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At age 25 I had it all - the safety of a great job in a prestigious company, a monthly salary higher than my mum would ever make, respect and appreciation for my work contribution, the freedom to have and do whatever I wanted (like travelling the world), friends to go out and even a boyfriend…
Everybody was happy for me and surely, I had to be happy too.
The weeks and months passed by between the commuting, the meetings, the deadlines, catching-up with friends and family, planning the next big holiday trips, in a more than materially comfortable way.
Mentally however, I wasn’t very comfortable. Something was off. But I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Hello darkness my old friend
I realized that my head was trying to tell me something, because it was getting increasingly difficult to get to work in the morning, difficult to be patient with annoying colleagues, difficult to avoid procrastination and difficult to avoid complaining at coffee breaks with close colleagues.
In hindsight, I now know that a recurring question started to softly creep in my head - Is this it?
This question then started to branch out in many directions - If I have now already reached the socially accepted definition of happiness, what’s left to long for? What am I going to do with the many years ahead of me? What’s the next big milestones?
Another aspect of the question is - Do I consider myself happy? Yes I am healthy, rich and free, which is more than most can say and which makes it difficult to even give yourself permission to ask.
But am I fulfilled? Do I even really like what I do? I ended up in this job because I have mostly chosen my path by elimination to maximize my chances of material comfort - fulfilling society’ expectations for me.
Are all jobs like this? Are all companies like this? This is my first experience after all, shall I try something else, somewhere else?
Also a greater question invited itself to the misery party in my head. How do I feel about my contribution to the world? At the end of the day, I am a small piece in a bigger capitalist system - do I accept that my value in this world is to consume, to pay taxes and to give to charity?
An epidemic of quarter-life crises
Today, the life and career questioning I went through and the angst I encountered at that time have a name: the "quarter-life crisis." Characterized by insecurities, disappointments, loneliness and depression, this phenomenon is hitting twenty- and thirty-somethings shortly after they enter the "real world", with educated professionals most likely to suffer.
Very few studies have looked at this from a solid, empirical angle based on data rather than speculation, and man! are there people eager to give their opinion on the “snowflake generation”. When the truth is probably much more inspirational than being “entitled”.
A survey by LinkedIn attempted at understanding the scope and the forces at play behind this worrying trend. The survey collected the views of 6,014 respondents across the United States, United Kingdom, India and Australia, on whether they’ve experienced a quarter-life crisis, what triggered it, and the career implications.
Here are the key results: 75% of 25-33 year olds have experienced a quarter-life crisis. 3 out of 4 young people have experienced a soul-searching crisis. Surely there are different levels of severity - I am pretty sure mine went unnoticed for the most part, with only my intimate circle knowing of my struggle.
But others can be affected pretty hard - and the research lead by Dr Oliver Robinson, from the University of Greenwich in London, that the average duration is two years, from feeling “locked in” to create a new life with new habits and new aspirations.
Now is the part where it gets funny - when experts from a different generation go about extrapolating and speculating about the causes of something they haven’t experienced themselves.
Here is a selection of the well-spread myths about the sources of pressure in young adulthood for Millennials and digital generations:
- “Many are worried about money, saying they don’t not earn enough”
- “Some feel under feel under pressure to marry and have children by the age of 30”
- “They are catapulted into a perilous property market.”
- “They are getting into debt to finance their degrees”
While all of these statements are true, these are all external factors. And I am not convinced that the previous generations were feeling free from the concerns of stepping into adulthood, with its responsibilities, financial risks and societal pressure. These alone do not explain the amplitude of the epidemic of quarter-life crises.
The top concern in a quarter-life crisis is the intersection of job and passion
The linkedIn survey offers a confirmation that the root cause of this generalized anxiety is an inner-work factor. Sixty-one percent say finding a job or career they’re passionate about is the number one cause. More detailed statistics confirm that job-related discomfort makes it to the top 3, ahead of property, relationships or personal goals.
The stress does not come from the fear of not finding a job because of tough economic times or because of the need for a substantial mortgage deposit.
The key word here is PASSION. The quarter-life crisis is a soul-searching journey of purpose, of impact, of meaning, specific to the Millennials generation.
It makes sense, considering how this is the first generation to fully realize the interconnectedness of the impact of globalization. Beyond theoretical sociological considerations, my experience is that we have a whole generation growing up with pop culture raising awareness on the need for activism.
In no particular order - saving the Amazonian forest (Sting), refusing racism (Nelson Mandela, Michael Jackson), accepting homosexuality (Freddy Mercury, Elton John, George Michael,...), breaking down taboos on HIV/AIDS, promoting unconditional gender equality (both Madonna), and so on and so forth. Yes these (and more!) are my heroes...
For the last decade or so and concurrent to this generation entering adulthood, a collective awareness is spreading about the state of our planet and its biodiversity, as well as unresolved societal tensions due to poverty, injustice and discrimination. It is not a coincidence that many consumer trends also have changed in the same time frame toward more ethical, more sustainable, more conscious choices.
Here is my theory. What we have here is a generation of people who want to rise to the challenges of the world they live in, but end up in jobs where we perpetuate the very mechanisms which has lead to this programmed disaster. People who want to have an impact as consumers and as employees, but realize pretty early in their professional experience that there is a gap between the corporate world we need and the one we have today.
What happens after a quarter-life crisis?
Ultimately, the quarter-life crisis is a necessary evil to create an amazing outcome. It forces you to stop, reflect and decide what to do with your life. This is the ideal phase of your life to take some time off, travel, volunteer, study or do whatever you need to do to get to know yourself, to find your sources of fulfillment and to give a new, more authentic direction to your life.
In essence, they are 3 major steps to recovering from a quarter-life crisis.
Step 1 - Go on a journey of self-discovery
Find out what your personality is, what your values are, your ambition, your aspiration, where does your feeling of achievement and pride comes from. Look at what you do when you feel good and create the list of activities which deplete your energy. Study with the curiosity of the scientist all aspects of your life in order to define how important they are respective to each other.
Step 2 - Try things out
Two, try things out. If you are curious about another career path, try to shadow someone or volunteer for a week. If you are thinking of starting a study again, experiment the impact on your schedule through a MOOC (before it hits your finances). If you are considering opening your own business, go to a starters conference and collect feedback from people who have started. But most of all - do something, rather than just be busy thinking about it.
Step 3 - Define your path
Three, define your path. I define your path as a combination of your personal mission, your ambition and the priorities you give to the different aspects of your life. For instance: Are you happy to change countries every two years to be able to have a skyrocketing career development or is providing stability to your partner and children more important to you? There is no wrong or right in this, just the need to realize that everything comes at a price and nobody can have it all…
The ideal outcome of a quarter-life crisis is a vision of your professional life that you will choose because it matches with who you are and it provides what you need. It’s a picture of success which is unique and specific to you, and takes time and courage to define.
A quarter-life crisis may or may not result in a life revolution. Some people will conclude that they need to resign and see the world; some will change jobs or company; others will start their own companies; most will stay where they are but will start afresh with a new set of priorities. These are merely the external implications of the reboot. On the inside however, all will have deeply changed.
He [who] knows the "why" for his existence... will be able to bear almost any "how".
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)
If you have established who you truly are, if you have found your purpose, if you are motivated by the conviction that what you are doing makes sense - everything will feel different.
From then on, you are on an unstoppable path to success, in whatever terms it means to you. You know where you are going, you know why, you know how and when. You are in control of your own life and very little could ever stop you. And that feeling - is priceless.
How about you? What was revealed to you through your quarter-life crisis?
Let me know in the comments down below!