For more than a decade, there has been a sharp increase in the number of individuals in their twenties and thirties who are experiencing an existential crisis. They have reported feeling numb, like a bystander in their own life; questioning the deeper meaning of life; not being clear about their adult identity; and wanting a sense of purpose. It is more common for people to go through this during their midlife crisis. However, a midlife crisis is usually triggered by a sense of one's own mortality.
In 2001, Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner coined this phenomenon as a quarterlife crisis. Their book was a tremendous tool for bringing this subject into public awareness. The book presented the different issues that people in their twenties face but did not address how to deal with them. Furthermore, they did not explain why the quarterlife crisis was occurring. Also, the quarterlife crisis is not something that is relegated to your twenties. In fact, many individuals in their thirties are also experiencing a life that is not congruent with their perceptions of what they had thought.
Therefore, what conditions have caused this phenomenon? First, I will explore the term quarterlife crisis. Then I will propose my theory on the psychological rationale, historical influences, and modern day conditions that have brought about this phenomenon to occur. Last, I will offer a direction on how to navigate through this important stage of life.
The quarterlife crisis can be viewed through a psychological framework. Erik Erickson, a renowned developmental psychologist, theorized that people developed psychosocially through eight different stages. Each stage is signified by a conflict between two opposing phenomenon. Once the struggle is resolved, a person acquires a particular virtue. If a person does not fully resolve the conflict within a stage, that virtue becomes an ongoing issue that persists throughout subsequent stages or until it gets resolved. The following are Erickson's stages, elements of crisis, and virtue:
Using Erickson's model, the quarterlife crisis can be seen as reviewing the developmental task of late adolescence. The task of securing one's identity was not sufficiently accomplished during adolescence; therefore, the young adult continues to struggle with identity issues. This is partially due to the culture of modern day America. Currently there is no system or structure that determines when an adolescent becomes and adult. Furthermore, there is a lack of proper role models and community involvement. Therefore, adolescents are rushed to grow up and pushed into the next stage without a foundation of what it means to be an "adult". Distinctive in the late adolescence stage is the psychosocial moratorium. Erickson described it as:
A period of free experimentation before a final identity is achieved. Their experimentation with new role, values, and belief systems results in a personal conception of how they can fit into society so as to maximize their personal strengths and gain positive recognition from the community. (Newman & Newman, 2003, p. 357)
In the United States, the moratorium is not nationally recognized so young adults are often criticized for being indecisive or naive. However, this period is essential because without it, a person is forced to make hasty decisions. Individuals in a quarterlife crisis are instinctively drawn towards a moratorium because they were previously not given the proper time or space to wander and explore. Therefore, some will create their own moratorium by job-hopping, serial dating, traveling, or living in a new area. Its duration can vary from a few months to several years. Pressuring them will only exacerbate the struggle and can lead to prolonged anxiety. Therefore, honoring a person's own sense of timing and space is invaluable during this personal endeavor. The end of the moratorium is usually signaled by the discovery and declaration of one's identity and purpose.
The virtue that is obtained at the cessation of late adolescence is fidelity, which is the quality of loyalty, faithfulness, and dependability. As a teenager, fidelity is expressed and directed towards other people, such as, with friends, family, or groups. In the case of the quarterlife crisis, a person is claiming fidelity, not to others but to themselves and to their inner-truth. They are determined to declare an adult identity that is more congruent with their true self.
For thousands of years, humans have naturally matured through all of the stages in life. In modern society, we have lost touch with this organic cycle. However, by looking at nature-based cultures we can recover some of these time-honored traditions. In Nature and the Human Soul, Bill Plotkin (2008) illustrated The Eight Stages of Eco-Soulcentric Human Development as follows. Below are the Erickson psychosocial stages, equivalent eco-soulcentric names, and prominent gifts:
From this model, a person who is in a quarterlife crisis would fall under the fifth stage that is aptly named, "The Wanderer in the Cocoon". This name emphasizes the moratorium that Erikson pointed out.
To enter into adulthood, the adolescent must go through a rite of passage. One particular rite is the vision quest, an initiation ritual performed by many Native American tribes. It is important to understand a vision quest within the context of the community. Without the support and guidance of the initiated adults, this rite of passage would not be as significant and powerful. Before entering adulthood, an adolescent leaves their tribe and wanders alone into the wilderness in search of a vision. This vision will signify the path that will lead them throughout their adult life. Traditionally, vision quests last several days or until a vision appears. Even though the particulars of a vision quest may be different among tribes, there are some common elements that include wandering, fasting, solitude, and seeking a vision. Each of these elements is crucial in helping the adolescent find their true self. Once the adolescent receives their vision, they return to their tribe and are re-incorporated as a newly initiated adult. This ritual provides meaning and sacredness onto this momentous stage of life.
Currently there is no nationally recognized rite of passage in the United States. Instead, privileges are given once a certain age is reached. In most states, at age 16, a person can get a driver's license; at age 18 a person can vote; and at age 21, a person can drink alcohol. However, there is no consensus as to what constitutes adulthood. Examining nature-based societies can help us an example of how to designate adolescents from adults.
Modern Day Conditions
Modern America seems far from the idea of instituting moratoriums and rites of passage to determine a person's identity. Instead, the culture appears to promote the idea that a person's sense of self be closely associated through one's job, spouse, or lifestyle. This mentality may have sufficed a few generations ago, however, these institutions are showing their limitations.
For several generations, people's identities were closely associated with their jobs. Therefore, the idea of a rite of passage may have shifted into a career development model. The career model neglects the significance of adolescents finding their own identity and replaces it with mastering a professional trade. Often a child would start their career in the same industry as their parent. They would begin as an apprentice then advance to a craftsman, artisan, and finally become a master. The child would have a mentor along the way to teach and pass along the knowledge and responsibility of each level. However, with the advancement of technology, new industries have arisen without any mentors to pass along the trade. Therefore, this model seems to becoming outdated. Furthermore, most Americans spend more time at their jobs than anywhere else. Therefore, there is a sense that our jobs "should" be meaningful. However, closely identifying one's true identity with their occupation can be troublesome. Recently, many long-standing institutions have been crumbling in their credibility. For example, the Enron scandal, collapse of financial institutions, and massive layoffs across industries has created little faith in the legitimacy of the corporate world. Also, company loyalty no longer is a valued commodity as high profile CEOs switch routinely bouncing from one corporation to another. Furthermore, corporations are not as stable as before; long time workers are being laid off after decades of dedicated service. Therefore, work is providing less fulfillment and meaning in people's lives.
Another way people identified themselves is through their relationships. Marriage has been a respected tradition for recognizing one of the most important relationships. However, the idea that marriage as a sacred institution is being challenged by an increasing rate of divorces, extra marital affairs, and spousal abuse. Many young adults have first-hand experience growing up in these types of homes. Furthermore, more people in their twenties and thirties are going through their own martial problems and divorces. In addition, the definition and rights of marriage are being challenged in the highest courts of law. Therefore, relationships also do not seem to be a secure place to stake one's identity.
America's culture of consumerism and materialism has promoted the idea that identity can be bought. As a result, many Americans strive to live a lifestyle beyond their means. There is also a mentality that it is better to look rich than to be rich. However, living an extravagant lifestyle does not seem to lead towards happiness. For example, reality TV shows, portray of rich and famous celebrities who lead dysfunctional lives. Also big lottery winners tend to return to the same level of happiness they had before their win. Therefore, fame and wealth do not seem to provide meaning and substance. At the other end of the spectrum, with the rising cost of living and poor economy, young adults are finding it difficult to reach the standard of living of their parents. This was not the case a generation ago, when children were able to earn a higher standard of living than their parents. Over the past several decades, housing prices have skyrocketed, making owning a home virtually impossible with one income. Therefore, raising a family requires more than one income and often someone else to raise the children. These examples suggest that identity cannot be secured through a certain type of lifestyle either.
What To Do? The Answer is Simple but the Process is Difficult
With the current landscape of society, individuals in their twenties and thirties are struggling to find their identity and purpose. There is little faith that an identity can be confirmed through a job, relationship, or lifestyle. The lack of role models and rite of passages make it even more challenging. Therefore, the question is what to do. Fortunately, the answer is simple: discover your inner truth. However, the process in discovering oneself may not be that simple. The methods I have found most effective in self-discovery are ones that help quiet down outside influences in order to listen one's innermost thoughts and feelings. Life coaching, therapy, and vision quests are a just a few avenues that facilitate self-awareness at a deep level. As an individual becomes more secure with their identity and purpose, it is much easier for them to then decide the type of career, partner, and lifestyle they truly want. Most importantly, these processes will continue to provide further growth and insight that an individual can use for the rest of their life.