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Mind & Meaning: The latest affliction -- quarter-life crisis


Reason to smile: TV's Audrina Patridge happily celebrates her 26th birthday with brother Mark recently. But for some her age things aren't so cheery.

Reason to smile: TV's Audrina Patridge happily celebrates her 26th birthday with brother Mark recently. But for some her age things aren't so cheery.

Reason to smile: TV's Audrina Patridge happily celebrates her 26th birthday with brother Mark recently. But for some her age things aren't so cheery.

I had never heard of the quarter-life crisis until very recently. My education on it came when I read a piece about it from the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference earlier this month.

We've all heard, of course, of the midlife crisis, when people, usually men, are said, variously, to do silly things such as taking up crochet or make profound life-changing decisions.

Whatever the pattern, the upshot is commonly one of distress, gloom and anxiety. Occasionally clinical depression follows.

The idea behind quarter-life crisis is that people in their 20s are afflicted by a pre-midlife crisis that makes them lonely, depressed and insecure. According to psychologist Oliver Robinson of Greenwich University, this first empirical study of the condition, presented at the Society's meeting, found that professionals in their late 20s and early 30s were most likely to succumb.

A recent survey of 1,100 young people by Gumtree.com verified some of his findings in that 30pc felt under pressure to marry and have children by the age of 30 while 21pc wanted a complete change of career.

According to Robinson, a quarter-life crisis lasts about two years and for many it is ultimately a positive experience that can propel enriching change.

He outlines four phases. The first consists of a feeling of being trapped but unable to exit and this may relate to a job or a relationship. The second phase is marked by the sense that change is possible and it is during this period of embarking on new ventures that emotional turmoil and upset is described.

During the third phase the new ventures are built upon, while they are cemented in the fourth phase.

The quarter-life crisis tends to occur shortly after the person leaves college and enters the real world of work and life outside the educational hothouse. It is possibly linked to a disconnect between the lifestyle that was hoped for and the reality of inadequate pay and living conditions.

Robinson suggests that two factors broadly contribute to it. The first relates to the high expectations that people have of themselves and also that others have of them. This may be more pop psychology than empirically based, since, surely, career expectations are less than in the 1980s, with 20-somethings often taking time out to travel, moving easily between jobs and staying in education longer than previous generations.

A further possible cause, raised by Robinson also, is that young people have less structure but more choice in their lives, hence they are in a state of emotional uncertainty and personal insecurity.

Examples are career fluidity, with many changing careers or taking second degrees in their late 20s.

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Similarly, relationships are also molten as people enter and exit diverse relationships with ease. This is what Durkheim, the French sociologist, would possibly have called 'anomie' or the changing norms of society that hitherto held communities together.

So, when the milestone of the 30th birthday approaches, the person has to confront the reality of their life and distress is the result.

These theories of quarter-life crises are all very well, but it is tempting to ask the question if these doubts, fears and uncertainties are any more pressing now than in times past.

For example, during the 1930s, were young people not faced with a grave economic depression as well as the rise of Nazism and the threat of a world war? What was the equivalent of quarter-life crisis during that period of history? It is likely that people just grinned and bore their lot with stoicism and courage.

It is also arguable that quarter-life crises may just be an indulgence and nothing more than shorthand for describing the trials and tribulations that many experience, and always have experienced, as they move from early to full adulthood.

In our over-medicalised world, there is a danger that when a phenomenon affecting people's psyche is named it will generate therapies, most often psychological but increasingly pharmacological, and eventually be accorded the status of a psychiatric illness.

Instead, during transition-phase states of distress, the focus should ideally be on individual coping skills and innate resilience should be harnessed. There is also the dread that we may see an evolving set of terminologies reflecting emotional upheaval at other times in peoples' lives -- perhaps pensioner or octogenarian crisis.

Ultimately, we should simply be discussing the understandable ups and downs that are part of the human condition, and that can occur at any age, instead of dignifying these with quasi-scientific labels.

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