Looking at young adults around us, especially through social media, most of them seem to be living a happy, rich, and successful life. Everyone’s always smiling, and many show that what they do for a living is not only fun, but often fulfilling and purposeful.
To all intents and purposes, some young people are actually extremely satisfied with their lives and their roles in society, as they seem to have found their purpose in life. Anyhow, on the other side of the coin, many are experiencing the so-called “Quarter-life crisis” or QLC – a “period of uncertainty and questioning that typically occurs when people feel trapped, uninspired, and disillusioned during their mid-20s to early 30s.”
A road of opportunities
Traditionally, people turning 20 years old are supposed to be living the best time of their lives, usually facing no major responsibilities, while approaching a wide variety of possibilities about the future opening up in front of them. They have something that older people tend to feel like they have lost: enormous and wholesome opportunities combined with the time to exploit them, whilst fulfilling their own potential.
Indeed, thanks to globalization and the major role of the internet, recently fostered and accelerated by the pandemic, nowadays youngsters have the opportunity to pursue almost endless paths. Not only traditional careers and life choices are there to stay, but new occupations such as those provided by most common social medias (think about Instagram Influencers, Twitchers, or TikTokers) are becoming viable – and often highly lucrative – options. This pullulation, to many adults, could seem like an advantage for youngsters’ happiness. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in reality.
What is a Quarter-life Crisis?
QLC is nothing but a timeframe of psychological difficulty “involving anxiety over the direction and quality of one's life” and it relates to the uncertainty and soul-searching status that characterizes the transition out of adolescence and into adulthood. Commonly, such periods of the crisis last for about one year, and they are experienced during the course of major life changes, such as the post-university transition, when people start doubting their relationships, career choices, appearance, or financial situation while facing the reality of their ‘firsts’: for instance, first job experience, first apartment, or first committing relationship.
This phenomenon was theoretically raised upon the studies of the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1968) – which stated that human beings, throughout their whole lives, can experience eight major identity crises – and was consequently extended by Arnett (2000, 2007), Robbins and Wilner (2001), Robinson (2010, 2013, 2019) and some other peers. The researchers found these crises to arise when people are struggling with the definition of their personal identity, but they can also derive from feeling “locked-out” from something desired (e.g., a particular career path, economic independence, love) or “locked-in” into something unwanted (e.g., a frustrating environment, an unhealthy relationship, or an undesirable lifestyle).
More isn’t always better.
As Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper (2000) showed in a study on purchasing decisions, too much choice can be demotivating, and more isn’t always better. Let’s use a simple example. If I’m in need of a pair of jeans, I will probably go to a shop that sells them, try them on and choose the pair that best fits me. If the shop offers 3 or 4 options and I know my taste, I will probably get a better pair than if the shop only offered one type. However, should the shop offer 100 different styles, it would be way harder for me to choose the best pair, and – even in the case in which I end up with an objectively better piece of clothing – I will probably feel overwhelmed, uncertain, and dissatisfied. And this was only for a pair of jeans!
Now, let’s transpose this example to greater life choices, and add some of the current world’s volatility on top, also enhanced by Covid-19 crisis: choices such as where to invest money, which career path to pursue (hoping that it will turn profitable in the future), or which city to live in could literally lead us to what Barry Schwartz (2006) defined as the “choice paralysis” – a status in which complexity leads to indecision, which in turn leads to stagnation, triggered by the fear of making the wrong choices.
Not to choose or to choose poorly?
As previously mentioned, the quarter-life period or early adult life is full of occasions and contemporarily, full of uncertainties. According to statistics, young people are becoming financially independent later and later, thus, their first ‘adulthood decisions’ become crucial in their minds, as such decisions are perceived as decisive. Hence, to avoid the burden of a binding choice, many of them prefer not to choose independently, whilst being influenced by their peers’ choices. This inevitably brings many youngsters to feel dissatisfied and not in control of their lives, reiterating the QLC cycle.
Maybe, should youngsters follow their own paths, trying to make them as unique and personal as possible – through self-listening, but also through trial-and-error processes which inevitably contain some poor decisions – they wouldn’t feel so lost in confusion.