A quarter-life crisis looks different to everyone, yet feels the same.
At 24, mine resembled the sobering realisation that I hated my supposed dream job. At around the same time, a friend’s prompted her to end an eight-year relationship (she was 26) while an acquaintance dropped out of his four-year degree course with just half a year to go.
As varied as they were, our crises made us overhaul a fundamental part of ourselves, re-shaping the course of everything that was to follow.
According to a recent LinkedIn survey that found four in five young adults in Singapore have experienced a quarter-life crisis, we are not alone. Yet no one ever told us it was okay to feel this way at different periods throughout life.
Psychologists define a quarter-life crisis as “a period of life in the 20s to 30s when a young adult feels anxiety and distress in making the transition to adulthood”. While this emotionally tumultuous experience can manifest in several ways, the most common symptom is perpetual job-hopping, resulting in a string of various short-term stints with each typically lasting no longer than a year.
At the heart of this job-hopping lies a deep discontent which comes about when our expectations of the amazing lives we are told we should be living don’t align with the mundane and tedious reality of charting a career path.
Yet there is a fine line between accepting that career discontentment exists and feeling entitled to not having to experience it ever, a nuance that has only recently gotten attention.
The label becomes a psychological crutch, emphasising our inability to deal with reality.
Yet to understand why millennials feel this way, it’s essential to realise that the world they’ve grown up in is radically different from their parents’.
For millennials, growing up with the internet has undoubtedly influenced their definitions of success. In the age of social media, we are bombarded with encouragement to dream big, along with the pressure to be successful multi-hyphenates.
From actresses who are also fashion designers, to social entrepreneurs who dabble in photography, these role models reinforce that we must find our career fulfilment in more than one field to be considered successful.
Not only does this mean that we can no longer claim to be clueless about what to do with our lives, it’s also become necessary for us to find a few things that fulfil us all at once.
It’s either this, or settling for the narrative that we are somehow not living our best life; that we are not thriving or achieving what we deserve.
All this is compounded with the fact that millennials have the luxury of both space and time that their parents never did. This is usually what tends to trigger older folks.
Armed with the privilege of living a relatively comfortable life where we are not forced to put food on the table or raise a family, many of us in our mid-to-late 20s can afford to explore our options and seek a job that gives us ‘purpose’. We can live at home, and not have to settle for jobs we hate just so we can pay the rent.
In turn, this freedom becomes its own prison.
But when we liberally use the label “quarter-life crisis” for every instance that we desire a new job because we don’t enjoy our current one, we reinforce the tendency to call it quits before we even have a chance to understand where the discontentment comes from.
After our umpteenth “quarter-life crisis”, it becomes clear that calling career disillusionment a “quarter-life crisis” doesn’t make things better. In fact, the label becomes a psychological crutch, emphasising our inability to deal with reality.
It may also be precisely the thing holding us back. Comfortable with the knowledge that everyone else is going through the same thing, we lack the desire to enact any real change in our lives.
Instead of targeting the root of why we are unhappy in our careers and/or lives, we settle for addressing the superficial issue: holding the wrong job. So we carelessly pick another job just to get a change in environment, unaware that we will eventually feel disillusioned and job hop again.
We end up perpetuating our own cycle of being stuck in one crisis after another.
What could alleviate the almost inevitable quarter-life crisis is firstly recognising that the culture of success that’s glorified in mainstream narratives is all an illusion. Stories about amazing and passionate multi-hyphenates are unrealistic for many of us ordinary folk.
While we may accept that what was expected of our parents’ generation is completely different from what’s expected of us, this difference in lifestyle and upbringing shouldn’t excuse our generation’s need to call everything a “crisis” when we merely face the common anxieties of being an adult.
Ultimately, it’s about embracing these feelings as a perfectly normal and expected part of life. All this so that when life gives lemons to a strawberry generation, we can finally make sweet lemonade.