Remember the 2004 movie 13 Going on 30? 13-year-old Jenna makes a wish to be “thirty, flirty, and thriving” because she can no longer stand the agony of being a teenager. And poof. Her wish is granted. She miraculously transforms into a hot, successful, 30year-old magazine editor. Adult Jenna has a penthouse on Fifth Avenue, a hot (but dumb) boyfriend, a high-paying, high-status, fun job. She also has a rockin’ body and a closet full of designer threads.
The entire premise of 13 Going on 30 is that it’s a spoof on a teenager’s fantasy about what being a 30-something adult would be like. In your teen fantasies of your adult self, you’ve got it all figured out. You have the job, the home, and the guy you’ve always wanted. Oh, and your skin is free of pimples.
But the reality is rarely like the movies. Many young adults breeze by 30 and still feel unfulfilled, directionless, purposeless. And the idea that we were supposed to have “figured it all out by now” is what compounds the despair. The existential dread. The quarter-life crisis.
The quarter-life crisis is a period of anxiety and depression that many people in their 20s and 30s experience. The phenomenon is caused by the persistent questioning of your life’s path and asking yourself whether you’re measuring up to the lofty goals you had for your “adult self” when you were younger.
And unfortunately, millennials are experiencing feelings connected with quarter-life crises more acutely than the generations that came before them. It seems like every day we see a new headline bemoaning the rise in depression and anxiety among Millenials and, to some extent, Gen Zers. According to Blue Cross Blue Shield, since 2013 47% increase in major-depression diagnoses among millennials.
Why are millennials more depressed and anxious than our parents and grandparents were? Experts say the mental-health crisis among young people is due to a mixture of financial and interpersonal difficulties. The combined issues of crippling student loans, skyrocketing healthcare costs, a prohibitively competitive housing market, and stagnant wages have created a system that feels impossible to beat.
From student debt to the housing market to the cutthroat job market, the system feels stacked against us. There’s a reason the “okay boomer” meme took the internet by storm in 2019. The so-called “advice” that our parents dispense to us when we’re at a crossroads just isn’t applicable anymore.
Working a 9-to-5 that requires a Bachelor’s degree and pays minimum wage won’t get you any closer to buying a house. The game of life has become far more complicated since our parents’ time.
As therapist and social worker Tara Genovese noted to Vox, “economic milestones have been pushed back” for Millenials. But many young people’s milestone-timelines haven’t caught up with the new reality. If you consistently hear that you should have a house, paid off your student loans, have a 401k, a family, and a golden retriever by now, remember that those “shoulds” come from a bygone era. It’s taking us longer to hit the same milestones our parents did because the economy is different. Plain and simple.
On top of their financial struggles, millennials report feeling lonelier than previous generations did. Because of how our society has evolved, we may all technically be connected via the internet, but we’re more disconnected than ever. We don’t have community support systems like generations before us did, like churches and tight-knit neighborhoods.
But despite millennials having more acute symptoms of quarter-life crises — and for good reason (see above) — the quarter-life crisis phenomenon is not a new one. Even back in the ‘60s, the culture-at-large was aware of the developmental crisis that so many young folks fall victim to. Just watch the 1967 film, The Graduate — a veritable thesis statement on the quarter-life crisis.
Once childhood and the grace period after adolescence is over (usually 21-24), we expect ourselves to be firmly on track towards greatness. Our finances, our relationships, our health — all of this should’ve fallen into place by now, right?
And when we start taking stock of our accomplishments and comparing them to our previous dreams and goals or, god forbid, we start comparing them to other people’s lives; we begin to panic. Why don’t I have my dream job? My dream salary? A boyfriend? A baby? The pressure-cooker of achieving everything you want in a set period of time feels all-consuming. The clock is ticking, and time is running out.
Anxiety about the future, insecurity about not being “enough,” shame over perceiving yourself as a failure — these are all that contribute to the quarter-life crisis phenomenon.
But the good news is, you can think of this feeling as a good thing. Your quarter-life crisis might be the exact push you need to make some much-needed changes in your life. Your feelings of disappointment, restlessness, unfulfillment — you can harness these feelings towards positive change. Think of your quarter-life crisis as a compass directing you towards where you don’t want to go.
As self-help guru and author of Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, Martha Beck says: “The feeling of choked hostility, or numb depression or nauseated helplessness is a sure sign you’re steering away from your North Star, toward a life you were not meant to live. When you feel it, you must change course.”
In other words: don’t be afraid of changing your job, your relationship, your career path if it’s not serving you. It’s your life, after all. You drive the bus.
Another thing to remember is that it’s not a race. It’s life. Everyone goes at their own pace. Even when you think you’re “missing” important milestones like marriage or children or a white-picket fence, the truth is, those milestones don’t exist. The only milestones that are of any value are the ones you give value to. Stop comparing yourself to others. You’ll be much happier when you do.
Another coping mechanism to employ if you’re going through a quarter-life crisis is to remind yourself that it’s normal. You’re not broken, or behind, or out of time. You’re learning; you’re growing; you’re figuring it out as you go along. Like thousands of generations of young people did before you.