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Gen Y and the Quarter Life Crisis

GenYburnoutGen Y is living proof that being in your 20s is not a piece of cake and crisis does not strike only late in life. Anya Weimann investigates the new age phenomenon called 'QLC'.

Nowadays a tragic trend seems to be crawling beneath the surface of us smart-talking and successful Gen Ys, slightly disturbing the idyllic scenery that draws on the illusion that scoring professional rungs on the board is paramount.

Contrary to popular belief, even the latest edition of our iGeneration is not unbreakable, proofing once more that the ‘rush more philosophy’ often turns out to be less beneficial in the long run.

Halfway through our ‘roaring 20s’ we experience first-hand the great paradox of efficiency: the more we young idealists speed up and climb the corporate ladder, the more we find ourselves suffering from postmodern stress syndromes, including quarter-life crisis (QLC) and burnout.

"Forty-one percent of 20-to-29-year-olds say they feel significantly pressured or almost more stressed than they can bear," explains Alexandra Robbins, author of Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice From Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived. “The overwhelming identity issues of this age can cause a variety of reactions, ranging from intense self-doubt that can spiral into something as serious as a clinical depression to something as subtle as looking at your life as an alleged adult and having a nagging feeling of ‘Is this all there is?’”

New age phenomenon: QLC alert

According to Robbins, QLC is the 20-something version of a midlife crisis, a period of anxiety, uncertainty and inner turmoil that is most likely to strike in our mid-20s or early 30s. “Like the midlife crisis, the Quarterlife Crisis is a response to reaching a turning point in life – in this case, the transition between young adulthood and adulthood,” declares Robbins. “It’s a natural fear of the impending culture shock.” 

Especially in times of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), an unpredictable economy and market meltdowns we 20-somethings increasingly struggle to establish a sense of identity and purpose within our fast changing lives.

Frequently QLC is accompanied by burnout, another nasty side effect from chasing down the dawn. As the name itself predicts, burnout refers to the experience of long-term exhaustion, most likely to strike in situations of increased social pressure with our doubts and frustrations eventually function as chronic stressors that affect our health and general wellbeing.

Young adults beware: Gen Y at high risk for crisis talk

Although the QLC phenomenon is not completely new, we Gen Ys seem to experience anxiety and crisis more acutely than previous generations. Experts believe that the reasons for QLC are to be found within our fast-changing society as we young adults of today are forced to make big decisions earlier in life and mature faster in comparison to Gen X or the baby-boomer generation.

“It’s mainly a consequence of struggling with difficult identity issues of ‘who am I and what should I do with my life,’ especially in times of pressure to have it all,” explains Jeffrey Arnett, research professor of psychology at Clark University, Massachusetts and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From Late Teens Through the Twenties.

Besides, we Gen Ys are also more prone to crisis talk than our predecessors as priorities have shifted within our lives as young adults. These days we tend to value success in the workforce above all else, meaning career and climbing the corporate ladder come now before 'building a nest' and starting a family within.

“The research on views of becoming an adult are consistent across many countries, including Australia: most important is taking responsibility for one’s self, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent,” says Arnett. “Also, many hope to travel and do other interesting and fun things they won’t have the freedom to do later, such as hook up with a series of sexual partners.”

According to the ABS, the average young Australian holds multiple jobs and job-hops up to 7 times before the age of 32 and the average age to get married is now 28, compared to 23 in the 1960s. “The developmental stage of emerging adulthood is becoming longer and longer as the ages of entering marriage and parenthood becomes later and later. Now the median age of marriage is close to 30 in many western countries,” confirms Arnett.

Given the fact that we Gen Ys have more choices and the freedom to explore different options, we consequently experience a longer period of insecurity and transition until we finally become ‘an adult’ and reach the settled-down stage.

Healthy QLC: Personal growth through identity crisis

Although the turmoil of the 20s comes with increased worry, fear of failure and angst for too much responsibility for some, Robbins believes this unsteady transition period can be positive and “healthy.” Even when we find yourself curled up in the foetal position, shuttered by stress and social pressure, the initial crisis and experience of hitting rock-bottom offers opportunity for personal growth before finally settling down.

“I think the Quarterlife Crisis is important and not necessarily a negative phenomenon,” explains Robbins. “Because it signals that this generation is facing down its inner demons and confronting its identity issues before embarking on the path to adulthood.” 

Digging deep down to the root of our crash, we high-flying Gen Ys should use the crisis as a trigger for personal growth, a wakeup call to re-evaluate the way we live our lives. The sole experience of hitting rock bottom can help us recognize some past mistakes, such as wanting too much within too little time, a valuable lecture that leaves us (hopefully) much stronger and wiser than before. 

Off to new ventures: Life through & after QLC

Life-lessons learnt here are that although we are young and innovative during our 20s, we are not superhuman, hard work won’t cure all ills, and even major career highs are nothing but empty achievements without allowing enough time to rewind.

Overall the best defence against QLC and burnout is prevention such as maintaining a healthy balance between work and play, making sure that the priorities in our life are set in a balanced manner so that they do not conflict with one-another.

Other factors that help to keep QLC and burnout at bay are to align personal expectations with reality, to exchange our experiences with fellow peers and to allow us to find fulfilment besides a prospering career.  The key to becoming QLC resistant  living life ‘now,’ meaning we should use our freedom to take on new adventures, to explore all our options and to make mistakes – all facts that present a counter culture to the pressures of our fast-paced, success demanding society.

“My advice would be enjoy it while it lasts!,” declares Arnett. “You’ll never again in your life have so much freedom to live as you wish. And don’t worry so much, almost everyone finds a life partner (if not a soul mate) and a decent job by around age 30.” 

After all the 20s present the prime of our lives, giving us the chance and choice to do ‘something’ with our lives, keeping our shit together to be able to survive turmoil times in up-coming years.

Anya Weimann is a freelance writer.

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