April 04, 2003


MY SO-CALLED 'CRISIS' It started out as a nondescript self-help book by a couple of first-time authors that turned into a bestseller, and then became a phenomenon due in part to a throwaway lyric from a John Mayer song. "Quarterlife Crisis" is the latest buzzword among people my age; a google search of the phrase turns up more than 2,200 results. Having read the book and taken in the hype over the last two years, I believe with all due respect to the authors that the "quarterlife crisis" theory is a bunch of nonsense.
The book "Quarterlife Crisis," by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, was published in the spring of 2001 on J.P. Tarcher (full disclosure: one of the authors is a friend of a friend of mine, though I've not met her). The book sold well from the start but has picked up steam as the economy has declined and more and more recent college grads have found themselves in career uncertainty- and then gained even more traction when Mayer used the phrase "must be a quarterlife crisis" in the song "Why Georgia" on his popular, Grammy-winning 2002 album "Room For Squares." The main argument of the book (and of the phenomenon surrounding it) is that people in their early 20s have "unique challenges" that need to be addressed, whether in the area of dating, careers, friendship, or otherwise, and that often recent college graduates have trouble making the transition into adult life.
My chief objection to the quarterlife crisis thesis is that just about anybody is capable of having a crisis at any particular point in their life. Sure, it's unfortunate for someone to lose their job, or get dumped by their girlfriend, or to be plagued by indecision over which city to live in or which career to pursue- but each one of these things can happen to anyone at any age. The only thing that's unique about having one in your early 20s is that it's probably the time in your life that your crisis is the least likely to actually have any consequences. And besides, ask anyone in their mid-to-late 20s which period was more traumatic- high school or post-college- and I guarantee nine people out of ten would say high school. It doesn't help, of course, that Robbins and Wilner almost exclusively interview college graduates who come from stable families and have or used to have high-paying jobs. I think a large percentage of the true quarterlife crises going on in this country involve people for whom little or none of the above apply; after all, which is a bigger crisis: the 19-year-old inner-city high school dropout who just got pregnant for the second time, or the 24-year-old Penn grad who can't decide whether to go to law school, or keep on being an investment banker?
I speak from experience: just over two years ago I both lost my job and had a long-term relationship end within the period of a few weeks. Yes, it was awful- but I realized that the situation would've been exponentially worse had it happened when I'm 35 and had children than when I was 21 and single. The quarterlife crisis myth strikes me as a way to give affluent young people who have never really suffered anything truly traumatic yet another mechanism for feeling sorry for themselves.
(The "quarterlife crisis," however, is not to be confused with legitimate depression, which really does affect many people in new situations and should certainly not be downplayed.)
While I'd review as the Robbins/Wilner book as well-intentioned but wrongheaded, I certainly wouldn't call it insulting. But that's more than I can say about a recent Star Tribune examination of the topic. Mentioning at no point that the book is two years old, reporter Kay Miller applies it to a 25-year-old native of the upscale suburb Edina. This guy finished college a few years ago, and is now living in Colorado, where he has a "lucrative consulting career," yet not not lucrative enough apparently, because for him "dating is unbelievably expensive" (who these women are that he's taking out, I don't want to know). And he's also upset that he can't afford to buy a house, but how many single 25-year-old males who aren't NBA players or leftover dotcom millionaires do you know who own their own house?
As if to underscore just how tone deaf Miller's approach to the topic is, she throws statistics at us like "roughly 400,000 people are in their 20s in the 11-county Twin Cities metropolitan area," apparently forgetting that a large percentage of those people can't even afford to go to college, let alone graduate, have a successful career, and live to complain about their pathetic social lives and other such "emptiness." And in discussing uncertainty related to sex and relationships, Miller attempts to tie our generation's differing attitudes to the advent of the birth control pill- as though the Pill had been invented two years ago and not 25 years ago.
Besides, John Mayer now has a Grammy award, both millions of records sold and millions of dollars, the adoration of legions of fans, and beautiful women falling at his feet everywhere he goes. If that's a "quarterlife crisis," then I'd love to have one myself.

Posted by Stephen Silver at April 4, 2003 06:02 AM
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