Oprah dedicated a show to it, bloggers have ranted about it, and punk bands on both coasts have named themselves after it. It even has its own shelf in the self-help section of the bookstore. There's no question that the 'quarterlife crisis' -- a term referring to the emotional upheaval experienced by many in their 20s -- has morphed beyond a catchy phrase into a bona fide social trend. Some even predict that it will eclipse midlife as the crisis du jour.
But it is real? Today's young adults are admittedly not the first twentysomethings to grapple with postcollegiate angst and disillusion. The 1967 film classic The Graduate suggested that, for the Boomer generation, a certain amount of confusion and fear were part and parcel of the transition to adulthood. But the challenges confronting today's graduates are arguably different from those their parents faced.
In fact, the very transition period from adolescence to adulthood has become more significant and prolonged, according to a 2003 report from the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. Most Americans, the report shows, believe 'adulthood' doesn't begin until age 26, with college-educated Americans pushing that number even higher, to 28 or 29.
If adolescence ends before 20, and full-fledged adulthood doesn't start until near 30, it's no wonder that many of today's twentysomethings are experiencing a discomforting sense of instability. Jeffrey Arnett, research associate professor of human development at the University of Maryland, calls this limbo period 'emerging adulthood.' Arnett believes that a societal shift over the past 50 years has led to a new generation of young people who are delaying the traditional rites of passage into adulthood. They are taking longer to finish school, are exploring more relationship options before committing to marriage and kids, and are inclined to hop from career to career and from city to city. Add to this mix increased student loan debt, a sluggish economy, and an anemic job market -- not to mention average twentysomethings' self-induced pressure to maintain or exceed the level of affluence they grew up with -- and a quarterlife crisis begins to make sense.
'I believe that the quarterlife crisis will essentially replace the midlife crisis for our generation,' Abby Wilner, coauthor of the New York Times best-seller Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties (J.P. Tarcher), recently told The Sydney Morning Herald (March 9, 2004). 'It's taking us so long to get all that our parents complained about at midlife -- the house, car, and kids -- that once we do finally settle down, we'll feel so relieved that I don't think we'll want to change anything.'
Wilner and coauthor Alexandra Robbins popularized the phrase 'quarterlife crisis' (affectionately referred to as QLC, but really only by those who refer to it incessantly), and they are the driving force behind the phenomenon's metamorphosis into a movement. Following the success of the book, Wilner developed quarterlifecrisis.com, an online forum for QLC'ers that is already 10,000 registrants strong. This year, Wilner partnered with Catherine Stocker to create NARG, the National Association of Recent Grads, which they hope will become an AARP for twentysomethings, offering quarterlifers the resources and practical advice they need to navigate the adult worlds of health care, job hunting, finances, and social networking. At the first-ever quarterlife conference, to be hosted by NARG in August in Washington, D.C., self-proclaimed QLC sufferers can attend educational workshops while they enjoy discounts on everything from health insurance to movie tickets.
Now that the idea of the quarterlife crisis has become a recognizable movement (complete with its own sound track, Grammy-winner John Mayer's Room for Squares), one wonders how long it will last. After all, the standard male edition of the midlife crisis spawned endless bad jokes, justified the purchase of countless motorcycles and sports cars, and inspired the growth of many an ill-advised ponytail before its prominence as a concept petered out. Whether or not it actually exists, the quarterlife crisis has undeniably found its way into the ever-evolving cultural conversation about what it means to 'grow up.' Personally, I'm psyched about the discounted movie tickets.
Eliza Thomas is an editorial intern at Utne.