I wrote a bunch of responses (not viewable outside Facebook, unfortunately) to Jen's blog about the Quarter-Life Crisis (QLC) phenomena and how acutely she feels it. Unfortunately, I think my tone sounded a lot more belittling than I intended. (Or, rather, it sounds belittling, and I didn't intend for it to sound belittling at all.) That said, I have, I think, some very legit problems with the logics of QLC, which are maybe easier to express if my text is detached from particular personal narratives of QLC.
The first problem is that the idea itself is hopelessly ambiguous, to the detriment of people who claim ownership of it. A pop article that Jen linked me to describes it as "[u]nrelenting indecision, isolation, confusion and anxiety about working, relationships and direction", which is so vague, varied, and multiple as to make confronting the problem, much less dealing with it, pretty much impossible. How can this possible be described as a phenomena - singular? It has all the specificity of your horoscope. And, it seems to me, provides an equally meaningful self-diagnosis.
The second is that it invokes a state of exception that is not actually exceptional. Young people in North America prior to World War II were similarly filled with anxiety and confusion and pined for a stable career and purpose; after World War II, the same demographic group - their kids - were dissaffected with lives that locked them into a singular purpose when adulthood commenced, an ironic effect of the stablity that their parents had wanted; the baby boomersacted on the dissatisfaction they inherited from their parents but struggled - and often failed - to break free of the roles they had learned from them; and their children have absorbed that anxiety and seem to be pining for that stable career and purpose. And following logically from that...
My third problem is that QLC is nostalgic for an era of securing and assuredness that doesn't deserve the affection. That security and purpose? That desire to, as the article put it, "know who [you] are"? That's exactly the limitation that your parents or grandparents either rejected or felt acutely on some level should be rejected. The complaint that you're indecisive because you can "be anyone [you] want"? That's exactly what they thought would solve their dilemma. So maybe they were wrong. But how does it follow that reinstating the conditions of their moment of crisis will solve this one?
And the last - and least obvious but most interesting, I think - is that it echoes other late-capitalist discourses of privileged self-victimization. Like the article says, these are typically "people in their mid-twenties to early thirties who are usually urban, middle class and well-educated" - people who have are more privileged than most and upset, in part, because they don't seem to go as far as they once did. And what's more, as Michael Kimmel - who is no stranger to discussions of the ways in which men situate themselves as victims - notes, this particular iteration of generational crisis is, in fact, an "anticipatory crisis". I'm inclined to agree - we're being prepped to be dissatisfied with being unsatisfied, trained to have a pathological need for some grand accomplishment. (And have it before 30!) We're victims of the fear that we'll become victims.
I don't want to give the impression that I'm somehow outside of this. I've felt alienated from my work at times; the first job I held after completing my MA was at a bookstore for minimum wage; my academic production has never been monetarily recognized or rewarded; I feel incredibly envious of the accomplishments that some of my friends can list off. Life is maddening. But this is not necessarily, and not always, a bad thing. And it's certainly not a new thing. It's simply a thing.
(I should also volunteer that I enjoy a certain extra privilege that complicates my relationship with QLC - I'm thrilled with my home-life, with my new baby, which makes things challenging on a daily-basis, makes them exhausting and anxiety-inducing but with the added benefit of being simultaneously comforting and secure. But it's not as if, by contrast, everyone who self-diagnoses themselves with QLC is without any interpersonal comforts, right?)