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Rife, it’s the Quarter-Life October 5, 2006

Posted by earthlingconcerned in quarter-life crisis.

Tyler: My dad never went to college, so it was really important that I’d go.
Sounds familiar.
So I graduate, I called him a long distance and asked: “Dad, now what?”, he says “Get a job”.
Same here.
When I turned twenty five, my yearly call again “Dad, now what?”, he says “I don’t know, get married!”
Jack: I
can’t get married, I’m a thirty-year-old boy!
Fight Club

Growing up, I was always aware of a something called the mid-life crisis. The idea was and remains simple. As people approach their 40s and 50s, they often conclude that everything they’ve ever dreamed of is not being realized, that the invincibility of youth is fading away, and that there’s no better time than now to make the most of it before the platter of experiences empties before their eyes. So go ahead, buy the fancy new sports car, and run away with the secretary (or the pool boy for that matter) is what may be rationalized. But does this crisis actually exist? Studies (Baruch, 1984) have shown that women in their 20s were more likely to be uncertain and dissatisfied than were women at midlife. It suggested that normative developmental milestones such as marriage, childbirth, or menopause were rarely part of any major stress in the life of those studied. Instead, it was found that traumatic, unexpected events that have little to do with age, such as divorce and job transfers were the primary contributors to middle age stress. frustration.jpgIt’s been suggested that the a midlife crisis may not even exist in the way it’s commonly thought of today; that it is instead a blend of expectations prevalent in the population and general problems of psychopathology that may have always existed within the individual.

So what you have today is a generation of baby boomers growing up with the notion that at some point in their 50s, something will click and a crisis will have to be discovered and ultimately resolved. This expectation may be comforting to some. It’s another piece of predictive information that might assist those less sure of themselves. The idea is that if something is supposed to happen, it might as well. It takes the onus off any dissatisfying aspect of life and puts the blame onto age, on biology, instead of on one’s own self. It clumps a group of individuals, based on age, into a category that seemingly excuses themselves to act in accepted mid-life ways.

In regards to putting people into categories based on age, let me introduce to you one Erik Erikson, one of the most renowned developmental psychologists of the 20th century. Some time ago, he came up with the eight stages of psychological development. With this, he broke down the life of a human being into the following stages:


The mid-life crisis can easily be seen as a transition from adulthood into old age. Simply put, it’s denying the inevitability of aging. But if the mid-life crisis is indeed a myth, and that it occurs (in the typical pop-culture sense) only too those left unsatisfied in life up until that point, why is there so much talk about it? I would say Erikson’s model makes sense to me (using whatever knowledge I’ve gained in the first 24 years of my life), but I also believe that only a smidgen of it can be accepted universally. To me, and please accept that I am forcibly biased due to my age, I would like to suggest that there is one stage that continues to be neglected as a whole. During the early stages of the adulthood, there is a quarter-life crisis that remains largely ignored.

Up until that stage of one’s life, providing the preceding generation has done their job, there is a guiding hand that promotes a typical growth. The rules and restrictions one is prescribed after birth until their adolescence seems routine, if not government sponsored. Kindergarten turns into elementary school, which is followed by high school, and then, if all remains fine and dandy, there is a post secondary education. Throughout all of this, one receives an adequate guiding hand as to what one should expect next. However, all along, it is suggested that this is simply a training phase for something called the real world. So after 5/8th of your developmental cycle as a human is laid out for you, it’s up to you to decide for yourself happens next. I suppose this is what youth wants all along. Until the age of adulthood is reached, the desire to be granted the freedoms generally associated with the age of majority is of high priority (teenage rebellion, etc.). Once the moment of supposed independence is reached, however, you find yourself tiptoeing at the edge of a plank looking straight into a dark and endless ocean. You understand that there is plenty of opportunity therein, but also begin to wonder about the urgency of jumping from a perfectly good ship. It’s the choice to live in an agonizing limbo or in uncertain independence. Realistically, and rightfully so, everyone has to walk the plank and take the dive into the unknown. This is the beginning of the quarter life crisis (if there is such a thing).

So what characterises this crisis? Wikipedia suggests the following are typical for someone in their mid 20s:

  • confusion of identity
  • insecurity regarding the near future
  • insecurity regarding present accomplishments
  • re-evaluation of close interpersonal relationships
  • disappointment with one’s job
  • nostalgia for university or college life
  • tendency to hold stronger opinions
  • boredom with social interactions
  • financially-rooted stress
  • loneliness
  • desire to have children

Many of these bullets seem to blend parts 5 and 6 of Erikson’s psychological development chart rather nicely. This may show that the crisis is of a transitional nature. I would suggest that it is a significant simply because it is the first phase of one’s life where the guiding hand is removed (the degree to which this applies is situation dependant).

In the 1961 classic The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman suggested that there exists three types of drive that can be found in a person (all of which depend on the population growth pattern of a period). Within these three types, there exists unique afrustration.gifmbitions that may or may not have been present in the preceding generation. There is the tradition-directed person, who is said to exist during periods of large population growth with a relatively short lifespan. As the name suggests, this persons drive is one of following tradition, growing up without question providing the world is as it always was.

The next two types of society, the inner-directed, and the other-directed people are of a more modern caste, associated in this case (granted, the book is a wee bit dated) with the western world.These types differ in ambition to a lesser degree. Here are a few quotes that may, vaguely at best, explain the work ambitions for the inner-directed person:

The ambitious note in the inner-directed person’s attitude toward work in the phase of transitional growth of population was expressed in the schoolbook proverb: ad astra per aspera. The stars were far away, but still he aimed from them, in terms of a lifetime of effort. He could afford such a long-term commitment because of the generality of the aim: he wanted money or power or fame or some lasting achievement in the arts or the profession. He wanted to leave a reputation, a memorial, something tangible.

Further down the page, it continues:

As recently as 1920 an American boy of the middle class was not too worried about the problem of committing himself to a career. If he came of a good family, he could count on connections; if not, he could count on the credit of his social–that is, his visibly inner-directed—character. He could dream of long-term goals because the mere problem of career entry and survival was not acute; that he might for long be out of a job did not occur to him. He could orient himself, if he chose a profession, by his daydreaming identification with the stars in his field. A young doctor might think of Osler, a young lawyer of Choate or Elihu Root or Justice Holmes, a young scientist of Agassiz or Pasteur, a young painter or writer of Renoir or Tolstoy. Yet there is often tragedy in store for the inner-directed person who may fail to live up to grandiose dreams and who may have to struggle in vain against both the intractability of the material and the limitation of his own powers. He will be held, and hold himself, to his commitment. Satirists from Cervantes on have commented on this disparity between pursuing the stars and stumbling over the mere earthiness of earth.

The first of the two quotes is more of an outline of what an inner-directed person strives for and the second, one which is more in tune with the overall topic of this article, discusses a potential flaw in realizing the goal. To me, it definitely describes someone who is at a crossroads in their quarter-life. It’s reaching for the sky, not knowing where it is.

Next up, I will throw out a few lines about the ambition of an other-directed person. This time around, similar ambitions are present but the sensitivities of others and the importance of being accepted by all is paramount (think of the politically correctness that has taken place in recent decades):

The inner-directed man, socialized with reference to an older model, might choose for emulation a star from the heroes of his field. By contrast, the other-directed person does not so often think of his life in terms of an individualized career. He seeks not fame, which represents limited transcendence of a particular peer-group or a particular culture, but the respect and, more than the respect, the affection, of an amorphous and shifting, through contemporary, jury of peers.

In regards to how an other-directed person would run a business:

The older men have come up through the shop or through a technical school with no pretensions in the field of human relations. The younger ones are imbued with the new ethic. They seem still to be concerned about making money, and to some extent they are, but they are also concerned with turning their company into the model which they learned at business school.

Basically the other-directed person requires the support and congratulations of his peers before he can move on. He is less independent but subsequently, due to those around him, just as able. But what does all of this really have to do with the questions one faces during the quarter-life? I would suggest that it matters in the sense that a lot of the question marks surrounding a young adult are based on an uncertainty with which road to follow, but also that every generation has a certain newness to it. As a result of this newness, the road you choose may still need to be paved. And so on, and so forth. Providing these aforementioned groupings exist, I should fall into the other-directed category if I understand myself and my surroundings correctly. With that in mind, here’s a little story.

I’ve been feeling the weight of the world pushing down on me in recent months (re: everything I’ve written above) and am more uncertain about what exactly my future holds than I have ever been. Regardless, life goes on. My parable begins with me at a local pub with some friends when a chance encounter puts me face to face with an old high-school acquaintance. He rambles on about how he remembers me as being really smart and how he now regrets putting too much effort into fitting in with the “cool” crowd. He regretted not going to university and seemed rather worried about where his life may be heading. After reassuring him that my university experience had given me little in terms of a direction in life, he mentioned that he had started a landscaping business with a friend. I told him that I was currently only working part-time and that my personal monetary situation had seen better days. We continued on, assuring each other that whatever we were doing was fine and dandy and that was that. What pray tell, is the moral of this rendezvous? Simply that this was an example of other-directed reassurance. If the mid-life crisis is a myth, and that it depends entirely on the state of the person existing in that period, it makes sense to suggest that the quarter-life crisis is in the same boat. Assurances like these may just need to come from the outside to keep the modern adult content. Many of the characteristics taken from Wikipedia (see above) about the quarter-life crisis can be resolved with a little bit of outside assurance. In the eye of the beholder, that sort of thing. Granted, this sort of praise won’t answer any of the larger questions, but they do take a lot of the pressure away. A remedy for the glaucoma that is life.

So I think of Erik Erikson and his 8 stages of life and realize that I’m in one of them. Possibly, one of the tougher ones. I scan through the quarter-life crisis characteristics and see myself. But realize, based on interactions with others, that I am no more alone, or insecure, or stressed, or bored, or nostalgic, or confused than any one of my peers. I am just part of the lonely crowd. There will always be someone who is more accomplished in certain aspects of life, someone who is less, someone who seems to have it all figured out, someone who seems to have given up. There will always be some aspects of all of that within everyone. If advancing beyond young adulthood is like learning a new language, so be it, time to learn it.



1. Barrett - October 6, 2006

The idea came to me last night so I wanted to comment on why this may be and may have been for quite sometime but recieves no press. It’s the nature of the condition that makes it less likely to be picked up and addressed. Almost everyone comes out of the quarter-life crisis alive and most aren’t hurt. A mid-life crisis on the otherhand whether fictional or fact or still in exisitance is a great idea to promote. The mid-life crisis is a consumer generating condition, buying the car, doing stuff etc etc but it can also disrupt many lives with the affairs that may or may not happen while trying to obtain youth. The fact that it is such an economical condition makes it perfect for advertising and promoting the need that each and every person will go through this period of short sighted spending. Just an idea I had while riding in my car. Both crisises may be real, but one is definantly more profitable and the other is chaulked up by the world by them saying “It’s just growing up.”

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