Frequently characterized by a polarized mix of privilege, education, and opportunity, as well as narcissism, ungratefulness, and naivete, college grads are caught in bizarre purgatory of post-childhood immaturity and pre-adulthood responsibility According to “The Quarter-Life Time Period: An Age of Indulgence, Crisis or Both?” (1) such a “waiting period” is unique as “it was believed that this time period represented a time of anomie [“a state of normlessness, a lack of a blueprint for behavior”] because the norms of childhood were not applicable nor were the norms of adulthood.” Too often lauded as being capable of doing anything to which they set their overconfident minds, college grads are thrown into the time after lives have been spent studying and are now expected to know what career and lifestyle satisfies them and to somehow payback their education by dedicating themselves to such careers. A refusal or reluctance to do so seems to garner belittlement, judgment, and disrespect from peers – Can’t you just find a job? You’re drifting. Do you even know who you are? How lazy. Ah, it must be the quarter life crisis.
The quarter life crisis – a term coined only in recent years but evident in fiction decades old. Remember the pool scenes from The Graduate? “Just drifting,” a young Dustin Hoffman says in his post-Ivy League life. Dad William Daniels chides, this is only attractive for a few weeks but after that? A tad self-serving.
Such crises are topical these days, being featured in columns by the Huffington Post, ABC News, and Discovery Magazine. The term even has its own site - www.quarterlifecrisis.com. Its ideas were recently recirculated with the publication of 2012 Yale graduate Marina Keegan’s column, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” Keegan was killed in a car accident shortly after her graduation. The article went viral, touching on a sentiment with which fellow grads can empathize.
Keegan’s essay, which does not directly refer to such a crisis, instead alludes to her sincere sadness of losing the intense friendship, community, and “opposite of loneliness” with which she characterizes her college experience. “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.” And it is this sensation which she so feared losing.
Such anxiety is often pigeon-holed into ex-college student narcissism. The I-don’t-want-my-college-years-to-end-so-I-won’t-look-for-work idea. Or the I’ve-been-carried-this-long-by-my-upper-middle-class-parents-so-why-not-continue hypothesis. “Living in a world in which rapid change constantly revolutionizes the process of gathering and receiving information, has led, in many ways, to a generation that expects instant gratification and has a sense of entitlement” (1). Such a sense of entitlement is reinforced by college grads’ parents presumably praising them for their sheer existence and the disconnect between this adoration and the grads’ identity with it helps craft such a crisis. After spending the prior 20+ years of trying “on identities like coats” (1), grads are now thrust into a realm in which self must be determined and self-discovery is a privilege reserved for the next graduating class only – a privilege that apparently expires during college graduation ceremonies.
The result? Young adults enter their post-grad careers in which they are reminded they can do anything, pending it yields a profit and little comprehension of identity or self-worth. Given an overwhelming amount of choices for post-grad life, such options “can create an inordinate amount of confusion and anxiety for young people.”
But to say such anxiety is reserved for the privileged or confused or overindulged is missing a key point in such conversations. Reluctance to enter the job force isn’t merely impacted by all these choices; these choices reinforce the the idea that opportunity is everywhere and it is up to the mid-crisis grads to seize such. But what if Harvard grad A chooses to follow his major and enter a career of supply chain management and is ultimately under-stimulated and unsatisfied? Or, what if Northwestern grad B opts for journalism but wonders about her secret passion for marketing? To suggest under-stimulation and dissatisfaction are characteristics unique to this demographic is grossly – and presumably obviously – inaccurate. However, there does seem to be an increasing awareness of the more recent years of graduates perceiving this disenchantment in previous generations and thus, increasingly anxious to avoid a life spent equally complacent with mediocrity.
It is more than a fear of failure, or indulgence, privilege, or even confusion. The anxiety typically used to characterize the time after college graduation is a product of being told one can be anything and thus, should follow his or her dreams. Meaning, happiness should be a given for those with the will to secure such because 2012 grads shouldn’t live their lives in the dissatisfying ways their parents and predecessors did. While financial security and responsibility are indeed desirable, a reluctance to jump into the job field immediately isn’t a selfish denial of the privilege grads have been given nor is it an extension of the indulgence associated with school years.
It is the fear of what happens when education, opportunity, and financial security don’t do the trick. That grads have been effectively training for this moment for over 20 years and in some cases, have everything at their finger tips – and yet, are still missing the overwhelmingly certain feeling of satisfaction that if school didn’t at least provide, it distracted them from. More than anything, it is the fear of starting life by settling on something and never seeing an opportunity to change; to live life to the end and wonder what happened to it – an idea with which the preceding generations are oftern characterized. Surrounded by older peers who seem regretful, nostalgic, jaded and bittersweet, incoming grads are ultimately caught in the middle of expectations of what parental lessons deem repeating and what ones are not – and such a choice is leaving them and their judgmental predecessors uneasy.
“Quarter life crisis” or not – it’s simply a shitty feeling.