Generation Why: Call it a mid-midlife crisis

July 15, 2001

Here’s a guy who did everything right. Graduated from Yale. Married his high school sweetheart. Became a hotshot salesman at one of America’s corporate giants.

But that’s all over now. He has divorced his wife, quit the wireless sales rat race and moved back to his hometown in northeast Pennsylvania.

The old midlife crisis strikes again, with one new wrinkle: The guy is 27. “I was king of the world, but I didn’t feel fulfilled,” he said, asking not to be named because of embarrassment over his circumstances. “That started the snowball, and it all started rolling downhill from there.”

Regrets about the past. Yearning for work that is spiritually fulfilling, not just lucrative. Misgivings about relationships. It turns out that many 20-somethings are wrestling with the kinds of issues long associated with middle age.

Think of it as a mid-midlife crisis. Or, as some are calling it, a “quarterlife crisis.”

Besides the classic midlife symptoms, 20-somethings have a few others particular to their generation. Having come of age in a time of unprecedented boom and bust, they have extraordinarily high, often unmet expectations of wealth and success. The pressure to succeed young and fast is complicated by the instability of careers.

A new book called Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties (Putnam Publishing Group), by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, outlines the differences between 20-somethings’ crisis points and those of their parents’ generation.

“In midlife, the panic is caused by too much stability, too much predictability, too much security,” said Robbins, 25. “With the quarterlife crisis it’s the opposite: no stability, no predictability, no certainty.”

At 25, three years out of college, Kristina Slaughter of Lee’s Summit this month will start her third job and already has an ex-fiance.

“It was a complete career crisis,” Slaughter said about her job-changing experiences. “Doors were not opening for me at the beginning. It makes you wonder, ‘Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?’”

The day after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Slaughter started her own Shelter Insurance agency in Kansas City. She expected to sell insurance for years. But she was putting in 6 1/2 days a week, and she saw agency expenses mounting.

So she switched gears, taking a sales job at ADP, a payroll systems company, while she figured out what to do. She talked to recruiters across the country. Finally she decided to be a pharmaceutical representative with Pfizer, a job she starts this month. And, she said, she’s dating someone new.

“I’m happy because I’ve met someone I’m more in tune with—finally,” Slaughter said.

Marilyn Metzl, an adjunct professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said these issues are being raised by younger patients.

“What I’m seeing in my clinical practice is that all the stages of life are now being telescoped,” she said. “What we saw in the 50-year-old range, I now see in the 20- to 30-year-old range.”

Robbins and Wilner, 24, interviewed about 100 people in their 20s for their book. Wilner, a recently laid-off Web designer, summarized the problem: “People are taking longer to settle down in terms of careers and relationships. That is a source of stress.”

Jacqui D. Barrett, owner of Career Trend, a career coaching and resume-writing business in Overland Park, said her younger clients are definitely in flux. They’re waiting longer to get married, relocating for jobs and picking and changing jobs based in part on how well they fit with a company’s “culture.”

“They’re also affected by all the mergers and acquisitions and reorganizations,” said Barrett, who worked with Slaughter during her job search. “They’re the first to get laid off simply because they have the least tenure.”

The instability is confirmed by the latest census and labor data, which show that the 36.3 million Americans in their 20s are marrying later and changing jobs more often than their elders. The median age for marriage among men has risen to 27 from 22 a generation ago and to 25 from 20 among women. According to unpublished data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median length of time workers in their early 20s stay in one job has shrunk in half since 1983—from 2.2 years then to 1.1 years now.

Job-hopping and delaying marriage would appear to allow young adults more time to find themselves, but many complain this freedom has left them feeling more lost than found.

William Strauss, author with Neil Howe of several books on generational identity, sees “a strong historical analogue” between 20-somethings and the 1920s Lost Generation.

“They felt they were burning the candle at both ends,” Strauss said. “It was the end of a speculative boom. There was a sense of cultural exhaustion.”

He quoted a 1926 journal entry of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Young people wore out early—they were hard and languid.”

In his book 13th Gen, Howe defines anyone born from 1961 to 1981 as Generation X, the term made popular by the book of the same name by Douglas Coupland (born in 1961). Howe contrasted the angst of today’s 20-somethings with the claustrophobia some of their parents in the Silent Generation felt growing up in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

“They complained about too few options,” he said. “The tremendous oppression, the man in the gray flannel suit. They felt like they couldn’t express themselves, then in the ‘70s started trading jobs, trading spouses.”

Robbins and Wilner’s book has met with mixed reactions.

Michael Jolkovski, a faculty member in the professional psychology department at George Washington University, noted that the term “midlife crisis” was coined by the Danish-born psychoanalyst Eric Erikson to mean not an emergency but a watershed moment.

“A fever comes to a crisis when it breaks,” Jolkovski said. He expressed skepticism about the “quarterlife crisis” concept. “A lot of this might be ordinary early adulthood,” he said.

Twenty-nine-year-old Sun Dee Mills of Mission has leapt from career to career but hardly considers it a catastrophe. Although she has entertained a “fleeting thought” that her life could be more settled, she thinks exploring her career options was a fine way to proceed. She’s unconcerned she has yet to marry and have children.

“I don’t see it as a crisis,” Mills said. “I don’t begrudge my friends who have these things.”

Mills delayed finishing college while pursuing an entertainment career at theme parks and on a cruise ship. She loved singing and dancing. But when it came time to make the move to Los Angeles or New York, she changed courses. She got a journalism degree with plans for a sports broadcasting career.

After working on a morning radio program, though, she decided she didn’t like the hours and was worried about the steadiness of the work. She talked to a friend about opportunities in public relations and landed a job at Fleishman Hillard.

“I’m OK with being almost 30,” Mills said. “I don’t regret any decision I made.”

But the quarterlife concept rings true to many young people.

Micah Sommers, 26, is working at his third New York-based Internet company in a year. If he is unhappy in his job, he knows he can’t claim, as his parents’ generation might have, that “the system” is keeping him down.

“There’s no scapegoat,” he said. “We’re very much relying on ourselves and looking to ourselves. But one of the big things that’s missing is role models or mentors.”

His “fantasy world,” Sommers said, “is being an apprentice to some wise old man and I would follow in his footsteps.” He would like to learn “a definable, tangible skill,” he said. “There’s a need to create and do something real”—like being a stone cobbler instead of writing for a travel Web site.

Metzl, the Kansas City area psychologist, said the young adults she treats often “judge themselves so harshly, and so much of judgment is predicated on financial success.”

Jeff Meyer, a software engineer, found himself doing exactly that.

“I’d always grown up knowing that math and sciences were this thing that would provide reason in life, and the idea of humanities and service to the community were absurd,” said Meyer, who lives in Washington. “Then I left college and realized there’s a lot of materialism that comes along with the engineering field and there has to be a place for emotion.”

Now 30, he joined the youth ministry four years ago as a volunteer at his church. He leads Bible classes for high school students and takes them to soup kitchens to volunteer.

“I have an extremely rich life in terms of the money I’m making,” he said. “But there has to be more than those material aspects. A feeling of belonging, to be loved not just by one person.”

Connie Russell, a clinical social worker and career coach in Kansas City, said she hears more and more young people asking the “what’s important in life” question, the kind of self-searching she expects from those in their 40s and 50s.

“People will come to me and say, ‘I would really like to have a purpose in my work,’” Russell said. “They have a hard time finding that. They’re sort of casting about, thinking they’re without direction.”

Kathleen Boas at DeFrain Mayer, a national human resources consulting firm in Overland Park, said many employees in their 20s saw their parents work 80 to 90 hours a week only to get laid off from jobs they held for years. They want to be valuable and committed to their employers, but they also want balance in their lives, she said.

“They will ask, ‘What is my value? Am I making a contribution?’” Boas said. “If they don’t feel they are, they’re going to move on.”