The Quarterlife Crisis

While dad is struggling to ride his new Harley-Davidson and cope with the fact that he is “over the hill” and only getting older, he may not realize that his twenty-something child is battling their own crisis.

While many are familiar with the midlife crisis, few are aware of the quarterlife crisis experienced during the transition into adulthood. On the outside, graduating seniors appear happy and calm. But on the inside most are screaming. The anxiety of finding a job and entering the real world is terrifying. Most want to eternally remain the typical crazy college student, pulling all-nighters and meeting friends at Starbucks to discuss a wild weekend.

“The quarterlife crisis is a state of uncertainty and anxiety that often accompanies the transition to adulthood,” said Abby Wilner, the woman responsible for coining the phrase and author of The New York Times’ bestseller, “Quarterlife Crisis.”

It is the compilation of an individual’s anxiety and confusion concerning which career path to choose, where to live and all other worries that accompany an unknown future.

The average age range of the quarterlife crisis is between 21 and 35 years old, Wilner said. While some individuals may experience an identity crisis immediately after graduation, others may not feel such anxiety until after they have fully entered the real world, she added.

In 1997, Wilner decided to write the book after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in psychology. Wilner was unable to find a permanent job and had to move back home with her parents. It was her post-college experience that motivated her to write about this major life transition. She said she found it strange that most people seemed to overlook it.

“I know that it is normal to experience anxiety as a twenty-something, and readers of the book are relieved to know they are not alone,” Wilner said.

The QLC has become a recent buzzword, and since the success of her first book, Wilner has released other books with the help of co-authors Alexandra Robbins and Catherine Stocker.

GW is taking its own steps to help make the process easier. Barbara J. Brown, associate director of the University Counseling Center, said it is normal to have both excitement and uneasiness about entering a new phase in your life, but some students experience such extreme anxiety that it affects their attitude and behavior, she said.

“The degree of anxiety experienced by a significant amount of individuals leads almost to paralysis in terms of taking the next step after graduation,” Brown said.

Brown said she has witnessed bright students become extremely depressed. The students’ behavior changes as they attempt to sabotage their ability to move forward in life. These students stop going to classes and do what they can to ensure they don’t graduate. Brown encourages students to remember prior successful transitions they have made.

For several years, Brown has tried to create a senior-in-transition group that would meet around the end of junior year and the beginning of senior year to discuss student concerns in order to prevent them from getting out of control.

A student cannot be helped until their anxiety is successfully reduced, Brown said. Their attitudes must be changed from, “I can’t handle this,” to “I’ve done this before and I can do it again.”

Getting students to focus on the present is a useful tool, Brown said. Being too future-oriented could result in a fear of the unknown, while focusing on the past may result in depression. Thinking more about the here and now is the best way to prevent both negative outcomes.

Helen Lapedes, a senior, admits she may have experienced a mild quarterlife crisis this spring when she realized how open-ended her future was.

“Since I have pretty much had my life fairly planned out for me up until now, not knowing what I would be doing in a month was really stressful,” she said.

Lapedes plans to either attend graduate school or join the Peace Corps after graduation. She believes her anxiety to this point has been mild and her quarterlife crisis may be more severe once she completes graduate school or the Peace Corps.

“I still feel like I am young enough to kind of get away with avoiding real life, but when I actually have to figure out what I want to do with my life long term, I’m definitely going to have a crisis of some sort,” she said.

While the QLC may be a recent craze, Wilner said she thinks the phase has existed as long as people have adjusted from school to work and experienced the transition to adulthood.

There are factors that make it unique for twenty-somethings today. For instance, the average age of adulthood is getting older and older. Advances in technology and the constant exposure of today’s generation to the global economy and global competition contribute to the condition. Brown said youth today are exposed to more stimulating and frightening phenomena. This exposure then creates greater levels of anxiety that other generations did not experience.

Also, a person’s parents typically support them until their mid-20s, so it can be terrifying once that familiar support system is gone, said Brown.

One day Lapedes would be excited about all her opportunities and then the next day she would freak out about the future.

“I really wished that I had some kind of direction in my life or something that I knew I wanted to do, but at the same time, I didn’t feel ready to commit to anything,” Lapades said.

No matter what current graduates choose to do after graduation, whether it is traveling, working, or graduate school, many picture the future as a scary unknown. The QLC becomes another life test to see if they can handle the real world.

Lapedes has started to relate her life to the 1994 movie “Reality Bites.” At the beginning of the movie, one of the characters asks his friend what he wants out of his degree. He replies, “Um, like a career or something.”

“This is pretty much how I have been feeling at this point,” she said.

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