Hard Times Can Be Troubling Even for Those Too Young for a Midlife Crisis

By Lindsay Minnema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Armed with a degree in political science from Northeastern University, Heidi Buchanan came to the District in June 2006 to find her dream job in public policy. What she found instead was that life after college wasn't all she had hoped it would be.

There was the job she didn't like, the new city in which she had no friends and the nostalgia she felt for the happiness of her college years. Put them all together, and what Buchanan had was a severe case of post-graduation blues.

Call it a quarter-life crisis, the 20-something version of a midlife crisis, in which sufferers struggle to establish their sense of identity and purpose. It's not a new phenomenon, but today's young people seem to experience it more acutely than the young people who came before them. And with the tumultuous economy and job market meltdown of the past year, recent grads are getting a double helping of quarter-life anxiety.

Unlike young adults of generations past, many of whom were married and settled in their careers by their mid-20s, today's college grads experience a longer period of transition to the settled-down stage, said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts and author of "Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From Late Teens Through the Twenties."

"It is a unique time of life when people are not entirely dependent on their parents . . . but they don't have a stable life structure with marriage and parenthood and stable work," Arnett said. "They go in a lot of directions, change jobs a lot, change love partners. They go through a long period of figuring out who they are and how they fit in the world."

Arnett believes this transition period can be positive, with its opportunities for growth and adventure. But for some people, the turmoil brings worry, fears of failure or of being trapped by responsibilities, or depression.

In the case of Buchanan, who is now 26, her job made her unhappy because she didn't know what she really wanted out of her career. Then in March this year, the bad economy made her decision for her: She was laid off. Suddenly she found herself having to reexamine her life.

"Maybe I want a career totally out of the ordinary -- say like being a flight attendant," she wrote on her blog, Life in Pink. "I'd love to travel and meet new people. But to be honest? I just . . . don't know. At all."

Lauren Kellar, a counselor at the Center for Well Being in Falls Church, has seen many of her quarter-life clients laid off or facing pay cuts. Some have to ask their parents for help with paying bills, and some even have to move back home -- a big blow to the self-esteem, she said.

In a recent online survey by CollegeGrad.com, a job search Web site, 68.9 percent of the more than 2,000 respondents said they would move back with their parents after graduating from college and stay there until they found a job. That is up from 64.6 percent in 2008 and 62.6 percent in 2007.

Even those with jobs sometimes feel stuck doing something they don't enjoy because they fear they have no other options. "They want to go back to school for a master's or MBA, and they're not doing it because they're already in debt," Kellar said.

"Kids are changing their dreams," said Leslie Seppinni, a marriage and family therapist and doctor of clinical psychology in Beverly Hills, Calif. They are "going for things more pragmatic in terms of earning a living and getting a job later. Kids are now thinking about what is the safe thing to do to get a paycheck."

But the anxiety over the future and the disappointment in not landing passion-fulfilling jobs makes the quarter-life depression worse. At the same time, Seppinni said, technology is breeding a generation of online sulkers. No longer limited to sharing their woes at the family dinner table or while hanging out with friends, quarter-lifers have countless opportunities to brood in blogs and on Twitter and Facebook -- anytime, anywhere. And finding fellow victims to commiserate with is never more than a click away.

"Depending on your character and moral outlook, you'll seek like-minded people, and they are all over the Internet," Seppinni said. "Someone inclined to be depressed can find people who corroborate. . . . It also leads to focusing on a lot of drama and nonsense."

Instead of stewing in their misery, quarter-lifers should focus on what they can change, Seppinni said. "Although it is a time of depression, it is also a time of being creative in getting yourself to do something out of your comfort zone," she said. "Embrace the challenge."

In her therapy sessions, Kellar starts by telling her clients they aren't alone. Then she helps them get comfortable with who they are.

"A lot of times you don't know what you want because you're out of touch with things," Kellar said. "Take a step back, boil things down. Make choices in a more deliberate way, and afterwards know how [you] feel about them." It's about gaining self-awareness, she said.

For Buchanan, losing her job turned out to be the push she needed. Blessed with more time to work on her blog, she realized her real passion lay in writing. Now she hopes to make a living from it.

"It's a hard path, and it won't be easy," said Buchanan, whose fiance is helping to pay the bills while she builds her portfolio. "But I know what I want to do now, and I have the supportive base to get me there."

"You're never going to be certain that you've chosen the right path," said Abby Wilner, co-author of "Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties." "You'll always have doubts, but you learn to deal with those doubts. Learning to cope with that is when the crisis ends."

Comments: minnemal@washpost.com.

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