At Work & Public Square

How Understanding the Mid-Life Crisis Can Help Young Adults

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In my previous article, I started a series exploring the terms “quarter-life crisis.” In it, I promised to define the term, lay out the warning signs, and share some biblical advice on how to handle such a crisis. However, in order to understand what a quarter-life crisis is, we first need to talk about the more commonly understood phenomenon of the “mid-life crisis.”

The mid-life crisis has been in our cultural vocabulary since the mid-1960s when it was introduced by social scientist Elliot Jaques, whereas the “quarter-life crisis” has emerged as a term only in the last twenty years or so as an adaptation of the same idea. The latter is so new to the scene, in fact, that the earliest book that I found with the term “quarter-life crisis” in the title was published in 2001. That’s the same year that John Mayer released his album “Room for Squares” which included the song “Why Georgia” and the line, “It might be a quarter-life crisis, just a stirrin’ in my soul.”

What Is A Mid-Life Crisis?

The mid-life crisis may happen to a person in their late-forties, their fifties, or possibly their sixties as life expectancies continue to rise. The experience is one of general dissatisfaction with your life, and the desire to make changes while you still can. The discontentment tends to fall into three main areas: career, relationships, and lifestyle.

For a person in their mid-life, they are nearing retirement age or may even be considering early retirement. When a mid-life crisis sets in, this person may question if their career was everything they had hoped for—did they reach their full potential? Should they have taken another career path? Would they be happier as a nurse than as an accountant? These questions may lead them to pursue a new career in their mid-life, and they may even go back to college for a degree in a new field.

Unfortunately, this kind of crisis can also impact a person’s personal life and closest relationships. Being in middle age, they are likely married but may start to think that the love is gone from their marriage. This occasionally happens when couples become empty-nesters and realize that the last several decades of their relationship were more focused on their children than on each other, and now they have nothing holding them together. Data from the Pew Research Center show that divorce rates ticked up slightly for forty-somethings in the twenty-five years from 1990 to 2015, but at the same time, divorce rates fully doubled for married people over fifty. While the same study showed that young adults, ages twenty-five to thirty-nine, were still getting more divorces, the rate of their divorces dropped by over twenty percent.

Perhaps most commonly joked about, the mid-life crisis causes people to question their lifestyle. At this point in their lives most people are at their maximum earning potential and (hopefully) have healthy retirement savings. This may be the first time in their lives that they feel as if it is okay to splurge, and we tend to think of the hallmarks of a mid-life crisis as tricked-out motorcycles and sports cars for men, and lavish vacations and plastic surgery for women.

The Young Adults Are in Crisis Too

Around the turn of the millennium, we started noticing that young adults, typically in their mid-twenties, were experiencing a similar yet contrasting phenomenon where they too were questioning their careers, relationships, and lifestyles. Whereas the middle-aged person looks backward at their career and questions if they made the right choices, the young adult looks forward toward their career and wonders if they are making the right choices.

Whereas the middle-aged person looks at their marriage or relationship and wonders if it has run its course, the young adult wonders if marriage is for them at all, and if so, with whom and when?

Whereas the middle-aged person looks to lavishly spend to improve their lifestyle, the young adult is often saddled with significant amounts of debt and is living a lifestyle of less success and glamour than they were expecting. This phenomenon in particular (and therefore the quarter-life crisis in general) was exacerbated for the Millennials who came of age during the Great Recession, a significant portion of whom were unable to find reliable or well-paying employment in order to pay down their burgeoning student debt load.

Whereas the middle-aged person seeks to make drastic changes while they still have time to experience and enjoy them, the young adult seeks to make similar changes before they are locked into careers, relationships, and lifestyles.

Across these three categories—career, relationships, and lifestyle—young adults were also questioning, reassessing, and making drastic changes in an effort to work through this crisis, now dubbed a “quarter-life crisis” because it comes on in your twenties (approximately a quarter of your life expectancy) as opposed to your forties and fifties. These young adults were changing careers after only working in their chosen field for a year or two. They were delaying marriage, questioning if the institution was for them, and having fewer children later in life.

What’s a Twentysomething To Do?

This is what society recognizes as the quarter-life crisis—a twentysomething questioning their major life decisions and feeling the pressure to change them while there is still time. Even if you don’t actually make dramatic changes, you can experience the uneasiness and anxiety of a quarter-life crisis in your twenties. In fact, it’s unavoidable.

Stick with me here, the reason why it is unavoidable is rooted in how we transition from adolescence into adulthood, from our educational career to our vocational career, and from our parent’s home into our own. It’s unavoidable because we are human, and this transition is part of how God made us.

You will have to make this transition in your twenties, but it doesn’t have to be a crisis. You can do it gracefully, but to do so, you’ll need to recognize the signs of a quarter-life crisis. In my next article in this series, we’ll start to talk about the signs of a quarter-life crisis that can help us define it.

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