Oftentimes, when twentysomethings find themselves metaphorically (or sometimes literally) staring in the mirror asking why their life isn’t having an impact—smack in the middle of a quarter-life crisis—they are given bad advice. They are told that waywardness in their twenties is no big deal because their twenties don’t really matter. Thirty is the new twenty, right? Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, addressed this head-on in her TedTalk titled, “Why 30 is not the new 20,” which has been viewed over twelve million times. She says,
So what do you think happens when you pat a twentysomething on the head and you say, “You have 10 extra years to start your life?” Nothing happens. You have robbed that person of his urgency and ambition, and absolutely nothing happens.
This fallacy is so common-place, she goes on to explain, that deracinating it is at the heart of her counseling work with twentysomethings. When these young adults have found themselves in the midst of the slow down, wondering what went wrong, they can either use that time to take ownership of what their new, slower lives will look like. Or they can keep waiting for life to speed back up. (Spoiler alert: it won’t do that).
A Slow Down is Normal
If no one tells these young adults that this is normal and gives them directions on how to live their twenties well, then they very well may waste these formative years of their life. That would certainly be a tragic end, to not even learn the lessons of your quarter-life crisis and cross into your thirties wondering what even happened. Jay says that when she meets these people, they always think they have more time to get their life in order, but as they approach thirty, the tune changes.
…it starts to sound like this: “My twenties are almost over, and I have nothing to show for myself. I had a better résumé the day after I graduated from college.”
And then it starts to sound like this: “Dating in my twenties was like musical chairs. Everybody was running around and having fun, but then sometime around thirty it was like the music turned off and everybody started sitting down. I didn’t want to be the only one left standing up, so sometimes I think I married my husband because he was the closest chair to me at thirty.”
Why Your Twenties Matter
Jay goes into more detail about her experiences in her book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now. In it, she shares many fascinating encounters with twentysomething clients, many of whom have already experienced the slow down but don’t really understand what happened, why it happened, or what to do about it. Worse yet, the twentysomethings who end up in her office for help feel “horribly deceived by the idea that their twenties would be the best years of their lives” because the reality is so blasè.
Some of the ways her clients describe what they are experiencing are simply sad to hear. “I feel like I’m in the middle of an ocean.” One said, “Like I could swim in any direction but I can’t see land on any side so I don’t know which way to go.” Another echoed those remarks saying, “the twentysomething years are a whole new way of thinking about time. There’s this big chunk of time and a whole bunch of stuff needs to happen somehow.”
Jay echoes what Paul Angone said about getting off of the staircase at the fifteenth floor and exploring in the darkness: it’s a bit scary. “There is a certain terror that goes along with saying ‘My life is up to me,’” she says. “It is scary to realize there’s no magic, you can’t just wait around, no one can really rescue you, and you have to do something.”
The Odyssey Years
In her book, Jay cites an article by renowned New York Times author, David Brooks, who called these “the odyssey years,” which he described saying,
There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.
During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.
Calling this period the odyssey years gives it a sense of adventure, which strikes me as appropriate. Certainly more upbeat than calling it a quarter-life crisis. The reality is that the slowing down of life is not a crisis—that’s just what it means to be in your twenties.
You will exit your educational career, be it high school or college, going too fast, and you will have life encounters that cause you to slow down—like reaching the end of the staircase or hitting the car in front of you. How you respond to this reality is up to you. Your response to the slower odyssey years of your twenties will determine whether or not you have a quarter-life crisis. You can keep calm and carry on, actually enjoying the adventures of your twenties, or you can get stuck in the slow down and panic when you hit thirty.
Thriving at Thirty
If you are in your twenties, know this: your support system—made up of your friends, family, professors, mentors, pastors, and more!—wants you to reach thirty as a thriving, well-adjusted adult. We are rooting for you!
Now that you know what a quarter-life crisis actually is, which emotions you may experience during one, and what the warning signs are, you are already better equipped to live your twenties well.