Experts say the condition most often occurs between the ages of 23 and 27, but you may experience a delayed affliction into your early thirties. Symptoms can include career indecision, resumé fatigue, student-loan remorse, spare-bedroom recidivism, chronic underemployment, a disintegrating social network and reoccurring delusions of graduate school. You may encounter conflicting impulses to both backpack through Asia and put a down payment on a house. Your emotions swing wildly between ambition and apathy, and you often experience an overwhelming feeling of being stuck in your service-industry job. While you seek advice for your affliction, the collection-agency guy responds by telling you to quit sniveling and pay off your Visa debt. Parents and older co-workers listen to your grievances with a toothy scoff. Welcome to the real world, kiddo. Only 25 more years to go.
You are so having a quarter-life crisis.
Don't fret, dear twenty-something, you are not alone. As a 25-year-old, I sympathize with your wretched disposition. As do my friends. For example, Jeff has a master's degree in education from a private university in Portland, but he can't find a salaried teaching position to pay off his massive debt. He regularly gets mistaken for a student when he subs at public high schools, and yesterday he called to tell me he had confiscated a handwritten questionnaire passed between two seventh-grade girls that included a check box for "butt sex."
"Oh, man, that was just way too grown-up for me," he said, blushing through the phone.
And yet while the world matures around us, some of us balk when confronted with even the most mundane of adult obligations. Last week, my friends Brian and Nicole went through a bout of roommate angst after Brian neglected to pay the heating bill -- for eight months.
"You're supposed to be a responsible adult!" she screamed.
"Nicole," he countered plainly, "I am neither responsible nor am I an adult."
Luckily, social scientists have conducted groundbreaking research on the widening phenomenon of late-onset adulthood and created such labels such as "adultescence," "youthhood" and my favorite, "kidults." It's a word mash-up used to convey an in-between state, as many young people hold off on long-term careers or marriage. And because 65 percent of college graduates now return home to live with Mom and Dad, we've been dubbed the "boomerangs" to our parents' "baby boomers."
Jason Steinle knows your pain. He's a 28-year-old chiropractor in Evergreen who recently self-published a book about the phenomenon, called Upload Experience: Quarterlife Solutions for Teens and Twentysomethings. He stumbled on the idea after moving to Colorado from South Dakota to start his business. He was feeling angsty, so he started talking to successful professionals and asking them about their experiences. The more he talked to people, the more he kept finding repeated themes, until he stumbled upon the concept of a quarter-life crisis. Form was given to his thoughts. He began talking to other twenty-somethings, and over the past three and a half years, Steinle has interviewed more than 350 quarter-lifers across the nation. That enthusiasm turned into a life-issues talk show, The Steinle Show, on KYGT radio in Summit County and on Denver Community Television, and gave him the idea for the book. The freshly printed Upload is the first in what he hopes to be a series of life manuals for the Simpsons generation.
When he sent me an e-mail peppered with statistics about "surviving on the outside," what caught my eye was the fact that between the ages of 18 and 32, the current batch of young Americans "will hold an average of 8.6 jobs." While dramatically higher than past generations, he assured me -- someone who has held fourteen different jobs since high school -- that there was nothing wrong with this. It is just how young people prepare for the new economy, where employee/company relationships are as promiscuous as those on MTV Spring Break.
I wasn't sure if I should be relieved or terrified by this theory, so I asked Steinle to coffee at Denver's ground zero for twenty-something angst, Paris on the Platte. There we observed the bohemian underclass in its natural environment, smoke corkscrewing in the sunlight, laptops humming in chorus. These are the exact same kids that I used to see here when I was fifteen, except now they have more tattoos, piercings and years of advanced schooling -- all of which prevents them from getting a job in the mainstream world. One guy with a buzz cut furiously types his existential treatise into a black Compaq, and Steinle looks upon him the way an anthropologist might observe an aboriginal Bushman. One more person who appears to have realized that his degree doesn't mean shit and that Starbucks, though an evil empire, actually provides really good benefits.
Steinle says he's noticed two big trends that make coming of age different now than when our parents may have experienced it. "One is, job-wise, we don't have the foundation that our parents did," he says. "Typically, our parents' generation, especially our grandparents, would go work for one company for thirty or fifty years, retire, get that company watch and then have a retirement plan. Whereas with our generation, there's not that one company."
Because of this, he says, quarter-lifers are placing greater priority on finding a career and lifestyle that fits. The same is true with marriage. "Before jumping into a marriage at 21, having kids at 22, we're stepping back. We're starting to get a clear understanding of the direction we're heading right at that gateway. As opposed to turning around and having that divorce, turning around and wondering what happened to the last twenty years of our lives and having a midlife crisis where we suddenly quit our job, buy a sports car and marry someone half our age because we never asked ourselves questions early on."
There certainly are a lot of questions. Each one of the thirty chapters in Steinle's book ponders a question that he found quarter-lifers consistently asked. For example, Chapter 3 is "What Is My Purpose?" Chapter 7 dwells on "Who Am I?" Chapter 29 asks "What Is My Spiritual Path?"
With this format, the resulting book is so generalized and overreaching that much of it reads like a bad pamphlet in a guidance counselor's office. But the redeeming quality to Upload Experience is that it gives a sounding board to an honest-to-God trend that has sucked many a young idealist into the doldrums. For example, 27-year-old LeighAnn of Denver told Steinle that her problem was that there were so many things she wanted to do with her life, she didn't know where to start. "I wanted to do something that would make my family proud because I was a college graduate, and then I wanted to do acting, then dancing, and then I wanted to live in other places," she said. "There were just so many things I wanted to do that I couldn't pick one."
So, like many young people, she did nothing and procrastinated, something Steinle calls the "deer-in-the-headlights syndrome." Instead of falling victim to this, he advises young people to start gaining real-world experience by volunteering or taking internships in various fields long before college graduation -- as early as high school. "Why wait until you've spent all that time and money to learn if you'll like working at a job when you can [figure that out] sooner?" he says.
His message in a nutshell: "Why not enjoy it now?"
Don't worry, be happy.
"Just because you haven't received a promotion, landed a record contract, finished a book, started a family or organized a trip doesn't mean you're stuck," he writes. "As long as you're preparing and practicing, you're moving forward."
I am enthused by his enthusiasm. Huzzah for Steinle! I even offer to buy his tea. But when he leaves to go back to Evergreen, I am standing at the counter, money in hand, and the familiar cynicism returns. (Ah, there you are. I missed you. ) Don't worry, be happy? What kind of retarded crap is that? What about the economy? Heating bills? Seventh-grade butt sex?
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I'm in crisis central, and I can hear the hissing sound of 29-year-old kidults across America slowly letting the air out of their dreams.
Oh, no, wait. False alarm.
It's just the steaming wand.