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The quarter-life crisis


Julia Yates looks at what’s behind the quarter-life crisis, and what you can do to support your employees and your organisation as it happens.

When I was 25, everything fell apart: my prestigious graduate scheme employer told me that things weren’t really working out, and suggested that it was perhaps time to look elsewhere, muttering something about ‘square pegs in round holes’. Looking back, that relationship was doomed from the start but in my final year at university I knew I had to make some kind of plan, and with no ideas of my own, I found myself doing what everyone else, and my parents, seemed to think was the right thing to do.

Completely floored by my boss’s announcement, I took my P45 and left the building. I moved back in with my parents and signed on for unemployment benefit. My social life was non-existent, as all my friends were, it seemed, living the dream in London and I had no money, so couldn’t keep up. Oh and I split up with my boyfriend. At the time, I felt that I alone was an abject failure and this really took its toll on my mental health and my self-esteem. But with hindsight, this was clearly a quarter-life crisis, a very common experience for those in the mid to late twenties, and the chances are that a number of my friends were going through something very similar at the same time. If only I had known!

We get better at making decisions

We have long been aware that our life stage and age have a bearing on our career choices. As we travel through life, our priorities evolve, the personal demands on us change, and we understand ourselves better. We also get better at making decisions.

The choices that we make when we are young are not always good ones.

We don’t really know ourselves very well, and we haven’t yet had much life experience, so find it hard to make good predictions and even our brains themselves are not fully developed till our mid-20s. Particularly difficult are the career decisions that our young people need to make so early.

Career decisions are challenging, multi-attribute decisions

Career decisions are a good example of what academics call multi-attribute decisions – those where you have to compare a large number of options on the basis of a large number of criteria. These kinds of decisions are known to be particularly difficult, and the challenge is compounded, in the careers field, by the fast pace of change in the labour market, the limited information available and the uncertainty of the outcomes.

Our current education system (UK) seems to be making everything particularly trying for young people. The school league tables, and the tuition fee-induced transactional nature of our university system means that there is a huge, arguably disproportionate, emphasis on exam grades – often at the expense of anything else.

This has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the proportion of young people who have part-time jobs or get the chance to volunteer.

Without these kinds of experiences, young people find it particularly difficult to know what work is like, what they like about work, and what an employer might like about them.

University students sometimes have very narrow ideas of what kinds of jobs they ‘ought’ to be doing, and alongside their record levels of anxiety, and limited self-awareness, students can be reluctant to visit their university careers service until the very last moment. With no real time to make these significant choices, students often fall back on what they know, or what is easy, and end up pursuing careers that their parents, school, department or friends think are sensible.

Clarity and comparisons

Fast forward a few years, and our young people, in their mid to late twenties are becoming much clearer about what they want, who they are, and what kind of work does, or does not suit their skills and values. And very often, they see that their needs are not being met by their current employers. Alongside this process of re-evaluation, they are also making comparisons. They compare themselves with others – or at least with what they think other’s lives are like, and they compare their current selves with the expectations their younger-selves had for their future. They imagine that all their peers are happy, fulfilled and in well-paid, meaningful jobs. And they might remember their youthful aspirations of financial security, romantic fulfilment and a tireless social life, which may all seem a far cry from their current spartan existence. This can all take a toll on their self-esteem.

For some, this quarter-life crisis can result in anxiety and depression, insecurity, confusion and isolation.

What can young people do?

Research tells us that young people in the throes of their quarter-life crisis can best resolve things by taking some time out to think, by identifying their values, and what they want from life, and they find the whole process easier if they feel supported – by friends and family, and others going through something similar. Understanding that this is a common and normal life-experience is also helpful.

What can organisations do to help?

  • Help applicants understand you. Counter-intuitive as this may sound, it may be worth you putting some effort into helping applicants actually decide whether your organisation is a good fit for them, before they even start work. The application process is generally one in which both sides put their best foot forward, as you try to convince applicants that you are the most exciting place to work, and applicants try to convince you that they are totally in tune with your values. Of course organisations want to sell themselves to attract the best talent, but, alongside appealing promotional videos and events, perhaps you could offer some confidential career coaching, to help applicants really think about whether this is the right job, or the right organisation for them.
  • Create jumping off points. Once new recruits have started, you could consider creating some jumping off points for those in their early career – a chance after six months, a year, or two years, for trainees to leave, with no shame or embarrassment on either side. You could then create and nurture your own alumni networks of ex-employees, whose careers take all different sorts of paths, but who can end up being customers, clients, or mentors for their old employer.
  • Encourage job crafting. This is the process of making changes to a job inch by inch to make it more satisfying – taking on more of the tasks you enjoy, working with more of the people you like, and spending less time on projects that aren’t so much fun. Job crafting is something that we all do, informally, in our own jobs, but can also be something that your organisation supports more formally. It has been shown to be a great way to help employees to feel more fulfilled and engaged, and to reduce turnover. New recruits could be encouraged to think about which aspects of their work they would like to increase, and which they would rather minimise, and then you could work with them to make the changes. This way, they can adjust their job to satisfy their emerging identities.
  • Offer counselling. Easy access to non-stigmatised counselling can work wonders – not just for the quarter-lifers, but for all employees, any of whom might need a bit of a helping hand.

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