Perhaps it’s the sight of your five-year college reunion invitation lurking in your mailbox.
Or the new understanding that you’d have a better time staying home to watch Netflix than attending your friend’s birthday party at a bar.
Or the moment you realise that the person you’re currently dating could become your partner for the rest of your life.
These realisations can trigger a cascade of questions both existential (“What contribution am I making to the world?”) and practical (“Why do I dread going to work every day?”), all of them contributing to an extended period of anxiety that’s known as the quarter-life crisis.
And while feeling anxious about your life trajectory is hardly a new phenomenon, it’s becoming increasingly common in 20-somethings now that the age of first marriage and childbirth is steadily increasing. In other words, there’s more time than ever to question the choices you make related to your family and your career.
Jeffrey Arnett, Ph.D., is a Clark University psychologist who’s studied the period between ages 18 and 29, a time he calls “emerging adulthood,” and all the positive and negative experiences that come with it.
“There is a lot of anxiety in that decade because people are trying to answer a lot of big questions about who they are and what they want to do with their lives,” Arnett said. That includes whether they will be able to find the right partner and job fit and where they’d like to live.
But Arnett admittedly avoids the term “crisis” because it “makes it seem like a lot of doom and gloom,” when in reality it’s a time of great possibility. The 20s, he says, have become “the freest decade of life in many ways, in the sense that it’s the time of life when the fewest people are depending on you and you have the most scope for making your own decisions.”
That tug of war between confusion and excitement is reflected in research conducted by Clark University. According to a 2012 poll of about 1,000 emerging adults, an overwhelming majority (83%) agree that this time of life is “fun and exciting.” But smaller majorities report that their life is stressful (72%) and full of uncertainty (64%) and that they often feel anxious (56%).
Fortunately, Arnett says there are two key strategies for coping with stress and insecurity during emerging adulthood:
1. Accept that it’s normal to struggle.
“If you’re struggling and uncertain about what you want to do with your life and feeling a lot of anxiety about it, it doesn’t make you unusual,” Arnett said. “It’s perfectly normal at 20 or 25, and almost everybody finds their way by around age 30.”
For example, Arnett said, many people in their 20s worry that they will never meet a suitable romantic partner. “The fact is almost everybody ends up finding someone,” he said.
Likewise, most people end up finding a job they like well enough.
“It might not be the ideal job, just like it might not be the ideal romantic partner,” he said. “But part of making your way to adulthood is recognising what’s possible and what’s not.”
2. Don’t be afraid to rely on your parents.
Arnett has observed that many emerging adults feel it’s a sign of weakness if they turn to their parents for advice. But in reality, it could be the smartest move they make.
Parents, he said, “often have life experience and wisdom that you haven’t acquired yet.”
Moreover, “your parents are the people who are most likely to really care about how your life turns out.”
Especially if you don’t have a serious romantic partner to turn to — and many people don’t yet in this stage of life — your parents can be your best resource.
Ultimately, Arnett said that some degree of anxiety during emerging adulthood can be helpful in shaping the rest of your life.
“That anxiety really motivates you to go out and make things happen,” he said.
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