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The Myth of the “Quarterlife Crisis”

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Why, Georgia, John Mayer was wrong

By Stephen Silver

It started out as a nondescript self-help book by a couple of first-time authors that turned into a bestseller, and then became a phenomenon due in part to a throwaway lyric from a John Mayer song. “Quarterlife Crisis” is the latest buzzword among people my age; a google search of the phrase turns up more than 2,200 results. Having read the book and taken in the hype over the last two years, I believe with all due respect to the authors that the “quarterlife crisis” theory is a bunch of nonsense.

The book “Quarterlife Crisis,” by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, was published in the spring of 2001 on J.P. Tarcher (full disclosure: one of the authors is a friend of a friend of mine, though I’ve not met her). The book sold well from the start but has picked up steam as the economy has declined and more and more recent college grads have found themselves in career uncertainty- and then gained even more traction when Mayer used the phrase “must be a quarterlife crisis” in the song “Why Georgia” on his popular, Grammy-winning 2002 album “Room For Squares.”

The main argument of the book (and of the phenomenon surrounding it) is that people in their early 20s have “unique challenges” that need to be addressed, whether in the area of dating, careers, friendship, or otherwise, and that often recent college graduates have trouble making the transition into adult life.

My chief objection to the quarterlife crisis thesis is that just about anybody is capable of having a crisis at any particular point in their life. Sure, it’s unfortunate for someone to lose their job, or get dumped by their girlfriend, or to be plagued by indecision over which city to live in or which career to pursue- but each one of these things can happen to anyone at any age. The only thing that’s unique about having one in your early 20s is that it’s probably the time in your life that your crisis is the least likely to actually have any consequences. And besides, ask anyone in their mid-to-late 20s which period was more traumatic- high school or post-college- and I guarantee nine people out of ten would say high school.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Robbins and Wilner almost exclusively interview college graduates who come from stable families and have or used to have high-paying jobs. I think a large percentage of the true quarterlife crises going on in this country involve people for whom little or none of the above apply; after all, which is a bigger crisis: the 19-year-old inner-city high school dropout who just got pregnant for the second time, or the 24-year-old Penn grad who can’t decide whether to go to law school, or keep on being an investment banker?

I speak from experience: just over two years ago I both lost my job and had a long-term relationship end within the period of a few weeks. Yes, it was awful- but I realized that the situation would’ve been exponentially worse had it happened when I’m 35 and had children than when I was 21 and single. The quarterlife crisis myth strikes me as a way to give affluent young people who have never really suffered anything truly traumatic yet another mechanism for feeling sorry for themselves.

(The “quarterlife crisis,” however, is not to be confused with legitimate depression, which really does affect many people in new situations and should certainly not be downplayed.)

While I’d review as the Robbins/Wilner book as well-intentioned but wrongheaded, I certainly wouldn’t call it insulting. But that’s more than I can say about a recent Star Tribune examination of the topic. Mentioning at no point that the book is two years old, reporter Kay Miller applies it to a 25-year-old native of the upscale suburb Edina. This guy finished college a few years ago, and is now living in Colorado, where he has a “lucrative consulting career,” yet not not lucrative enough apparently, because for him “dating is unbelievably expensive” (who these women are that he’s taking out, I don’t want to know). And he’s also upset that he can’t afford to buy a house, but how many single 25-year-old males who aren’t NBA players or leftover dotcom millionaires do you know who own their own house?

As if to underscore just how tone deaf Miller’s approach to the topic is, she throws statistics at us like “roughly 400,000 people are in their 20s in the 11-county Twin Cities metropolitan area,” apparently forgetting that a large percentage of those people can’t even afford to go to college, let alone graduate, have a successful career, and live to complain about their pathetic social lives and other such “emptiness.” And in discussing uncertainty related to sex and relationships, Miller attempts to tie our generation’s differing attitudes to the advent of the birth control pill- as though the Pill had been invented two years ago and not 25 years ago.

Besides, John Mayer now has a Grammy award, both millions of records sold and millions of dollars, the adoration of legions of fans, and beautiful women falling at his feet everywhere he goes. If that’s a “quarterlife crisis,” then I’d love to have one myself.

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About Stephen Silver

  • natasha brown

    I remember when I first heard about john mayer, its a very funny story. i was awake when the after hour music videos came on on vh1 and of course I wasn’t sleeply so i watch the videoes anyways his video ” YOUR BODY IS A WONDERLAND” and from then on I would stay up many nights to see this video. i finally purchased his cd room for squares which was simply amazing. I love john mayer’s music because he proves through his music the person that he truly is, his music is original. I’ve tried on numberious occaisons to go to one of his concerts but I’ve never gotten the opporunity to go to one yet anyways that’s how I came encourter with john mayer

  • Ian

    To summarize, you’re saying that the target audience of the book (educated, well-off 20-somethings) has it so good their depression can’t possibly be “legitimate.” It’s great to hear you’ve figured things out to the point where these issues don’t affect you personally. However, for those of us suffering from pretend depression I have to tell you it hurts just as bad.

    Perhaps the concept has been overhyped and deserves a bit of backlash. And not all questions have meaningful or practical answers from the people who’ve “been there.” But I found a great value in that this book helped identify what’s important to me and what might really be troubling me. It’s also given me great conversation topics among friends, virtually all of whom are plagued with the questions this book raises.

    If you believe fame and fortune to the tune of John Mayer will solve life’s greater questions of meaning, you have an enviably clear path cut in life and I wish you luck.

  • Antonio

    Hi, I think this blog is great. I want to buy the book for an ex-girlfriend from college who is depressed that her major will not find her a job. I think it will help her to know that other people her age feel sorry for themselves just like she does. But at the same time, I have to say, what the heck were you expecting??? I’m 25, a college graduate, and a single father to both 5 and 3 year old children. I got my B.S. in mechanical engineering and am doing well for myself despite having been laid off once since graduation. BUT, although I’m doing well there must be some merit to the quarterlife crisis for I can’t seem to kick this expensive drug habit I picked up since graduation. There must be something that has made our generation a bunch of sissies.

  • SLS

    A “quarter life crisis” is in some ways not unique. It seems that people from ages 20-30 in western society (and beyond) have been going through major life changes throughout human history (see “Logan’s Run” or “30 something” or pick up a Joseph Campbell book). This phenomenon, or the language of the phenomenon, reflects not a unique set of circumstances but a specific thinking of our generation. The “quarter life crisis” dialog reflects a sense of entitlement shared by middle and lower middle class people of “our” generation in the United States.
    This idea of a “crisis”, reflects dashed expectations and a sense that people our age who have been through school deserve more. I work 40 hrs. week have huge school debt and no health care too (pity party for me?).
    This attitude that we deserve more (or anything at all) is laughable. I believe this is a result of being individually and collectively coddled. We were raised by baby-boomers who believed they were special and that their children were exceedingly special as well. It takes a village to raise a generation that can’t cook, clean their exceedingly large wardrobes, or complete their college level reading when they go away to school but expect to be rewarded for their “accomplishments” upon exit!
    To be fair, tacit promises were made. The future was supposed to be bright and full of wealth and promise. But whoever remains naive in the face of the obvious deserves depression. I would hope that we are in the process of learning a lesson.
    Working in the service industry however, I only see an increase in people wanting something for nothing and service with a smile for free. Good luck too us all!