Why Wait for Midlife Crisis When You Can Have One at 25

November 7, 2004 | By Alana Semuels

What’s so tough about being 25?

Plenty, according to a Broadway play, an edgy new TV series and a best-selling book, all built around the premise that many people in their 20s waste the decade worrying about what to do with the rest of their lives.

“They tell you the world is your oyster,” said Abby Wilner about the period after college when young people are supposed to be enjoying their freedom and settling into exciting lives. “Then you realize it’s not quite true.”

Wilner and Alexandra Robbins put a name to the mind-set when their book, “The Quarterlife Crisis,” was published in 2001. A workbook, designed to help “20-somethings” cope with the slippery slope they’re on, soon followed, as did the Tony Award-winning play “Avenue Q” and an ABC series that’s in the works called “1/4 life.”

And now there’s a Web site: www.quarterlifecrisis.com, which provides an avenue for the 10,000 registered users to commiserate about their troubles and challenges.

There are only a handful of Pittsburghers registered on the site, but their angst screams out in the replies they post to each other.

One reads: “Let me tell you, I’m miserable. I’m 26 and have recently graduated with my master’s in geology. I do have a job …great money and benefits …but I’m not happy. I usually feel bored.”

Another quarterlifer replied: “I know exactly what you are going through. I have all the trappings of what a successful life is supposed to be and am miserable.”

Experts are split on whether particular demographic trends have made the 20s a more challenging decade for young adults than it was for earlier generations or whether the “misery” some of them are feeling is of their own making, the product of having it a bit too good.

“The crisis part comes in the sense that freedom can be disconcerting,” said Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland who has written a book on emerging adulthood and who looks at the idea of a quarterlife crisis with some skepticism and little sympathy. “You have the responsibility to figure out yourself what to do, and that can be stressful and even depressing if you’re not figuring it very well.”

Some question whether the syndrome is new at all.

“My first reaction is that it’s hardly novel,” said Alan Waterman, a professor in clinical psychology at the College of New Jersey. In the 1950s and 1960s, sociologist Erik Erikson coined the term identity crisis to define people who are uncertain about who they are or what they want, Waterman said. From the 1967 movie “The Graduate” to the ‘80s’ hit “St. Elmo’s Fire,” angsty college graduates have translated their woes into entertainment; its recent incarnation only gives it a name.

But recent findings released by the American Sociological Association suggest demographic currents may be redefining the lives and expectations of college graduates across the country in sometimes tumultuous ways.

A team of sociologists that examined the lives of young adults by comparing census data since 1900 found that young people are making the transition to adulthood—which they define not by biological age but by societal milestones such as marrying, buying houses and having children—later and later. According to their benchmarks, 65 percent of males and 77 percent of females had completed their transitions into adulthood in their 20s in 1960. In 2000, on the other hand, only 31 percent of males and 46 percent of females had reached these stages by age 30.

Young adults are marrying ever later, or not marrying at all, according to a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1970, the median age at which men were married was 23.2; now it’s 26.8. Women got married at a median age of 20.8 in 1970; in 2000 the median was 25.1. What’s more, the proportion of women ages 30 to 34 who had never been married tripled in those three decades, from 6 percent to 22 percent.

Many young people come out of college carrying debt loads never faced by earlier generations, in part because college costs have almost doubled over the past decade. A 2003 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research found that debt for student loans is 85 percent higher among recent college graduates than it was for graduates a decade ago. In 1989-90, graduates of public four-year colleges owed an average of $8,200. A decade later, they owed an average of $15,100. Their counterparts at private four-year colleges owed $16,500.

A report released by the American Sociological Association found that only 70 percent of men ages 24 to 28 earned enough to support themselves, while only half earned enough to support a family of three.

In Pittsburgh, a sluggish economy and a constant outflow of young people makes those who remain feel alone and questioning.

Megan Kohut, 24, is living with her parents in Mt. Lebanon. Her father gave her “The Quarterlife Crisis” book, which prompted her to log on to the Pittsburgh site of quarterlifecrisis.com. As Kohut sees friends around her marrying, going back to school and settling down, she finds Pittsburgh a particularly difficult place.

“I went to Penn State, which is a nice little Happy Valley bubble,” she said, “and then you’re shot out into the real world.”

She moved back to Pittsburgh after graduating to be near her family but finds it difficult to meet other people her age here. Kohut’s friends across the country live in Oregon, Hawaii and Philadelphia in different stages of adulthood, from marriage and parenthood to pursuing advanced degrees. And while none of them is certain of life directions, Kohut says they have an easier time meeting others like them.

She currently works in the social services, but said, “Unfortunately the job that I got is not indicative of the fact that I have a high-level degree from a good university. I don’t feel that I’m putting too many skills to use.”

She says friends in Pittsburgh have experienced the same thing—her cousin graduated with a degree in zoology and is working in a bank.

“A lot of my friends graduated and are either working below their level or not even in their field,” she said.

William Strauss, co-author of four books about generational trends, says previous youth waves—from Generation X to the Lost Generation of the ‘20s—faced similar challenges, but that the current crop stands apart in some ways.

They have made it harder, he says, by putting more pressure on themselves and caring more about grades and name-brand colleges. A wave of second-generation immigrants has added to their numbers, and there are more college graduates today than ever before.

“If Mom was a domestic and Dad was a fry cook, that’s not going to make it for them,” Strauss said. “Their expectations are higher. The question is, are there enough jobs that are interesting and special enough to make them feel as though all the stress of their schooling was worthwhile?”

In particular, Strauss worries that women will be especially affected by demographic trends in the coming years. He says they reach their mid-20s facing enormous loans and the high price of housing, realize they want to have children and recognize that they can’t do it all.

He sees today’s typical 20-something wonder, “I had college and everything was planned, but now I am cast out into the work world. What am I supposed to do?”

Sara Mongell, 25, might be one such college grad. The Green Tree resident’s parents did not go to college but instead owned a business in her hometown of Connellsville. She graduated from Duquesne University in 2001 with a degree in marketing and found a job as a sales coordinator. She was laid off after Sept. 11.

She worked for a broadcasting company for a few weeks, but, unsatisfied, found fulfillment working for a local nonprofit. Mongell says her father “thinks that people get jobs and stay in them forever,” but that this state of mind is not necessarily true for members of her generation.

This transitional time is stressful, she said, because you are left to make your own decisions and are responsible for what happens because of them.

“Sometimes I wish I was already in my 30s or could just go back to college,” she said, words that echo ones from the puppets playing young people in “Avenue Q:”

“I wish I could go back to college.

In college you know who you are.

You sit in the quad, and think, ‘Oh my God!

I am totally gonna go far!’ ”

Whether this generation’s 20-somethings have it harder, there is a glimmer of hope. They’ll get older and the angst will end—at least until they hit their midlife crisis.

Timothy Aldinger, now 28, had a bumpy quarterlife. After starting college in his home state of Wisconsin, he dropped out and traveled in Europe for five months. He finished college in Oregon and in his mid-20s worked in construction, waited tables, was a substitute teacher, served as an AmeriCorps volunteer and was a maid in a hotel.

Now living in Pittsburgh and serving as a Coro fellow in public affairs, he’s finally sharpening his focus: He hopes to pursue a degree in international affairs.

“My desire to experience life was much greater than my desire to think about what I was doing in a year,” he said. “But things have picked up,” he said, with renewed optimism and hope. “The planning has only now started.”

Bloomfield resident Aubra Levine, 24, thinks she is almost through what she considers her own “crisis” period.

After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in sociology in 2002, she lived in Colorado for seven months, skiing and supporting herself with odd jobs. Next she biked across the country from Seattle to Delaware, then moved home to Pittsburgh, with little money and a strong desire to get on with the next stage of her life.

“There were a lot of options, and I felt this intense pressure to decide on something,” she said. “It was stressful for me to not be living up to the potential of what I thought I should be doing.”

Levine is now pursuing a growing interest in urban planning while working four part-time jobs in Pittsburgh at organizations ranging from the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. to Student Conservation Association.

Arnett’s studies found many people in their mid-20s don’t experience any sort of crisis. He points to the college educated, who have many options to choose from, as the ones most full of angst.

“It’s a product of their freedom, it’s a product of their affluence,” he said.