At Work

What Happens to Young Adults When a Quarter-Life Crisis Hits?

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In my previous article discussing the nature of the quarter-life crisis, we discussed how a twentysomething is like a fast dream car speeding down the highway of life. But when they approach a slower car (real life) from behind, they have to make a quick decision. Today we’re going to discuss a few of those possible outcomes. 

Two Possible Outcomes

First, if they don’t see that the car ahead of them is going slower than they are, for whatever reason, then the twentysomething won’t slow down at all. They’ll hit the slower car in front of them, leading to a tremendous accident. This person’s reckless behavior leaves them to wonder what hit them or how they got into this mess.

In the second possible outcome, they do see the slower car in front of them, but they don’t realize it’s going so much slower than they are and therefore they don’t recognize the risk. They may think that the car will move out of the way, but it doesn’t, and there are no passing lanes to get around it. This means that when they approach the slower car in front of them, they have to slam on their breaks. They successfully avoid an accident and probably don’t end up on the side of the road watching their peers pass by (see my previous article to read that story), but they do have serious whiplash from which they may suffer for years.

The twentysomethings with outcomes one and two have experienced a quarter-life crisis. They may not have the words or the awareness to articulate why they are in crisis, but they are very much like myself at twenty-two years old—caught up in a four-car pile-up, losing the dream car that I had loved long before I owned it, and before I could really enjoy it. This is why the crisis is emotional—because it feels like the death or loss of a dream. 

A Third (And Better) Option

But wait, there is a third possible outcome in this scenario. The twentysomething driving a fast car may actually observe that the car in front of them is going slower and they may react appropriately and gently apply the brakes until they have reached the same speed of the slower car. They may be frustrated and want to go faster to get around the car, but they are not on the side of the road. They are not in pain from whiplash. They are not in crisis.

The Good News About A Quarter-life Crisis

This is the good news! A quarter-life crisis is neither inevitable nor unavoidable. Experts from many different areas of our society, including psychologists, neurologists, educators, and more, have studied the developmental decade of “the twenties” extensively and from their collective wisdom, we actually know what a person needs to do in their twenties to avoid a quarter-life crisis. The bad news is that we don’t do a very good job of actually telling twentysomethings what they ought to be doing to arrive at that outcome.

Typically, when I’m on campuses, I’ll give the students three choices of topics to choose from: 

  1. The first book that I helped publish, which was on faith and politics (great dinner table conversation).
  2. My own vocational journey and the work that I do now.
  3. Or how to make decisions after graduation about careers and graduate school in order to not mess up your life. 

Without fail, students always ask for that last topic. They are loaded with questions about what they are expected to do in their twenties and what exactly they need to do in order to achieve success.

The interesting thing is that these are generally high-achieving college juniors and seniors, usually ages twenty to twenty-two. They major in things like political science, history, or business administration, and graduate with honors and high GPAs. Yet what they crave more than anything from someone in my position (having survived my twenties) are tips and advice on how to not fail at life after college.

It’s Time For An Honest Conversation

Why is it the case so much of the time that no one has had an honest conversation with them about their twenties? Why is this treated like such a prized secret? Like a riddle that only the best and brightest will unlock? While, again, I’m not an expert in twentysomething psychology, I have in fact survived my twenties, and largely avoided a quarter-life crisis—yes, even though I lost my dream car.

Now I find myself looking back, fully appreciating that this conversation is rarely had with twentysomethings, and wondering why that is the case. In my next article, we’ll examine the important reasons we ought to be having this conversation with twentysomethings.

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