Jamie Cullum has a great song (and, in fact, album by the same name) called Twentysomething. I’m a big fan of his music, but the title track has been creeping in to my head lately as I listen to the thoughts of my friends and similar-aged coworkers. Anyone between the ages of about 25 and 35 seems to experience this and call it different things, though the most common seems to be “quarter-life crisis.”
After years of expensive education
A car full of books and anticipation
I’m an expert on Shakespeare and that’s a hell of a lot
But the world don’t need scholars as much as I thought
So, here we are. Late 20s/early 30s, some of us are married, some used to be, some of us vow never to be. But there is a common thread – we’ve been out of college long enough to feel like it’s in the not-so-recent past, we’ve been in jobs for 5-10 years and we’re feeling an itch. We’ve been pigeonholed into generational descriptions that tell us we’re self-entitled brat spawn of Baby Boomers with no real work ethic and expect trophies for wiping our own asses. This characterization can be particularly frustrating to the hard-working overachievers among our ranks who get judged by the Baby Boomers we’re trying to get to hire us, but many of us have gone out and started our own ventures with other like-minded individuals who want to change the world.
We’re of the generation for whom the Peace Corps has always existed, where having a non-profit career doesn’t automatically make you a hippie and being conservative doesn’t mean you’re automatically against every social safety net. Sure, around election time the party lines get drawn in the sand, and the rhetoric of late has been harsh and often misleading, but at some level, at least that discourse exists.
So, what’s the problem? Things seem pretty good, in general. The economy could be in better shape, and college could’ve been cheaper, but you’re doing okay. Things are looking up. And yet…something just isn’t quite right.
We join kickball teams and dodgeball teams and Young Friends of [insert cause here]. We volunteer at the food bank/river cleanup/charity of choice. We go to happy hours, we meet people, we become Facebook friends and have a false sense of intimacy with people we’ve met once. It’s all part of the game. But, for the most part, we still have a core group of friends who we text rather than write on their Facebook wall and go for dinner with when there’s no competing group event (or maybe we drag them along so we don’t have to show up alone).
As with many things in life, though we feel like we’re the first to feel this way, it’s an old idea. John Mayer sang about it, John Cusack (with help from Nick Hornby) went through it on screen, and Erik H. Erikson was already writing about it in the 1950s. According to Erikson’s Theory of Personality, every human goes through eight (or later, nine) stages of development. The two that are relevant to this story are stages six and seven.
Stage Six – Intimacy vs. Isolation
“This is the first stage of adult development. This development usually happens during young adulthood, which is between the ages of 20 to 24. Dating, marriage, family and friendships are important during the stage in their life. By successfully forming loving relationships with other people, individuals are able to experience love and intimacy. Those who fail to form lasting relationships may feel isolated and alone.” (thanks, wikipedia!)
Stage Seven – Generativity vs. Stagnation
“…the second stage of adulthood and happens between the ages of 25-64. During this time, people are normally settled in their life and know what is important to them. A person is either making progress in their career or treading lightly in their career and unsure about if this is what they want to do for the rest of their working lives. Also during this time, a person is enjoying raising their children and participating in activities that gives them a sense of purpose. If a person is not comfortable with the way their life is progressing, they’re usually regretful about the decisions and feel a sense of uselessness.” (thanks again, wikipedia!)
So, there it is – we’re all on this edge of transition between the sixth and seventh stages of our life. We have jobs, but we’ve been in them for a while and are silently wondering if this is really how we want to spend the next 30-40 years of our lives. Maybe we decide that’s not what we want, but then what? Knowing what you don’t want can sometimes be easier than figuring out exactly what it is you do want. We’ve moved on from the wide-eyed ambition of the newly-graduated college student phase and know how hard the real world can be and it’s pretty easy to get jaded. We join too many things and don’t care for ourselves enough, or we don’t do enough outside of work and regret the lack of interaction with non-coworkers.
So, how do we avoid the full-on quarter-life crisis? No promises on any of these – your mileage may vary – but as someone who is emerging from a bit of a crisis, I’m guessing some of these will work for others too.
1. Take care of yourself. I don’t just mean eating right and exercising (although that helps). Go to sleep when you’re tired, stay in on a Saturday, or just skip a weekly activity that has lost its luster. Sometimes it’s easy to commit yourself to so many things that it’s no longer fun to participate in any of them. When you hit that point, recognize it, take a step back and re-prioritize. If a new activity comes up and sounds interesting, drop some of the dead weight you’ve accumulated before diving in to something else. If you’re overscheduled, taking care of yourself usually falls to the bottom of the list when without it, you’ll never make it through every spin class, charity happy hour and indoor soccer game you’ve committed to that week.
2. Take care of others. There’s something to be said for reaching out to a friend that you see reaching this point and offering to help them slow down a bit. When you’re so focused on your own activities, it’s easy to lose sight of friendships that might need a little love or coworkers that might be drowning in their workload. Once you’ve been able to refocus your own activities, those will become much more evident – kind of like when you buy a white car and all of a sudden everyone on the road drives white cars. You know what they’re going through, and whether it’s buying them a drink after work, coming over to help power-wash the deck or helping finish up that project that has been lingering on their desk, they’re likely to feel a huge relief and you’ll feel good too.
3. Make the call. Whether it’s your sister, your high school friend or that guy you used to play in a band with, there’s someone out there that you’ve lost touch with and wish you hadn’t. You got busy, he got busy and now someone with whom you shared a lot is off the radar. It’s easy to feel like you’ve kept in touch because you know what they’re up to via Facebook posts or Twitter updates, but it’s more of that false sense of intimacy mentioned above. Now that you’ve refocused your activities and have a little you time again, send an email or make a call and try to rekindle that friendship. It may or may not work, but at least you tried and it’s no longer hanging over you. Best case scenario? You resume what used to be a great relationship and now have someone to recall that hilarious camping weekend that no one else you know now was there for.
4. Ring it up. Money is always tight, and it always will be. But if you spend all your time working and never reward yourself with anything, where’s the satisfaction? It doesn’t have to be anything expensive – maybe it’s just a milkshake on the way home from a hard day or buying the $12 bottle of wine instead of the $5 bottle. Maybe it’s that adorable vintage dress you’ve had your eye on or a new pair of running shoes. Either way, it’s something that allows you to enjoy the spoils of what you spend 40-60 hours a week doing. This isn’t to say that buying big screen TVs and expensive clothing is a way to make you feel better; retail therapy often ends in buyer’s remorse, which puts you worse off than before. Figure out what gives you an incremental boost – it might be something experiential rather than physical, like a hiking trip or skydiving. Just find a healthy relationship with your money and how to use it most effectively to both save and lead a lifestyle that makes you happy.
5. Take a step back. Are you on a career path that is dictated largely by what you majored in in college, which was dictated largely by what you were good at in high school? News flash: you’ve probably changed since then. As Mr. Erikson so keenly pointed out, we may be feeling regretful about decisions and have a general feeling of uselessness right about now. An informal poll of my fellow engineering students in college revealed that many of them already knew engineering wasn’t for them but were on a path and felt compelled to complete it. It’s never too late for a total change – figure out what calls to you and then figure out how to do it. A great example of this can be found in VaxTrac, a company started by twentysomethings who wanted to use their varied skill sets to do something more meaningful. (Full disclosure, one of the founders is a college friend of mine.) It may not pay as well as your current job, but if you feel satisfied at the end of the day, isn’t it worth the smaller paycheck? Some might say no, and that’s everyone’s individual prerogative. Even if that is what you decide, at least take some time to evaluate where you are, geographically, career-wise or otherwise and decide if you still want to be there in 5 weeks, let alone 5 years. It may be as easy as keeping your current job and volunteering at other types of organizations outside of work. Closeted veterinarian? I hear animal shelters are always looking for help. Always wanted to teach kids? Look in to after-school tutoring programs or Big Brothers/Big Sisters and become a mentor.
Or, you could just follow the wisdom of Jamie Cullum.
Love ain’t the answer, nor is work
The truth eludes me so much it hurts
But I’m still having fun and I guess that’s the key
I’m a twentysomething and I’ll keep being me