Transcending the Quarterlife Crisis

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,
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.

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