, taking their 20s to explore different careers, partners and even continents.

Quarterlife Crisis is heavy on anecdotal evidence, but offers few real solutions. We read about wayward twentysomethings enduring everything from serious bouts of depression to the vicissitudes of meeting an attractive and suitable mate. The book exhaustively chronicles the perils of living both too close and too far from your parents, missing your friends or partying every night, not getting enough feedback from your distant boss or having a busybody superior always looking over your shoulder. At points it’s simply too much.

Quarterlife Crisis is most successful as a diagnosis, one that empathizes with the afflicted but, inevitably, adds to the growing list of pop psychology “conditions.” Miller concedes that Quarterlife Crisis doesn’t supply many answers: “We were simply recognizing what seemed to be a widespread problem.” What to do, what to do?

Returning to the shelves of quarterlife crisis books, I came at last to one with some practical answers, The Turbulent Twenties Survival Guide, by Marcos Salazar ’01. Published in April, it’s a valuable successor to Quarterlife Crisis, attempting to offer practical solutions and exercises to ease the anxiety of what Salazar dubs the “turbulent 20s.”

“As you know, over the past few years there’s been talk about how today’s post-college transition will cause you to experience a ‘crisis’ during your 20s,” Salazar tells me. “This joins the ever-popular adolescent crisis, the thirtysomething crisis and the midlife crisis,” he adds. ”If we were to follow this rationale by adding a quarterlife crisis to the list, it would mean our entire life is just one big crisis! More importantly, a crisis by definition is something that is abnormal. People are not supposed to live in crisis mode, but the fact is almost every twentysomething I have spoken to has struggled with adjusting to life after college.

“The truth is that these feelings of anxiety, stress and confusion are normal and natural responses to such a major life change,” Salazar says. “So to call it a crisis is to completely misconstrue what is actually happening. Sure, it is a catchy term to use, but it is inaccurate, and I think it can potentially cause major harm by making people feel like they are abnormal for having such feelings.”

Salazar lives and works in Washington, D.C. as a researcher for the American Psychological Association. (He’s also the proprietor of two t-shirt companies, District Tees and Slaphappy Tees.) His first book, on the antidepressant effects of exercise, was 2001’s Feeling Good for Life.

Salazar’s new work, the Survival Guide, synthesizes the work of dozens of psychologists and self-help gurus into a kind of psychological survival kit for the just-out-of- college set. “A problem with some of the other life-after-college books is that they focus on practical things, such as how to structure a résumé, write a cover letter, find an apartment or learn what a 401k is, but they don’t get down to the real issues people struggle with during their turbulent 20s,” Salazar says. “What I’ve discovered during my research is that it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to effectively do all the things that those other books talk about if you’re struggling psychologically and unable to cope with the challenges and daily stress of the turbulent 20s.”

Leaning heavily on psychological research, Salazar suggests that we have far more freedom than our parents did after college, and he believes this contributes to our woes. According to Salazar it’s this destabilizing “tyranny of choice” that causes so much trouble. His book draws on the work of psychologist Barry Schwartz to help manage the multitude of options, advocating that we “set limits on our choices,” “make [our] decisions nonreversible” and “eliminate ‘if only’ from [our] vocabulary.”

Increasing one’s self-esteem, cultivating emotional intelligence and working to silence the “pathological critic” are paramount in The Turbulent Twenties Survival Guide. Salazar places his emphasis on holistic psychological health and describes how it might be achieved through journaling, therapy and mental and physical exercise.

Salazar’s goal is not just to prepare readers to face their 20s, but also to help them cultivate tools for a successful life: “The purpose of The Turbulent Twenties Survival Guide is to show twentysomethings that this is a normal stage in life,” Salazar says, “and it all begins with building the psychological foundation for adapting to anything that life throws at you.”

I put the question of the quarterlife crisis (or the turbulent 20s or the mid-20s breakdown or whatever you’d like to call it) to Rosalind Hoffa, associate dean of students and director of the Amherst College Career Center. Needless to say, she’s quite familiar with the term and the situation.

“One thing that’s hard for young people to understand,” she tells me, “is that your life is always in flux. There are a lot of unknowns, especially when you’re leaving college for the first time, and that makes some people fearful. Although ‘quarterlife crisis’ really is an awful term! No wonder it makes people nervous. It’s not a crisis, though. It’s a new phase; you’re going out on your own.”

I asked Hoffa what she has witnessed as Amherst grads make their way into the real world. What kind of things are they worried about, and how are they reacting to life outside of college?

“Clearly, a problem that lots of young alumni face is one of balance,” Hoffa says. “They worry about finding a good job and then juggling that with a social life, finances, life in a new city, and life without your close friends at your beck and call. The ones that are best equipped are the people who have had more internships, more experience—or maybe the ones who have struggled more in life. They have a better idea about what life is like in the real world. Those more in the bubble will be more shocked.”

I wonder whether part of the problem for Amherst students is that we have unrealistic expectations for our lives after college. At Amherst, and for much of our academic lives, we’ve experienced great success. We’ve been praised, our opinions have been sought, and we’ve been told that we can achieve anything we set our minds to. Upon entering the working world, however, we learn how limited our qualifications are. Our bosses really don’t care where we went to school or how good our theses were. This letdown, and the ensuing understanding that regardless of our highfalutin’ education we have to climb the ladder one rung at a time, makes for a jarring and unpleasant realization. Amherst may not equip us to pay our dues, but shouldn’t we still expect to pay them?

“The more research a student has done, the better off she is,” Hoffa says. “It’s a horrible shock for many entering the working world; sometimes it’s enough to cause an employee to leave her job due to unrealistic expectations.”

What does the Career Center recommend to soften the blow?

“Students and alumni should sit down and talk to an advisor here at the Career Center,” Hoffa says. “We’re about more than just a well-crafted résumé. We’ll work on an individual basis with students or alums planning the next phase of their lives. We have real-world workshops that deal with apartment hunting, finances, cooking, setting up a kitchen, or what have you. We hope to teach students how to manage their lives better. Check out the ‘Real World Transitions’ section of the Career Center Website,” she continues. “If you know you need something in a workplace, like an especially supportive environment, we can help you find it. You can find out what your values are. We have tests for that.”

Jeffrey Arnett is a psychologist who has turned his attention to the lives of young adults in Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties. I asked him if this transition period is really a crisis at all, or just a bunch of fancy-college grads with impractical aversions to entry-level jobs. “It’s mostly the latter,” he says. “The research
evidence shows that, for most people, life gets better during the 20s—life satisfaction increases, depression decreases, etc. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make your way into the adult world. There is certainly widespread anxiety among emerging adults as they try to make the right choices in love and work. But it’s exciting, too, to most of them.”

But surely making the right choices is a concern for everyone. Parents worry about doing right by their children; seniors wonder about what to do in their retirement; investors fret over when to buy and sell. How is this anxiety over the right choices different for those just out of college? Arnett again: “This is the time when people make crucial choices that will have enduring effects on their adult lives.”

This sentiment was echoed by a member of the Class of ’02, who said, “I have a general feeling, or fear, even, that everything I do now will have enormous significance for the rest of my life. I think of the things that my parents were doing at my age, and they were really formative things that changed their lives profoundly, like having me.” He adds, “There’s a self-consciousness that the things you do at this age will have a huge impact on where you end up, even when you don’t have the clearest idea of where that will be.”

I talked with other recent grads to see how the idea of the quarterlife crisis resonated with them.

One member of the Class of ’04 was skeptical. “I can assuredly relate to all the anxiety of the quarterlife crisis,” he said, “but doesn’t that seem par for the course? When you have a college career with little direction and a degree with no practical application, how can you expect to leave college and promptly achieve success?” He continues, “If there is a crisis, it seems less about how to choose among an infinite number of options and more about how to compete with the 8 million other people who want to, say, make movies.”

A member of the Class of ’03 tells me that the transition from the ample free time of college to the eight-hour workday and busy commute was difficult for her. She had a rewarding job lined up right after college, but found that the lifestyle adjustments she had to make were taxing. She corroborates the Quarterlife Crisis notion that things today are different than they were for our parents. “I got a lot of conflicting advice from people who were older than me on how to start out in a career,” she says. “Some said that the best way to get started is by doing this, or that, or going to grad school. And I’m not convinced that that’s really the best way to do it now. I also don’t think that it’s as easy to get in on the ground floor as it used to be.” But she stops short of calling this a crisis, noting that she doesn’t think that her level of anxiety is all that different from anyone else facing the same challenges.

I received an e-mail from a member of the Class of ’04 who expressed dismay with how small an effect he feels he is having in his work. “For me, it has been a big shock to work in a menial position in a company where, barring catastrophic mistakes, my actions go largely unnoticed,” he said. “My tasks at work aren’t presented with any real sense of urgency—just about anything can be put off until the next day. In my case, the transition from the scholastic world, with its constant evaluations and clearly delineated path, has been fairly unsettling,” he adds. “Whether or not the work one does in college has any effect on the world—or even on one’s own life—there is a clear sense of the effect of your actions. If you work hard on a paper, you’re likely to get a good grade. If you don’t study for a test, you probably won’t do well.”

I was skeptical about the quarterlife crisis at the outset of this article, and to a large extent I remain so. I’ve certainly experienced the growing pains of entering the working world, and at 25 I am still very much in their throes. But I’m reluctant to see this transition as anything unique to my generation. It strikes me as imprecise and counterproductive to call a professional rite of passage a crisis. And while it’s important to note that this can be a difficult period, does it really come as any surprise? Isn’t literature filled with young people at loose ends, unsure of how to make their way in the world? I think of Rabbit Angstrom from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, or Rick Carstone of Dickens’ Bleak House, or even poor Hamlet. They may hail from different centuries, but their aimless ambitions feel surprisingly familiar.

But look at the bright side. Although the recent grads I spoke to conceded that their transitions to the working world had been bumpy, they acknowledge that they had expected this would be a tough period. One ’03, who found himself careening from one imagined career to the next, became more distressed when I pointed out that calling our 25-year-old woes a quarterlife crisis takes a pretty ambitious view of our longevity. “Look,” he moaned, “we can talk about jobs, but please, let’s not talk about death.”

Illustrations: © 2006 J. Hesselberth c/o theispot.com