Caroline Beaton
Source: Caroline Beaton

Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday to Friday sort of dying. — Studs Terkel

Temporarily renting an apartment in Boulder with my boyfriend for his first year of law school, I find myself wanting everything to be permanent. We decide where the books will go, which pots to hang, the feng shui of the bedspread, but it feels all for nothing. We’ll be moving again, back to Denver in a year or three, but I want to know what our life will look like forever.

Not everyone in my generation has my same homing instinct, but most can probably relate to craving being settled: to having decided. We putz from job to job, hunting meaning with fickle passion, and wish for a 50-year fulfilling career syllabus.

The success of my own articles and many others on quarter-life crises reflect our need for decisiveness: Lifehacker’s “How to Overcome Your Quarter-Life Crisis” and Relevant’s “7 Cures to Your Quarter-Life Crisis”, for instance. Of course, if there were a simple crisis protocol, it would be common knowledge, like how to boil eggs. Instead, sometimes the only thing that feels certain and unchanging is a constant state of crisis.

Some studies even suggest that today’s twentysomethings suffer more than did previous generations, says Harvard Business Review. Not only do twenty-somethings report higher levels of negativity and feeling in-between than do other ages; the average age for depression has dropped from age 40 to 50 down to mid-20s. “And it’s expected to drop further,” notes HBR. The Depression Alliance (now merged with Mind.org) estimates that a third of twentysomethings feel depressed.

But we’re not just in crisis younger; we’re in crisis longer. In the 1950s, developmental psychologist Erik Erikson saw the ages 12 through 18 as the stage for asking, “Who am I? Who can I be?”. Today, teens are too busy preparing for college to ask what they’ll be doing afterward and why. These critical identity questions are postponed—until college, until graduating, until our first job, until we’re 25 and asking with more urgency than ever before who we are and what we could mean to the world. In modern “emerging adulthood”—a phase describing the period between ages 18 and 25 characterized by delayed choices and professional confusion—our sense of purpose simmers pathetically, like a watched pot.

According to Erikson, the last question we ask in the final developmental stage of old age is: “Is it okay to have been me?” Today’s twentysomethings may be asking a variation of this 50 years early: “Is it okay to be who I’m about to be?” Despite debilitating student debt and a precarious job economy, millennials feel excuseless; we know our potential has no ceiling.

Take Stanley, a 25-year-old talented, driven employee at a Fortune 200’s headquarters. He could climb the corporate ladder. But to him this prospect, a traditional prestige, is mediocre. “I feel like staying here, even at a good job with great pay and substantial responsibility, would be selling myself short.” So he’s building up a business on the side, all the while wondering if either is the best possible use of his twenties and the best possible use of himself.

Why Quarter-Life Crises Are Different   

While mid- and late-life crises are often triggered by important life events, such as health problems, widowhood, retirement, divorce, or job loss, quarter-life crises often lack provocation. Our career is chugging along per usual when a simple question falls from the sky and shatters our okay routine: “Is this it?”

While later life crises may be distinguished by the realization that we have failed to achieve our goals, quarter-life crises are rooted in the epiphany that we don’t have any goals, or that our goals are wildly unrealistic. One 23-year-old writer explains in the Telegraph,

No one prepares us for the decades’ worth of post-education revelations such as ‘dream jobs’ are pretty hard to come by (but by the way, unemployment isn’t), having a real job is not like an episode of Mad Men and finding ‘the one’ is virtually impossible.

While later life crises typically encompass newfound anxieties aroused by the inevitability of death, quarter-life crises revolve around frustration of perceived lack of life. We don’t want regrets. A survey of 1,000 young people, for example, found that 86% of them felt pressure to succeed in their relationships, finances, and jobs before hitting 30.

The Upside

While traditional life crises often entail a role loss or identity threat, quarter-life crises seem to stem from deficient clarity of either. In consequence, whereas later life crises often result in taking life in a whole new direction, quarter-life crises often result in deciding on a direction.

And this is one reason, despite their maddening disruption, quarter-life crises are a good thing. Amid endless uncertainty around who we are and what we want, crises can be a strangely comforting reminder that nothing is permanent, and the only solution is to keep striving. In a 2005 editorial on mid-life crises, TIME’s Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs writes, “We are living too long and too well to stay settled even in a contented state for more than a few years at a time.”

Millennials say we don’t want to settle, so our crises hold us accountable. As we begin to cozy up to the long haul, our scary-real questions will surface something better.

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