In Defense of the Quarter-Life Crisis

by Kira Weiner

I absolutely dreaded turning twenty.

It’s not that I wasn’t excited for the future, because I was, and it’s not like I was unhappy with the present, because I definitely wasn’t.

However, as I sat at my twentieth birthday dinner surrounded by my friends, my heart further warmed with every card, balloon, and Facebook notification, I felt just the slightest hint of fear. Once a lofty, imagined state of being, my twenties were suddenly becoming all too concrete, and I felt an intense pressure to be living them correctly. 

Prior to this point, I had always thought of the midlife crisis as something that happens to adults who freak out in their forties and spend their life savings on sports cars. As it turns out, it’s extremely common for twenty-something-year-olds to question themselves and their places in the world. Better yet, having a quarter-life crisis can come with many positive benefits for an individual's future goals and personal growth.

A 2010 survey conducted by the UK telecommunications company Vodafone found that 73 percent of 26 to 30 year olds have encountered some form of a quarter-life crisis. The World English Dictionary describes the quarter-life crisis as “a crisis that may be experienced in one’s twenties, involving anxiety over the direction and quality of one’s life.”

 I use the term “crisis” lightly because, fortunately for everyone save the auto industry, it doesn’t require any sort of dramatic emotional break down or sports car purchasing. Instead, it’s the simple questioning of identity and previously held beliefs, and the intense emotional emptiness that may follow.

A quarter-life crisis can be spurred by a number of factors, from moving away from home, to choosing a college major, to searching for a job, to the starting and ending of relationships. It’s explored in popular media through films such as The Graduate and television shows like HBO’s wildly popular Girls. Even John Mayer croons about it in his song “Why Georgia” when he sings, “It might be a quarter-life crisis, or just the stirring in my soul,” and asks, “I wonder sometimes, about the outcome, or a still verdictless life. Am I living it right?” Fan of John Mayer or not, he certainly hits the quarter-life crisis on the head with that one simple question: “Am I living it right?” is an awfully terrifying thing to ask someone who is still trying to figure it all out.

And maybe that’s the point. You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: we’re not supposed to have our lives completely figured out in our twenties, and we aren’t supposed to be perfect. However, just because we don’t have to have everything figured out, does not mean that we have a free pass not to try. Quarter-life crises are absolutely useless if we don’t use them to our advantage. Growing up is inevitable; making the most of our time is a choice.

One of my favorite TED Talks is given by Dr. Meg Jay, psychologist and author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter And How to Make the Most of Them Now. In her talk, she advises listeners to “forget about having an identity crisis and get some identity capital. Do something that adds value to who you are. Do something that’s an investment in who you might want to be next.” As far as advice for us twenty-somethings goes, I can hardly think of anything better. The most we invest in our future now, the more we will benefit later. Even if we’re not where we want to be at first (and let’s face it, we usually won’t be), at least we’ll be on our way. Concretely, “identity capital” can look like a number of things: Maybe it’s moving away from negative people or influences in your life, studying something that you’re passionate about, taking an internship in your chosen field, volunteering for a cause that you believe in, or taking steps to leading a healthy and active lifestyle. These ideas aren’t anything new, but the newfound appreciation for them and drive to achieve them may be. The beauty of the quarter-life crisis is not in the identity crisis itself, but in the opportunity to create an identity that you’re proud of.

So if you ever find yourself at an existential blank page, my advice is to color all over it. Create a life that you’re proud of, make investments in your future, and please remember that you are never alone. We’re all twenty-somethings in this together, we all question our place in the world every now and then, and we’re all navigating where we’re going and who we want to be. Sure, it can be scary sometimes, but I can hardly think of anything more exciting. Embrace your quarter-life crisis – because in emptiness, there is opportunity.

+ posts