Scott Newberg flew into Logan airport in the middle of the night. He went straight home to his office, and in the dark room the blue light of his computer glared — a screen full of unfinished work that piled up while he was gone. He sat down at the keyboard, and that's when he had the revelation. He gave notice. He has no other job lined up. He has no real plan for how he will make money. But the career he had was not fulfilling.

One of the contributions Generations X and Y have made to the workplace is the quarterlife crisis. It's not the midlife crisis, typified by a baby boomer in a Porsche obsessively speeding. The quarterlife crisis happens in one's twenties and more likely involves takeout pizza and obsessive IMing.

The journey toward crisis begins at college graduation, when the typical student has about ten thousand dollars in loans and no skills to land a decent job. Frank Furstenberg, professor of sociology at University of Pennsylvania, says the transition to adulthood is “more arduous today than it was fifty years ago.” Employers are not hiring people in their early 20s for staff jobs. “Employers hire temps for positions that don't require experience. Society can incorporate people only when they get some experience working and there is a better match between employee and employer.”

With little to lose, most twentysomethings use their post-college time as an opportunity for finding oneself, seeing what's available, and trying a lot on for size. (Which translates to more than eight jobs before turning 32.) The new behavior, which looks remarkably like flailing, is appropriate for the new workplace. Jeffrey Arnett, psychologist at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood says, “People have different personal time tables and it's nice that people can make choices that are right for them.”

Yet this new phase in one's career is unnerving in light of the stability of previous generations of people in their 20s. And if the job-hopping doesn't stop by age thirty, the stress intensifies to crisis.

Emerging adults “have high expectations for work. It is not just a way to make a living,” says Arnett. They want work to be fulfilling and to be an expression of their identities.”

This is true for Alexandra Robbins. She took the first job offered to her after college because she was “seduced by the trappings: Short commute, friends at the company, office with a door. The pay was fine, but the work was not rewarding.”

She realized that in the post-college world, people are judged by their answer to the question, “So, what do you do?” And she knew she needed to do something that could define her.

Typical of her generation, she does not claim to have extravagant dreams: “I never had a big dream. I wanted to make a living writing. Dreams that are too specific lead to missed opportunities.” As a writer she has become a sort of spokesperson for the generation of lost college graduates. Her recent book, Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis, chronicles the ups and downs of people like her, who finally found their way.

Like Furstenberg, Robbins sees that previous generations were more equipped to make the transition to adulthood. “We cannot gain a foothold in society until age thirty. But our parents' generation has twenty in their head. The crisis is a clash of generations.” Fifty years ago, people expected to find a job for life right after college and be married with kids by 24. But for the current generation, Robbins declares, “Thirty is the new twenty.”

Sure, GenXers and Ys have high expectations for work, and maybe they're unreasonable, “but the only way to find out is to try,” says Arnett. “Most people will fail. But by the time people are in their late twenties most have made peace with their dreams. Psychologically people tend to accommodate themselves to whatever they have.”

The problems start around age 27 or 28, when most people find a career. For people who do not feel settled, there is panic and what Arnett calls “desperate and dangerous” measures in order to reach their goals.

Which brings us back to Newberg, whose wife is about to give birth. His plan is to stay home with the baby while she supports the family. And he will write music for commercials, though he has scant experience in the trade. And he will “write some novels and shop them around.” He wants to support his family in five years but has not figured out how many novels or musical compositions he would need to sell to do that. Those people who are not turning thirty might bristle at Newberg's plan. But he says, speaking for many in his generation, “I don't want to be eighty and regret not taking this risk.”

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  1. Free MLM Training
    Free MLM Training says:

    I definitely agree with this post. Although I seem to be in the minority of the younger generation who found a career early on, I feel held back by the baby boomers that loom above me.

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  3. Christopher Lythgoe
    Christopher Lythgoe says:

    I wasn’t familiar with the idea of a quarter-life crisis, but seeing it in black and white, and seeing so many comments is actually encouraging knowing that I am not on my own feeling the way that I feel right now (not that i’m surprised that this is the case).

    I am 27 (for a minute there I put 28 – I lose track) and still feel like I haven’t started my career. All through school I was an all-rounder so was actually really happy jumping through the hoops and succeeding. I took the advice of people that told me to follow what I enjoyed and went down a creative career path rather than an academic one. But I was constantly telling myself that I wasn’t a natural creative because half of my talent was in academia. I now look back at my education and have a real sense of anger and resentment that I wasn’t better guided to fulfil my talent across all sides. I was particularly good at maths as well as art (odd combination I always thought) and currently work on the periphery of the games industry where I can see that had this career choice been explained to me, that I would have studied computer programming. Instead I dropped maths, don’t find myself to be much of a creative either, and so am scrabbling around in admin positions and seeing younger kids getting the opportunities that I would’ve wanted. I feel let down.

    I toy with the idea of re-training, but don’t feel sure enough that this one career path is the one for me, to put myself into tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt. What’s to say that the education system isn’t going to let me down again.

    I have just broken up with my girlfriend (literally an hour or two ago). She is so focused on her career and it genuinely depresses me that somebody 4 years younger than me is on a path to succeed. That’s awful isn’t it?! I am happy for her – of course I am, but when I look at her I just see what I should have been. That’s tough to live with. I told her something about a month back, which she said was sad to hear, and that was that I wish I could go back 10 years and start over again from 17. She said that this is the wrong attitude, and she’s probably right. She says that if I want something, I should just go out and work towards it. But that’s precisely the problem isn’t it. I don’t know what I want. I’ve taken jobs and have convinced myself so much that that is what I am supposed to do, that I have completely lost any grasp of who I am as a person. I only act to become something close to what other people think that I am working towards, and that changes day by day.

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  5. Katie
    Katie says:

    When you die, it does not say on your tombstone “Joe – Successful Lawyer” it usually says something like “Joe – Loving father, brother” etc, followed by a meaningful quote or prayer. Your career/job most certainly does not define who you are as a person. It might shed light on something you’re passionate about (if you are) and give insight to what you may or may not be like, but it definitely does not define who you are as a whole.

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