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The anxiety of a quarter-life crisis and how to navigate it

With no defined roadmap anymore, the twenties are hard. Here's what to remember as you navigate the time after adolescence and before ‘real’ adulthood

A scene from The Bold Type, with the three main twenty-something characters trying to figure out their lives and the sort of people they want to be. While such characters have not used the phrase “quarter-life crisis”, they have depicted the feelings and themes the transition entails.
A scene from The Bold Type, with the three main twenty-something characters trying to figure out their lives and the sort of people they want to be. While such characters have not used the phrase “quarter-life crisis”, they have depicted the feelings and themes the transition entails. (Screenshot)

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I start my day scrolling Instagram and come across a reel by a digital creator missing her days of being a teen. The audio accurately captures what I’ve been feeling. She is not an adolescent but does not feel like an adult either. Similarly, while I am a 23-year-old with a full-time job, I still haven’t settled into a definitive career, entered into a long-term partnership, or moved out of my parents’ home. I haven’t achieved the markers that traditionally define being an adult. It also happens to be the third time this month that I change my mind about a potential college major as the intersection between my interest, capability, and affordability seems to grow smaller every day.

Quarter-life crisis–the popular term to describe the anxiety that people between the ages of 18 and 28 feel about the future–seems to be everywhere now. In her song, Quarter Life Crisis, Taylor Bigget describes “feeling in between”, growing older but not really wiser, an idea that has resonated with her many listeners and fans.

While characters in popular TV shows have not used the phrase “quarter-life crisis”, they have depicted the feelings and themes the transition entails. Emily of Emily in Paris is a 29-year-old marketing executive, navigating professional and personal life in a new culture, uncertain about what work and life holds for her. In The Bold Type, Jane is a 26-year-old writer living in New York and dealing with questions of identity, from the kind of writer she wants to be to the values she seeks in a potential partner to whether she wants to be a mother. Ray in Eternally Confused And Eager For Love is 24-year-old navigating life choices and their consequences.

These characters are somewhat different from those that dominated popular media in the 2000s. Most characters in One Tree Hill, for instance, were either married or had successful careers by their mid-20s. “The young adult as a target audience is only a recent development in media,” Dr. Bhumika Kapoor, a social psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Delhi University. “TV shows in the early 2000s focussed on maximizing output by catering to all age groups. Dil Mil Gaye and Mile Jab Hum Tum were perhaps the few TV shows that were made keeping young adults in mind. In contrast, the number of shows catering to young adults now on OTT platforms has significantly increased in volume as well as variety.”

As the media has observed, adulthood in most industrialized societies today has been delayed. Individuals in the age group of 18-25 are not adults, as conventionally thought of, but are “emerging adults”, as psychologist and academic Jeffrey Jensen Arnett describes in his paper ‘Emerging Adulthood’. The milestones one goes through to become an adult, such as moving out of the parental household, entering into marital or long-term partnerships, holding a job, and acquiring land and other assets now seem to come later for most individuals. Economic shifts such as rising costs of living, reducing employment security and the growth of the gig economy have made it almost impossible to achieve such traditional markers of adulthood by the mid-20s. Demographic shifts that have taken place in the last 20 years have made the transition from adolescence to adulthood a distinct period characterized by an identity crisis and lack of stability, while also being an age of possibilities. Emerging adulthood years have replaced conventional adult years.

Given that adolescence seems to have passed by, and adulthood seems unreachable, a vacuum has been created between adolescence and adulthood where there is less direction, little stability or certainty, and a prolonged wait to get to the other side. There is no defined roadmap to be followed anymore, and the absence of one facilitates a state of constant questioning of the future, and a looming, perpetual sense of existential anxiety.

X (who does not want to share their name), a 24-year-old living in New Delhi says, “Despite all popular actors choosing motherhood later in life, my parents still tell me that my biological clock is ticking. It's uncomfortable to own up to my struggles of not being where I thought I would be at this age, and therefore marriage seems like an even more bizarre idea. But I don’t know how to communicate this.”

Drishti Jaisingh, an RCI licensed clinical psychologist, says, “I see individuals having very different experiences at (the) same age. Someone at 25 can be struggling with having a child and having in-laws-related responsibilities whereas someone else could have career-related difficulties, navigating questions about professional life. Therefore, experience is a much better marker for development (as compared to age).”

Sanjana Chopra, a 26-year-old professional in the developmental sector says that “marriage has been one of the things that made me feel most like an adult, because of everything it entails.” “Marriage has meant moving out of the parental house, managing household-related responsibilities, and working on emotional maturity that is required to maintain a healthy, committed relationship. It has also meant stepping up and just taking more responsibility in all spheres of life, which is not something I previously had to do.”

While adulthood responsibilities are being delayed for many, it also varies by class and geography. “There is a shift in when people attain adult milestones, but the shift is more salient in areas where there is a burgeoning presence of global symbols like diverse career opportunities, internet access, higher education access. That is to say that the shift is very urban and prevalent for those with means, and privilege,” says Kapoor.

The word “crisis” has never had a positive connotation. It has always translated to ‘I am in trouble’. But are people in their 20s navigating identity-related questions really in trouble? Or have the multiple narratives around what adulthood means left them overwhelmed? It might be worth considering whether “quarter-life crisis” is the best descriptor for this period of transition. What if it's not a quarter-life “crisis”, but just emerging adulthood, a stage in human development that will resolve once we conclude our 20s?

Nona Uppal, a 24-year-old writer based in New Delhi says that while she has no clarity on what her life will look like in the next 10 years, she is sure of the skills she has. “I know there is this one thing (writing) that I am good at, and this one thing has 10 different (career) options ready for me. It gives me “thehraav” (a feeling of calm, and a sense of stability) because I know that the foundation I’m building for the next few years is rather strong,” she says.

The terminology used to describe experiences shapes people’s perceptions of those experiences. Describing something as a “crisis” has the potential to make the experience of “becoming a person” something to be avoided because of the difficult emotions involved. Kapoor adds that “you have to admit that it is a period of immense change, and sometimes the lack of resources to navigate that change can make it feel like it is a crisis.” While crises are to be averted, phases in human development must be experienced in their entirety. That’s the only way to move to the next stage.

Acknowledgment of the “quarter-life crisis” as “emerging adulthood” might have the potential to turn this experience into something that is not as dreadful and just generally more acceptable. Not having set career trajectories, a concrete sense of personal and professional identity, and clarity about key values and goals then becomes a part of moving into adulthood instead of crises to be averted or avoided.

Devika Oberai is a psychology graduate from Delhi University who works in the development sector

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