Setting aside that this year is unusual in a lot of ways, I don’t know if there is one. There was a time when a person could go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have and raise kids, and then retire from that job—and not go broke in the process. In 2020, that feels like less of a possibility every day.
My grandparents, and then my parents, were able to achieve that version of the American Dream. They had the same jobs their whole careers, owned their homes, and raised their children in those homes. A lot of millennials have families with similar stories, and I grew up thinking that I could follow that same path—but it didn’t work out exactly like that.
An Uneven Path to Therapy
After high school, I started college with the idea of opening my own hotel, so I enrolled in the hospitality management school. I quickly realized that wasn’t for me, and began studying art history. After I graduated, I had no idea where to start in pursuit of a career, a family, and the life I wanted for myself. I was always jealous of the people who knew exactly what they wanted to do when they grew up.
My years in college brought up a lot of questions, but not as many answers. So, to buy time, I decided to teach English in Barcelona for a year. I started writing while I was there, and decided to pursue screenwriting in Los Angeles.
I took a class in screenwriting and quickly realized that I’m not a writer. I moved over to production and spent a couple years trying to climb the Hollywood ladder—but got tired of hustling for something I wasn’t passionate about. That’s when I decided to go to grad school. I contemplated four different careers before I landed on my current role as a marriage and family therapist. And I might even change again, who knows?
I’m sharing all this to say that the uneven path I’ve taken is a pretty typical experience of someone transitioning into adulthood today. It’s no longer reasonable to expect someone to graduate—whether it’s from high school, college, or trade school—and then have one job or career for the rest of their life. The American Dream looks a bit different now.
What Are Job-Seekers Up Against?
The job market today looks entirely different than it did when my parents and grandparents were looking for work. The 1980s showed a severe decrease in the amount of well-paying manufacturing jobs, and an increase in unemployment rates in younger age groups. Now, the jobs that are available to emerging adults who don’t have college degrees are often low paying or part-time—and don’t allow for financial independence or self-sufficiency.1
For those who pursued higher education, the average cost of a 4-year college degree went from $5,504 per year in 1985-86 (adjusted for inflation) to $27,375 per year in 2017-18. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services tells us that the average cost of healthcare went from $385 per year in 1970 (adjusted for inflation) to $3,649 in 2018.
On top of that, the average hourly wage for college graduates fell from $18.55 in 2001, to $16.99 in 2013. This supports the idea that even more specialized schooling is often necessary in order to get higher paying jobs.2
And of course, any discussion of financial changes through the years would be incomplete without mentioning student debt. Over the last decade, the amount of money the average college graduate has borrowed has grown roughly 20 percent. And in 2016, the average graduate had $37,172 in student loan debt to pay off.
How could any of this set quarter-lifers up for success?
How Can People Make the Life They Want?
Cue the quarter-life crisis! Imagine I’m an average recent college graduate in 2019 (I want to give myself a fighting chance, so I’m not having myself graduate in 2020). I’m graduating with more than $37,000 in debt, and a degree that hasn’t prepared me for much outside of academia.
The decisions I have to make seem overwhelming, and I no longer have the structure and path of school to rely on. It’s no wonder so many college grads go back to living at home with their parents, or get stuck in a job they hate just to pay their bills. These are all aspects of a quarter-life crisis.
Young adults are saddled with huge decisions that they might not be equipped to make. What job or career do I want? What kind of partner do I want? What’s my relationship with my family going to be like now that I’m an adult? Where do I want to live? What are my values? What kind of person do I want to be?
It’s worth noting that this type of self-exploration requires a certain amount of privilege. Not everyone has the financial stability or support system that lets someone jump from job to job. Young people of color, in particular, face many more systemic barriers than just a slower job market.
I’ve seen the impact therapy can have on someone experiencing a quarter-life crisis—both as a person seeking help, and as a therapist in my own practice. Therapy was a crucial part of my journey because I was able to learn more about myself and what I wanted moving forward. That’s what I try to offer to the 20-somethings I see in my practice every day. As practitioners, we have the opportunity to support quarter-lifers by helping them feel in control, capable, and self-assured as they navigate this part of their lives.
Côté, J. E. (in press). Emerging adulthood as an institutionalized moratorium: Risks and benefits to identity formation. In J. J. Arnett & J. Tanner (Eds.), Coming of age in the 21st century: The lives and contexts of emerging adults. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Atwood, J. D., & Scholtz, C. (2008). The quarter-life time period: An age of indulgence, crisis or both?. Contemporary Family Therapy, 30(4), 233-250.
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