I look back at the year 2019 with so much fondness. It was the last year of college. I remember taking a paper napkin from a cafe I was at, with friends after class, and jotting down all the things we still had to do together — shop sarees for post-graduation farewell party, visit X, go to Y. We had a trip planned after finals and so many uneventful days to fill.
Then just like that, on a regular evening in September 2020, I submitted my dissertation and it was all over. I hadn't met my friends in months, would perhaps not see some of them for years to come, hadn’t sat in a real classroom or walked to and from my hostel in weeks, or really lived at all. It was as if life was on hold. Yet I had graduated and earned a Master's degree.
I called myself the "almost graduate". I felt like a fraud. Did I just graduate sitting in my room?
“It felt...disconnected. Such a huge turning point in my life and yet it passed like nothing,” a former batchmate, Jeevanjot Kaur Nagpal, 23, notes. There were no graduation robes, no photoshoots, no last-minute hugs with friends or meetups with professors, no teary eyes, no feeling of accomplishment, no goodbyes. The pandemic didn't just steal time from us -- it stole all the memories we almost made.
In her pitch for the show Girls (2012-2017), actor and its creator, Lena Dunham writes: “…between adolescence and adulthood is an uncomfortable middle-ground, when women are ejected from college and into a world with neither glamour nor structure.” Research corroborates. Professor of Psychology at University of Greenwich, Oliver C. Robinson defines this as “the ‘in between’ life stage…in which a young person is legally an adult but remains unsettled (and) exploratory.” Alternatively termed as “emerging adulthood” or “adultscence”, therapists J.D. Atwood and Corinne Scholtz describe this stage as “one of identity exploration, instability, possibility...and of a substantial sense of limbo”.
In college, I was always striving for authenticity – through my writings, presentations, interactions with peers, even in assignments. Letting go of such a huge chunk of my life — the routine and structure of learning, the freedom and camaraderie — so prematurely and abruptly, created a deep sense of emptiness. Without it, I didn't know who I was. The fact that it seemed like I'd never have that same sense of belonging again, was a bigger blow than I had bargained for.
The pandemic deprived us of connections within campus spaces so integral to our experience of university life. While talking about what they missed the most about university, recent graduates recall the times spent together on the way to college, in canteens and study rooms, regular classroom interactions and a sense of comfort and comradeship so missing in a pandemic. Contrary to the tangible presences inside campus — a hand that hands you a kulhar of tea, friends you bump into reading rooms and libraries, small-talk in the photocopy shop —transition into the real world, post-pandemic was marked by absences, as we worked cooped in our rooms, alone in the glare of computer lights.
Robinson theorizes two types of Quarter-Life Crisis (QLC) – ”locked-out” in which an individual feels shut out of opportunities and “locked-in” state in which individuals feel trapped in their current environment.
Nagpal echoes the former sentiment while describing her post-university transition in a pandemic as “fraught with uncertainty and feelings of hopelessness.” Applying to jobs “was like trying to shoot arrows in the void,” she reflects. Interestingly, while the overall feeling of crises in students from humanities backgrounds stemmed from a sense of being "locked out" of viable career options, for slightly older graduates it was a feeling of being trapped in unfulfilling work, and having no chance, during the pandemic, to change or experiment.
“I feel like I am yet to find my passion or purpose. It's scary to think that it might be too late," Shinjinee Laik, now 27 and a chartered accountant from Kolkata says. Raima Ganguly, (25), a former student of Comparative Literature emphasizes the impossibility of "having stable finances” coming from a “non-technical field", while Shaoni Dasgupta (28), who’d studied English Literature, underscores the conundrum of finding "a job I'm passionate about that pays."
"The pandemic has increased the feeling of uncertainty and instability that already comes with being a young adult," notes clinical psychologist Riddhi Thaker Dave. While talking about how the pandemic affected QLC in her clients, counselling psychologist Charvi Jain says the lack of clarity, the social isolation, the grief and loss, all exacerbated the uncertainties of QLC.
“I found so many of my clients in their post-graduation feeling lost because they didn’t know whether they would even get a job post the completion of their course. The ones who already had jobs were worried about being laid off. So many of my clients re-evaluated their career choices because the last two years changed the shape of so many industries. And of course it wasn’t just career, the uncertainty was all pervasive. The ones who were single, couldn’t go on physical dates, the ones in relationships didn’t know if they were going to make it past the pandemic,” Jain mentions.
She points to the “invisible clock” or the culturally reinforced “strict unsaid timeline” to get your life together, as a source of these anxieties. “The space to explore, make mistakes and go at your own pace” is not there, especially in a pandemic, leading to “an added pressure to have it all figured out by a certain age".
As losses of all kinds during the pandemic kept us awake, life for twenty-somethings was to be at once seized with the futility of fighting for a future we didn’t have and the paranoia of not having our lives sorted. It was the fear of hoping and the indispensability of it at a time when hope was the only thing holding us together. “Added to all of this was health anxiety of their families and themselves,” Jain further adds. While worries about health, sickness and ageing parents were previously associated with mid-life crisis, the pandemic hastened them.
I went from twenty-three to twenty-five in the pandemic. I felt framed in that scene from the movie Reality Bites (1994) where actor Winona Ryder as the protagonist Lelaina Pierce, broods “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23."
How do you become who you’re meant to be, with the world unravelling around you in a pandemic? How do you build your life from the floor of your bedroom, trapped inside? Instead of basing productivity “as a rubric for measuring success” Dave suggests moving to a more subjective definition where individuals “set their own standards…based on their own value-systems,” corresponding with “their mental, physical, and spiritual well-being, with less focus on societal accomplishments like a job, marriage or how early one is financially stable”.
My QLC as a pandemic postgraduate is the story of finding that life.