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Many millennials will be familiar with the trope of a mid-life crisis: somebody in middle age who is feeling trapped and stagnant, and who reacts to that feeling by adopting radical new behavior, from moving jobs to buying a Jaguar, in pursuit of a better experience. Too young for a mid-life crisis, more and more millennials are experiencing a "quarter-life crisis" in college or post-graduation between the ages of 25 and 35. Are we all just weak-minded and unable to handle the pressures of the adult world? No, says science. The reason we're experiencing this actually has a lot more to do with socioeconomic and demographic changes, high-pressure expectations, and how millennials relate to one another.
The theory of the mid-life crisis emerged in the 1950s. It comes from the work of Erik Erikson, who published a model of lifespan development in 1950 that theorized that the mid-life "stage," often around 40-65, is the point where stagnation, regret and re-evaluation of priorities occurs. Emerging adulthood, between 18 and 30, is another life stage where one's priorities shift along with their responsibilities. In Emerging Adulthood In a European Context's "Emerging Adulthood, Early Adulthood & Quarter-Life Crisis," psychologist Oliver Robinson explains that the period between adolescence and "full" adulthood is now regarded as one of the most stressful in human experience, and is identified by a combination of five factors: identity exploration, idealistic possibility, a feeling of in-betweenness, a focus on self, and instability across basically all of life, from relationships to values. Just as teenage-dom was "invented" in American consciousness at around the time of James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause, the idea of the emerging adult has been constructed to reflect new societal expectations and structures — and it may help us understand why so many millennials are waking up and feeling like they need a change.
Why have quarter-life crises become a thing? The answer is, basically, pressure.
The common response to quarter-life crises is "what on earth do you have to worry about?" But millennials are often squeezed on both sides. They're often not really given what Amelia Hill at the Guardian called "10 years of tie-dye fun and quality 'me' time" in their 20s, as their parents might have experienced. College can lead to brutal student loan debt as much as it creates memories of frat parties, and that debt requires millennials to be much more serious about their careers than their parents might have been. But millennials also don't have the ability to step seamlessly from adolescence into secure jobs, property ownership, economic stability, or a relatively low cost of living. As part of "emerging adulthood," millennials get the responsibilities of adulthood and the expectations that they'll sort everything out just as earlier generations did, despite an environment that makes that unrealistic.
Millennials owe a record amount of debt, don't have the assets to buy property, often lack job security, and are facing health risks due to the spiraling costs of healthcare. They're the first generation in American history to have lower living standards than their parents. We feel more pressure than ever to be stable adults by traditional markers, but the world is making it less and less possible.
Quarter-life crises can be distinguished not by a sense of stagnation, as with mid-life crises, but by feelings of panic. According to research compiled by life coach Alice Stapleton, definitions of quarter-life crises include "overwhelming instability, constant change, too many choices and a panicked sense of helplessness" and "the sense of desolation, isolation, inadequacy, and self-doubt, coupled with a fear of failure." A study of millennials post-graduation in 2011 found that 86 percent of young people experience some of these feelings. And that distinguishes quarter-life crises from their mid-life counterparts; while the 40- to 65-year-old gang react unfavorably to too few changes and too much predictability, millennials are reacting to constant instability and a lack of certainty.
Part of that is societal messaging. Millennials, more than any other generation in history, has been fed the idea that we can do and be anything. Do 15 jobs at once in the gig economy! Date 12 people and ghost all of them! Move to France! Careers are unstable, and the ability to change your life day-to-day unprecedented. Given this buffet of choices, and the impression that being a "good" millennial involves being a multi-tasker with countless diverse experiences, millennials are reacting with distrust and dismay to the smorgasbord available to them (which is, in many cases, not actually available at all) and the consequences of taking one road and not another. Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is probably the defining emotion of our generation.
Millennials, for all that they're yelled at for "ruining" everything from avocado toast to golf, are also a mythic generation of high achievers. We are the whiz kids, the first to grow up with iPhones and wifi, the ones who have start-ups and vast ideas and boundless potential, and consequently the pressure to be a luminary incredibly young flows strong in our generation. And, regrettably, we possess more measures than any generation before us to compare ourselves to others.
It's a tired trope to blame problems on social media, but when it comes to the "fear of failure" mentioned in many evaluations of millennial difficulties, the ability to see the achievements of others in oppressive detail is likely not very helpful to our own goals. Not only are we more deprived than ever of the chance of stable jobs, grants, or most other marks of conventional success, we're more capable of seeing those shining stars who've done it where we didn't. Comparison issues with social media are well-documented as issues in psychological literature. As group animals, we are prone to checking our status in relation to others; but the presence of Twitter and Instagram likely make millennial status issues far worse.
So what can millennials do if they feel a quarter-life crisis coming on? First of all, realize that it's a legitimate reaction to unstable circumstances, not a sign that you're creating issues where there aren't any. Secondly, seek help. Depression and anxiety are often big symptoms of quarter-life issues, and require professional assistance — or just a sympathetic ear to talk to. Just make sure whoever you talk to isn't going to make rude remarks about avocado toast.