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Mid-Twenties Malaise

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, June 27, 2001; Page A25

Even Katie Couric had a hard time keeping a straight face when her producers sat her down with Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, the young explicators of the latest generational crisis to hit bookstore shelves. Here's a trend almost too good to be true -- one so earnest, so weightless, as to verge on self-parody. Introducing . . . the "quarterlife crisis," the formless angst that haunts would-be achievers in their twenties.

Life crises strike earlier these days, it seems, because it is so difficult to be a promising young thing hurled from college life into the maw of a humming peacetime economy. "The transition to the 'real world' has never been tougher," Robbins recently confided to Oprah. There's all that pressure to make your first dot-com billion before you're 30 (and, now, the knowledge that the boom might have passed you by). That yearning after fulfillment. That excess of choice. That lack of such existentially testing experiences as being marched off to the Mekong Delta the minute your student deferment expires.

Now, I wouldn't live through my twenties again if you paid me. I can remember (if I have to) that sense of being a provisional, self-inventing creature in grown-up disguise, eating Cheerios for dinner in my cockroach-ridden walk-up, watching "Kojak" reruns with my cat too late at night.

But Robbins and Wilner, who are both 25, prove the efficacy of total humorlessness in stamping out any faint empathy the middle-aged might feel toward the young. "Some twentysomethings," they write in "Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties," "worry that the knowledge that they can leave their jobs at any time and still get another one might be something they could take advantage of -- and raise their standards too high in the process. If they have to fight boredom at one job, they might encounter boredom at the next job. They fear falling into a pattern of 'the two-month itch,' in which, after some time at one job, they will get bored and look to switch -- because they can."

If that's not enough to make you loathe their subjects, the authors finish the job by playing up the self-seriousness of their universally privileged interviewees. Consider the hard-won wisdom of Penny, who rose above her quarterlife crisis by breaking up with her boyfriend and quitting a job in marketing. Now, the authors write approvingly, "She dates, enjoys the sunshine, does more yoga, and is currently in the midst of doing what she calls 'reconnecting.' Upon reflection, Penny says she was focusing so hard on fitting into her perceived image of herself that she lost sight of who she actually was. 'For the past year, all I worried about was who I really was, instead of just being, like Pooh,' she says."

Or consider Scott, who, at 27, feels restless working on Capitol Hill. "Who knew four years ago I'd actually want to be fulfilled by my work? But I do, and now I find myself questioning how and when I will find my life's work. . . . I've committed myself to exploring other options that interest me, but I'm having a hard time actually thinking of a career that sounds appealing. There is one that I've been meaning to explore, but sometimes I'd rather just watch TV or play guitar or go out with my friends."

One of the compensations of hitting 40 or 50 is that at least you know that the problems of being an upwardly mobile professional are among the greatest blessings on earth. Read a few of these stories and you start to feel that youth, like college and great skin, is wasted on the young. Read more and you'll feel like your own grandmother (Why, when I was a girl . . .). Before you know it, you'll be mulling the benefits of universal conscription.

But this is just the sort of know-nothing boomer superiority that compounds the torment of the quarterlife. It's all too easy to forget the simple difficulty of feeling like a beginner. In fact, I'm thinking of talking my 8-year-old into co-authoring a book with me. We'll call it "The Decade Crunch: the Challenge of Nearing 10." Chapters could include "Stuck in the Middle (Too Old For Pokemon . . . Too Young For Myst)"; "Little Sisters Are More Annoying Than They Used to Be"; "A Fork In The Road (What If You Get a Mean Teacher This Year?)"; and "The Big Change . . . When Bathroom Jokes Aren't Funny Anymore."

The transition to third grade has never been tougher.


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