Public Square

What is a Quarter-Life Crisis?

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Once I was having dinner with a group of Christian college students in Washington, D.C. who were studying and interning off-campus for the semester. The conversation started slowly, no doubt because they had all just worked a full day and ate a full meal, so I didn’t get much of a reaction when I asked if they were familiar with the term “quarter-life crisis.” After I defined it, I asked the group if they knew of any examples, maybe older siblings or other interns at their offices, of what a quarter-life crisis looked like. A petite blonde in the second row immediately perked up and shot her hand into the air.

“I have a cousin who dropped out of college,” she said when I called on her. I immediately started thinking about how to respond nicely to what didn’t quite sound like a quarter-life crisis.

“Now he lives in a treehouse on his parents’ property,” she continued.

“Wow,” I said, knowing immediately that I was wrong, this was an epic quarter-life crisis! “That’s a more dramatic outcome than moving into your parents’ basement,” I said.

“Oh, well, when it gets cold in the winter, he leaves the treehouse and does move into the basement.” She said triumphantly. Point made.

Now, without getting a chance to talk to her cousin and ask him questions about his life and how he ended up in the treehouse, I can’t definitively say that he was having a quarter-life crisis. But as a general rule of thumb, if you quit your job or drop out of college and move into a treehouse, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re in crisis. Most of us, however, won’t get as clear of a sign.

A Term Lacking a Definition

The term “quarter-life crisis” is one of those ideas that frequently gets thrown around, and all of us using it assume we mean the same thing. It’s a particularly common piece of jargon in the concentric circles of young adulthood, such as college campuses, early-career jobs, and networking events—all places that I spent a significant portion of my twenties hanging out.

Except there really is not a universally accepted definition of what a quarter-life crisis is, something I discovered when I first started working with college students. If you Google “quarter-life crisis” (as I did) you’ll find a bunch of articles promising to help you cope with and conquer your quarter-life crisis, much of it from first-hand experience, but few of these articles included an attempt to define a quarter-life crisis.

My top search result was, of course, the Wikipedia entry on the term, which pointed me to an article quoting clinical psychologist Dr. Alex Fowke. He defines the quarter-life crisis as “a period of insecurity, doubt and disappointment surrounding your career, relationships and financial situation.” The same article claims that you are most likely to experience this quarter-life crisis at the precise age of twenty-six years and nine months, although the collective wisdom of the Internet in the Wikipedia entry noted that it could occur anywhere in your twenties, even into your early thirties.

A Period of Insecurity

A period of insecurity that could happen at any time in your twenties, or thirties, we don’t really know? Surely we can do better than that, I thought. Instead of just setting off to write my own definition, my next step was to ask twentysomethings (like the group of interns in Washington, D.C.) what they thought a quarter-life crisis was and if they think they were experiencing one. The results were not what I was expecting.

Most of the college students I spoke to initially said that they were not familiar with the term, but once I offered a description to them, they said that it resonated with their fears for life after college. Now this isn’t super-scientific, I conducted this poll by a raise of hands at a few different events, but the sample included students from several dozen different colleges and universities. 

Interestingly, there were usually a few young adults in these conversations who were out of college, some of them were recent graduates who came for the free food, some were my friends who tagged along for the free food, and some were actually faculty from the college who, yes, probably came for the free food. These people ranged from their mid-twenties to early-thirties, and they knew exactly what a quarter-life crisis was. They had their own stories of surviving one or stories of their friend so-and-so who experienced a particularly spectacular quarter-life crisis.

It immediately jumped out at me that the twenty-year-olds in the room didn’t know what a quarter-life crisis was, but the thirty-year-olds did. When thirty-year-olds shared their stories, the twenty-year-olds recognized it as their own fears for life after college and through the rest of their twenties.

In a series of upcoming blog articles, I will offer a definition of a quarter-life crisis, lay out the warning signs, and (hopefully) share some biblical advice so twentysomethings who haven’t experienced one yet can know what to expect and how to handle it well.

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