Helping young employees through the ‘quarter-life crisis’
We all know the feeling of being surprised when, having recently completed a graduate programme, apprenticeship scheme or professional certification, a talented individual announces that they’re leaving the organisation. This loss of talent and wasted investment can be frustrating. It can also be anticipated, as employees come to the end of formal learning and lack clarity about future career options.
To address this conundrum it’s essential to recognise the feelings these young people are experiencing – what they’re searching for – and why these questions of ‘identity’ seem so prevalent at this age.
Julia Yates, a Chartered Psychologist and Senior Lecturer at City, University of London was our provocateur. She has a particular interest in the challenges that face employees at different stages of their working lives.
Drawing on her research, she explained what commonly triggers a quarter-life crisis, how you can support someone through this time, and what can be done to mitigate the effects on the organisation.
David North reflected on two episodes of soul-searching about career direction, early in his working life. He didn’t speak to his manager, nor did his manager initiate a conversation with him on either occasion. This idea of ‘missing’ career conversations was a key finding of our research ‘The Conversation Gap’. David suggested that, post-lockdown, when so many people have been reviewing their career options, it is essential for organisations to close this particular conversation gap.
Participants shared the impact of young people going through the quarter-life crisis on their organisations. Their responses highlighted the risk of losing great talent and actions to mitigate the disorientation young people feel once structured training programmes have ended:
- Intervening early to explore the question ‘where do I go next?’
- Showcasing the diverse range of options and great career opportunities available to them
- Maintaining a sense of career progression after graduate programmes and prior to eligibility for high-po and leadership programmes
- Equipping people with the skills and confidence to drive their own careers
- Educating people to think less about ladders and more about ‘squiggly’ careers
- Helping managers develop the flexibility to support young people with differing needs and expectations
- Influencing people to stay even though they can earn more money and it’s easy to move to a competitor
‘They feel like they have jumped from a cliff and don’t know what to do next’
Julia started by reminding us that career development has long been linked with ages and stages. As we mature, we’re faced with different challenges, and our self-awareness and ability to make better decisions grows. Through lack of experience, the decisions we make when young aren’t always good ones. While most mistakes are temporary and easily rectifiable, work choices are particularly tricky because they are complex and hard to withdraw from.
Julia explained how aspects of our education system hinder rather than help students to make good choices, including understanding the career development process and building healthy, purposeful careers:
- The focus on school league tables leads to a culture of spoon-feeding
- The need for good exam results means young people spend less time in part time roles
- High achievers feel a huge pressure to be perfect
- Low achievers feel like they’ve already failed
- The expansion of higher education and fees has made getting a degree more transactional
‘When people formally qualify we see attrition sky rocket’
Julia reassured us that while organisations can always do more, people taking stock of their career in their mid-20s is a natural phenomenon. At this point, as the individual’s identity becomes clearer, they re-evaluate choices made in early adulthood. As well as career, people compare their relationships, money-making potential and friendships with others – and their own expectations.
It’s easy to think that the organisation suffers all the pain, however young people may be experiencing anxiety, insecurity, confusion and isolation beneath the surface. That’s why it’s important organisations support young people; so a career transition doesn’t become a quarter-life crisis.
Julia shared ideas for what this support could look like:
- Encourage people to tell their stories
- Help them to identify their values
- Encourage envisioning of positive futures and setting goals
- Help people to build their psychological capital
The group shared ideas they’d experimented with or are planning to introduce. There was a strong focus on providing a network of support, particularly coaches but also mentors, more experienced colleagues, and even counsellors. A key theme was the focus on personal values and aligning these with business activities.
Providing opportunities to gain experience in other parts of the organisation was another theme. This included collaborating with peers on projects, cross-training in new skills, and secondments in areas of interest and where there’s a current talent shortage.
‘Ultimately, it’s about helping young people to understand themselves and make good career choices. If they stay, great. If they leave, they’ll thank you for helping them think things through.’
In the event young people decide they need a new challenge, Julia encouraged us to consider ’jumping off’ points like sabbaticals, and the creation of alumni groups.
It’s not that young people don’t get us; the truth is we don’t get them
Our Career Strategy and Support Model is a helpful guide to answering the question ‘What more can we do?’
- A bold, authentic career proposition helps shape employee expectations
- Experience maps form an important part of the career framework and illustrate how individuals can build a bridge from one part of the organisation to another
- Using personas in career conversation training can help managers adapt – in the moment – to different personalities
- Engaging development resources can help young people develop critical career-building skills.
Participants shared practical actions for better supporting their people:
- Head-off future problems by exploring the motivation behind career choices at the recruitment stage.
- Implement coaching support earlier and encourage more frequent conversations
- Take a broader view; understand that the way young people are educated has an impact on their career decisions
- Encourage people to focus on career-building experiences and not just skill development
- Understand how difficult this period can be and the importance of helping young people connect with their values
- Recognise and embrace the flexibility young people have
- Support people at career ‘jumping-off’ points via sabbaticals and alumni groups
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