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Quarterlife Qualms

July 17, 2008

Written By: Brittany Holsonback A large, black outline of a flower covers the area on her lower neck as its stem swirls delicately from the petals down her upper back. She ties her brown hair, which usually falls just below her shoulders, back into a ponytail so that she can see the 3 X 2 inch tattoo in her reflection in the mirror. After admiring it for a long time, she lets her hair back down, making sure the tattoo is fully covered, and heads into the next room where her parents are watching TV. Sarah Barton, a senior at Auburn University, is 22 years old and desperately seeking independence from the warm, loving parents who raised her. She is experiencing a quarterlife crisis. And she is not alone. This term, which was coined in 2001 by Abby Wilner and Alexandra Robbins, co-authors of Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties, has become a phenomenon unique to the current generation of twentysomethings. With more than 30 groups devoted to this topic on Facebook alone and almost 10,000 members of quarterlifecrisis.com, it has become a topic that cannot be ignored. Among the questions being raised are (1) why is this period of self-discovery, anxiety, and introspection unique to twentysomethings today, and (2) what is different about the issues twentysomethings face now as opposed to those our parents faced in the 60s and 70s? One answer might be the value of a college education, which has decreased a great deal for the current generation of twentysomethings. In her 2005 article for ABC News titled "Quarterlife Crisis Hits Many in Late 20s: Settling on a Real, Grown-Up Job is Harder for a New Generation of College Grads," Keturah Gray touches on this idea. In the article, she points out that "a college education doesn't deliver the same promises that it once did -- with a 53 percent increase in enrollment since 1970, the qualified competition for a job has intensified. Attaining a decent standard of living today requires a college degree -- to reach the level that their parents have achieved often requires a professional degree." Nevertheless, graduate school is not always an ideal option. Gray explains that many twentysomethings cannot bare the thought of racking up more debt by taking out student loans for fear that even after obtaining a graduate degree they will continue to struggle to find a decent job. Another answer to why the quarterlife crisis affects the current generation of twentysomethings can be tied to our parents' overprotective tendency to shelter and coddle us a lot more now than their parents did before them. "We've been so protected that once we're exposed to the indifference of the ‘real world' it's almost as if we want to retreat back into the womb," said Frank Bologna, co-founder of Quarterlives.com. "College didn't prepare us for this. And our parents didn't really prepare us for this." As a result of this coddling more and more twentysomethings, including Bologna, 27, are opting to put off the real world for another few years by moving back in with their parents in an effort to cut costs in the face of mounting debt. The pressures and responsibilities that come along with the real world are often what lead twentysomethings into their own quarterlife crisis. It's a difficult transition when legally and technically you are an adult, but inside you still feel like a kid. "It's quite common to feel that you're being thrust into adulthood without ever having been asked whether or not that was appropriate or just plain okay," said Jeff Milone, 27, founder of Quarterlives.com. "It's like, ‘Man, I didn't ask to be an adult. Why am I in this situation? And I don't feel like one. I still feel like I'm in high school or like I want to recapture that feeling of being in college again.'" This is a common theme among twentysomethings who visit Quarterlife.com in order to work through their crises. Another commonality among these quarterlifers is a feeling of isolation and loneliness. "It's a common misconception among twentysomethings that they're going through [the quarterlife crisis] alone, which is absolutely not the case," said Milone. "I'm surprised everyday at the amount of people who come to me and say that they've been going through this for so long, thinking they were the only ones." Indeed, lately it seems as if everywhere you look people are talking about the quarterlife crisis. From the Internet-based TV show "Quarterlife," about a group of twentysomethings in the midst of their crises, to the film "Into the Wild," which follows a twentysomething male from his comfortable middle-class life to the wilderness in Alaska, to John Mayer's hit song "Why Georgia," which touches on his own quarterlife experience, this concept is gradually making its way to the forefront of society. However, since the quarterlife experience is different for everyone, it is not something that can be described in concrete, black-and-white terms. While some people, like Bologna, would say that they have never experienced the crisis, Milone believes otherwise. "I think it's just a matter of degree. Everyone asks themselves introspective questions at some point, like not only what they want to do with their lives but also who they are," he said. "And I think it's just the degree of introspection that varies." Also, while the crisis may hit one twentysomething at a difficult time in his life, it may hit another when everything is going really well. This complicates the crisis even more, as Bologna says that the plethora of options available to twentysomethings may in fact be partly responsible for the anxiety that goes along with the quarterlife crisis. "I've noticed that with a lot of my friends, they're finishing school, but they have so many things they want to do that they can't make a decision. And it's that indecision that kind of prevents them from making any decision at all," said Bologna. "They're afraid that if they make the wrong decision they are going to be screwed up for the rest of their lives. For some reason we've been convinced that if we don't choose right we're damned forever." So, where does all of this pressure come from? Many psychologists, including Meena Lambha, a graduate teaching assistant for developmental psychology at Auburn University, would argue that it is society - especially older adults - that inadvertently projects certain pressures and societal expectations onto twentysomethings today. In fact, one could argue that society's contribution to the onset of the quarterlife stem from the pressures that come from societal norms, such as when you are supposed to finish college, get a stable job, get married, have children, and generally grow up. "Just before my 23rd birthday I started to realize that I'm not where I'd planned to be by 23," said Anne Marie Loiselle, a senior at Roger Williams University. "When I was in high school I was certain I would be married or at least engaged by my 23rd birthday. And that hasn't happened to me yet." Although the realization that the direction of your life is falling short of your expectations is common to the quarterlife crisis, it is possible that society is party to blame. Along with the changing role of both men and women in our society, there is also the pressure of a woman's biological clock, which can lead to feelings of disappointment with the reality of life. "Women now face many of the pressures of men, like having a career, and they still have the pressures of motherhood," said Damian Barr, British author of Getting It Together: Surviving Your Quarterlife Crisis. "Men, conversely, are being downwardly squeezed by feminism and struggling to find new roles. I suggest men and women need to work together to combat this crisis." It is clear that this is not an issue unique to either sex, as both men and women deal with different characteristics and symptoms of the crisis. Many of these symptoms can also be accredited to another aspect of society: the effect that the Internet and reality TV are having on twentysomethings. Although Barr points out the positive aspects, like how the Internet has given twentysomethings an opportunity and an outlet to talk about their woes and to share resources, he maintains that it also contributes to our culture's continuous exaltation of the micro-celebrity. This relatively new idea of being able to get rich overnight adds to the pressures among twentysomethings to hurry up and be successful. From "American Idol" to YouTube, twentysomethings are constantly being bombarded by images and stories of young successful people, which undoubtedly add to the feelings of impatience in our own lives. "We're living in the age of reality TV in which we see all these people that are famous simply for being famous, such as Paris Hilton, who has a lot of money without having done anything," said Bologna. "More and more people our age are seeing and hearing these stories of young people becoming millionaires without having to do anything for it." This fact has brought about the changing image of a millionaire or billionaire. While this image used to be of an old guy who worked really hard for what he had, it is now of a regular twentysomething who appeared on a reality TV show and became an instant celebrity. "It could be anyone. That's the illusion it gives. It could be you; it could be me. And you start to wonder what's taking us so long to achieve this? If other people can do this, why can't we?" said Bologna. "I think on a subconscious level these success stories get to us, and they might be one of the reasons why we have this sudden impatience to hurry up and be successful." On the other hand, not all twentysomethings crave this kind of overnight success, and for those who do Barr provides a rational solution. "I think we must rise above it," he said. "Not everyone can be a pop star or a movie star, and the sooner you realize it the better." This kind of logic fits in perfectly with the quarterlife experience, as the crisis is all about realizations. Like the midlife crisis, the quarterlife crisis is a time when you realize you aren't necessarily where you thought you would be at your age. However, in your midlife you may feel like it's too late to do anything about it, but in your quarterlife you feel like you still have time. "I had planned my life very carefully," said Loiselle. "I know that's weird, but year by year I realized things weren't going to work out as I planned, and just recently the feeling of not meeting those expectations kind of overwhelmed me." There is something to be said about this correlation between the quarterlife crisis and the midlife crisis. Many people, including Barr and Milone, believe that if you really go through the quarterlife crisis on a deep or profound level, you might be able to escape another crisis in your midlife. Still others, like Loiselle, predict a lifetime of uncertainty and doubt. "I'm assuming I'll have this feeling throughout my life," she said. "Feeling like you don't know where your life is going, or where you'll be tomorrow, or that you're not on track with where you should be, that's normal, right?" While the discussion of what is or isn't normal could go on forever, the quarterlife crisis should be of some interest to people of all ages. Children and teenagers will eventually reach this difficult time of transition and introspection while twentysomethings are dealing with these issues everyday. So why should adults who are past this stage - 30 years old and above - care about quarterlife issues and especially the crisis? For one thing, people should be interested insofar as it may be something that their children experience once they reach their twenties, and they should have some understanding of what their children are going to go through. Like many other twentysomethings, Loiselle says that her parents don't understand at all. "I tried to tell my mom how I've been feeling, but she basically just blew me off," she said. "I don't think she was trying to be mean or anything; she just didn't know what to say to me." This is a common problem between twentysomethings and their parents. However, what about those adults who don't have children? "Knowing some of the symptoms and other behavioral issues may raise a flag in the minds of these individuals, which would allow them to assist those who are experiencing a quarterlife crisis in getting the mental health assistance that they might need," said Lambha. Beyond this, there are many people who believe that the quarterlife crisis, despite the terminology, is not necessarily unique to twentysomethings. In fact, it may just be an overall feeling that follows you throughout your life. "There are a lot of unique experiences that happen in your twenties that make the quarterlife crisis kind of unique to us, but I think that at its core, it's something that transcends," said Milone. "The type of introspection and questioning that happens is something that transcends age, gender, and, well, everything. I think it's something that can happen at anytime, and it has often manifested itself in the form of a midlife crisis, which may be nothing more than a deferred quarterlife crisis." Despite the struggles involved with the quarterlife crisis, websites like Quarterlives.com are striving to help twentysomething move past their troubles and grow from their experiences. This website, and other forums like it, are not meant simply to be a place to vent and complain, but aim to be productive instead. "What's very convenient about the Internet is it creates a forum where a lot of people can get together, bitch and moan, and not really achieve anything, so that the whole reason for your complaining is never really solved," said Bologna. "Jeff's intention, as well as mine, is to do something that gets to the core of why we're feeling this way. And the way to do that, of course, is to get out of your own head and communicate with other people." This is just one of the many ways in which twentysomethings are adamantly attempting to overcome their quarterlife struggles. Another of these is that it is always important to be proactive when dealing with any major transition in life. "I've been trying to focus on everything I have accomplished, like graduating first in my class, and I just accepted a job offer so that alleviated a lot of the concern in my life," said Loiselle. "I'm still stressed about finding a place to live, but I'm more at peace with the decisions I'm making. I just try to keep reminding myself that everything happens for a reason and that things will work out for the best, even if I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel right now." No matter how you choose to deal with the struggles involved with your quarterlife crisis, it is important to remember that this can also be a wonderful time in your life. "It's a period of introspection and doubt a lot of time, but it's also a beautiful time, too. It's a period of self-discovery when you find out a lot about who you are and what you really want out of life," said Milone. "And I've noticed that a lot of people come out of this period feeling almost liberated. They're very self-aware. And I think it's a really wonderful thing." She stares at her reflection in the mirror. The long white gown, the sheer white veil, the bouquet of white roses, and the diamond ring on her left ring finger all glare back at her. A chill runs through her body and she shivers as she slowly backs away from the stranger in the mirror. She opens the door to the back of the church, and vanishes into the night. Mallory Adams, a recent graduate of the University of Dallas, is 22 years old, and has been stuck in a patterned relationship with her high school boyfriend for as long as she can remember. Finally realizing that she has no idea who she is, she decides to leave the only life she has ever known. Adams is experiencing a quarterlife crisis. She is not alone, and neither are you.

What Do You Do?

June 26, 2008

How do you answer the question "What do you do?" It's a decidedly quarterlife question. Until your mid-20s, most people go on the assumption that you are a student (an annoying assumption for those of us who didn't take the collegiate route), and thus the question need not be asked. But during your post-graduate age, whenever you go out to parties, or bars, or leave your apartment at all, the question inevitably gets asked, "What do you do?" Now, that's all well and good if you are doing something. It can be easily deflected by those of us who are in careers that we enjoy - "I'm a graphic designer," or "I'm a teacher," or "I sell kidneys on the black market." However, if you find yourself approaching, in, or just exiting your quarterlife crisis, this little question can be another foot in the hole that is the crisis. It's not that the question is inherently offensive; it's a standard ice breaker, getting-to-know-you, make-a-first-impression question. If someone is asking it in a romantic situation, it can be a tool to size you up - "Am I going to have to work while this loser plays Wii all day?" Mostly, though, the question is used to get a grasp of who you are so that the following inane chit-chat can have a direction. I hate this question. It is utterly pointless on multiple levels. If someone isn't really interested in getting to know me, then I feel no need to define myself for him or her. If someone is interested in getting to know me, there are far more interesting things about me than "what do you do?" I work at a furniture store (note: I did not say, "I'm a furniture salesperson"), and the people I sell things to all provide for themselves in some way. Do I care how? Not really. My concern is more along the lines of, "What problem do you have that I can find a solution for?" (By the way, we are a very different kind of furniture company!). Overall, I want to know about their needs more than their jobs. By learning about a person's needs, I get a more complete understanding of who that person is than any "what do you do" question could provide me. Of course, the answer to this question in times of crisis can bring up the inner quarterlife monster, who responds with a resounding "NOTHING!" It's a constant, forced introspection, a reevaluation of where you are in life. If, like many of us, you are in a crappy entry-level job in a field you hate, a graduate program that seems to go on forever, or unemployed, your response to this question echoes in your head, "I am a failure." Except that you're not. Sure, we all have unfulfilled potential and life may not have gone the way we intended (If it did, call me! I know some doctoral students who would love to study you.). It's realizing that what you "do" may not be defining who you "are." I've always wanted to do something inspiring that changed the world. I wanted to make a difference. My crisis made me doubt my relevance in the world. So, when people would ask me, "What do you do?" I didn't have a response. Sometimes the answer was, "nothing." Sometimes I embellished the most recent part-time, temporary project I had in order to make myself feel better about not having what I thought was a good enough answer. Ultimately, that is the issue: having a good enough answer, not for the person asking, but for yourself. It took a long time for me to come to terms with not having an answer at all. Now my answer changes all the time. Sometimes it is related to my work, and other times it is an element of who I am. Sometimes I am a contributor to a fabulous new website and other days I'm a semi-professional opera singer. I think that we all need to keep reminding ourselves about the parts of who we are that matter, and not get stuck on the parts that the world wants to matter, because, in the end, you're the only person to whom you have to answer.

McJob

April 22, 2008

Written By: Allison Whalen What came first, the job or the crisis? With the exception of the very rich, the particularly lucky, or those Bobby Fisher brainiac anomalies, most of us quarter-lifers don't have much to brag about in the way of job experience. We've all done our fair share of empty-headed labour, whether selling over-priced, ill-fitting, cotton garments, dunking frozen potatoes into a grease-spattering tub, or answering a front-desk phone in a peppy, little voice that secretly wants to stab every caller with a sharp pencil. These types of work (and so many more) can be neatly categorized as "McJobs", a term coined by the godfather of the quarter-life crisis, author Douglas Coupland. In Generation X, his sizzlin', pink novel that swept multiple nations in the early nineties, Coupland describes the "McJob" as a "...low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one." Sound familiar? If you haven't read the book (get on that shit), it follows the lives of three quarter-lifers who have more or less run away from the Real World into the responsibility-less land of Palm Springs, to picnic in abandoned neighbourhoods and to lounge by kidney-shaped pools with nail polish and cappuccino. Not too shabby. Each character lives in respective bungalows and works a part-time McJob, two of them as bartenders and one as a retail counter cutie selling thousand dollar purses to the old ladies who can afford them. The book serves as a mini-escape for the twenty-something reader (especially to a fellow Real World escapee, alone in a dorm room on a cold, winter night in Ontario), as the balmy, surreal setting within the book complements its physical layout, replete with slogans, amusing info-bites, comics and other tasty treats. It's a welcome form of entertainment - a grown-up book with pictures! But the best part is that while it was written over fifteen years ago, it still manages to be relatable - so much so that it's a little scary. How many times have you or I twirled pencils or doodled our names in "veal-fattening pens" - what Coupland calls cubicles - feeling like a wilted piece of lettuce with flickering, fluorescent light bulbs for eyeballs? Alternatively, can't we also identify with a job serving booze to belligerent barflies or aged lushes who snipe on the young men behind the counters (we call 'em cougars up north)? Sometimes it's hard to tell whether Coupland is criticizing this kind of work, or if he simply sees it as an irritating but necessary rite of passage that can allow for a heady escape from the soulless, nine-to-five-zombie, downward spiral. Despite Coupland's potential opinion (which may very well have changed some two decades later), here's what I'm wondering: IS the McJob a rite of passage that we all must go through in our early twenties, whether it's a means of getting through University, raising a family, or supporting any number of recreational addictions? Or can we somehow slip through the system, fly through a shimmering loophole, and be able to achieve some sort of satisfaction in our work, conveniently skipping the grease burns, veal-fattening pens, door-to-door knife selling (as Jerry Seinfeld says, "I need a knife that can cut through a shoe!"), etc.? My answer to this is, well, I'm not really sure. The grinder in me tends to buck up and lean towards the "It builds character!" side of the fence when I think about how much I learned about interpersonal communication and customer service, not to mention a worldly knowledge of leather, fleece, and the dollar bills folks will shell out for Olympic gear (I had a McJob in a Canadian goods store that sold official Olympic gear. It also had its own radio station that would not only play the same garbage songs every single day, but would also shock us employees with a faceless, deep-voiced announcer who would pipe up every eight songs and say things like "We're warming you up like a hot cup o' chocolate!" in the middle of July). I may have gained blisters and grudges, but working with the public really taught me to deal with people - the good, the bad, and the ugly. In my case, the ugly was an angry lady who threw a housecoat at us cashiers on Boxing Day. Fun stuff. The "...but you'll never take my freedom!" side of me, however, is still gritting her teeth over the time a boss came to my office McJob with a pile of sticky objects and a tube of Goo-Gone, asking me to see what I could do. Those humiliating moments are tough on the quarter-lifer's soul, as we pick at linty glue with our nails, realizing that no one in HR cares that we earned an A+ on our American Lit paper last year, or even that we can walk around without crashing into things or breathe with our mouths closed. So, I ask you: do we need these McJobs to get us through our quarter-life crises, or do they only add to them?

Into The Wild: A Quarterlife Crisis

March 20, 2008

Into The Wild, A Quarterlife CrisisI expected I would like this movie. A middle class twentysomething college graduate, dissatisfied with life, abandons his possessions, and hitchhikes his way to Alaska to live in the wilderness. And it's a true story. Sign me up. The main character is Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch. After a brief preamble, he embarks on his journey with the only goal being - reach Alaska. As an audience, we are quickly made aware that he will eventually make it there, as the film often "flashes forward" to a parallel narrative of his experiences living in the Alaskan wilderness. Right off the bat, there are moments that are shockingly real. The graduation ceremony with so many students, you can't even see who's who. The celebratory family dinner interrupted by noisy college kids. The subtle passive-aggressive comments from the parents. As the film unfolds, Chris's expedition across America is peppered with experiences and encounters that teach us more about him, and why he is making his quest. It quickly becomes evident that the primary motive behind Chris's break from civilized society stems from disillusion with his parents. While a lot of quarterlifers have a conflicted relationship with their parents, Chris's boarders on militant. He blames them for placing too much value on material things, for "living a lie," and for influencing him to do the same. It's an issue that never really gets resolved. The audience is left wondering where all the hostility comes from - perhaps more accurately, why he can't let go of it, and how he could put his parents though the hell of losing their son to this journey. I am thankful for the sister's narration which is injected throughout the film, and serves as a voice for Chris's family. Through her monologues, we learn that while Chris is undergoing "rebirth," his family is struggling to understand why he disappeared. Their lives are torn apart as they wonder what went wrong. As a viewer, I found myself asking the same questions. Chris's motives are only lightly questioned over the course of the film, until he befriends an old man in Arizona who asks a few of the tough questions the audience is undoubtedly wondering about. Despite his efforts during some of the film's most powerful scenes, the questions remain unanswered. Here is where many people have difficulty with the film. We have a good-looking young man from a financially stable family. He graduated from a good college, and would seem to have every option in life. His parents even offer to buy him a new car as a graduation present. He rejects the car as well as all of the options his education and upbringing afford him. He then proceeds to shun his parents and society as a whole. Some viewers draw the line here - perhaps labeling Chris as a cry-baby who is selfish for making his journey and ignoring those who love him. That thinking is certainly understandable. I found myself feeling the same way about him. His parents, however misguided, love him. What could be so important, that it's worth hurting them so deeply? Then I watched the film a second time. I began to realize that I wanted Chris's story to fit neatly into my expectations. My problem with Chris as a character was that I wanted to see his inner struggle. Lines like "I don't want any more things" (when his parents were going to give him a car), didn't cut it. Where is this pain, this driving force that is making him take such drastic measures? As I watched the film again, I slowly understood that the pain was there. Not a simple outward pain that is easily seen on the surface, but a deep, primal pain that can't really be expressed. And then it hit me - that pain is the very essence of the Quarterlife Crisis. It involves introspection so profound, that it's often inexplicable, even to the person to whom it's happening. And the crisis is nearly impossible for others on the outside to make sense of, because it's almost always masked in the very thing which causes it - stability. Like Chris, many of us are now growing up in an age where our basic needs are being met at a rate never before seen. It's in our parent's nature to provide their children with the best environment possible, so we often grow up having never experienced struggle. But, that's a double edged sword - a sharp one. Being raised in a stable household affords children freedom from worry - worry about having food to eat, a roof over their head, parents to take care of them, etc. They never have to ask themselves questions like, "how will I make a living" or "what should I do with my life?" Many of us now go right to college after high school, thereby delaying the questions even further. Why don't we ask ourselves these questions? Because we don't have to. Why don't we have to? Because struggle hasn't forced us to. That's the message that Into The Wild teaches. Struggle forces us to take action, and those actions are what define who we are. In the film, it is that instinct that drives Chris to strip away all the pieces of his life, go into the wilderness and take part in the primal struggle of life and death - to rebuild himself from the simplest possible beginnings.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." - Henry David Thoreau