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Oct 22

The Quarter-Life Crisis: In Your Mid-20s and Feeling Stuck

Quarter Life Crisis

Feeling Like You’re Falling Behind

It is an age-old rite of passage during one’s 20s until the mid-30s—that nagging sense that you are falling behind your peers, cohorts of the same generation who seem to, on the surface anyway, have it all dialed in. The first thing to understand, if you feel you are stuck in quarter-life crisis mode, is that this stage of life has always been an angst-ridden one. For generations people in this age range have struggled with a scary sense of feeling lost, rudderless, or inferior to their friends—there just wasn’t a label for it back then.

Think about the 1950s-60s. People married right out of high school and had kids, with few seeking to further their education. Movies, books, and television have portrayed the quarter-life crisis of that generation, the women feeling isolated and bored while home all day with the kids, and the men frustrated while stuck in a dead-end job trying to eek out a living to support the family.

Or how about the boomer generation? Women in the 1970s were taught they could bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, that they could have it all—a powerful executive position as well as the joy of raising children. Imagine the shock when, in the 1980s while hitting their late 20s, women found themselves frazzled and exhausted trying to be that superwoman, while also envying friends who dazzled in their Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein duds without spit-up all over their clothes. Nope, the quarter-life crisis is not a new development that has somehow targeted the millennial generation, but just the latest iteration of an age-old struggle during this particular time in life.

The quarter-life crisis typically rears its ugly head after college graduation. Up until that, childhood and early adulthood had a purposeful rhythm to it, with each September commencing with a new class schedule and each June culminating with a sense of accomplishment having completed said classes. The high school years gently, or not so gently, guided you toward selecting a career path and a college that was the best match for the desired career. Year by year you were assured that yours was the path to future success and fulfillment in life.

Leapfrog over the years of academia to the mid-twenties and beyond where many find they have landed with a thud. Now with a few years post-college under your belt – an underlying panic is creeping in. Maybe you haven’t found a “real” job yet, or are stuck in a part-time, low-paying one in your field. Student loan payments have kicked in, leaving you feeling like you were snookered by the you-must-go-to-college mantra you were fed your entire life, now stuck with a huge debt that feels like an anchor around your neck.

And what about the chosen ones? Those friends or colleagues who seem to be golden, by their mid-20s having landed the perfect job, wearing the perfect on-point wardrobe, driving the luxury SUV with their perfect children strapped in, on their way to some pricey private school that charges $15,000 – $30,000 per year for kindergarten. Are they leaving you in the dust? Not necessarily. While some of your peers may get off to a stronger start by those material standards, as a late bloomer, when you hit your stride, you may ultimately become the subject of their envy.

Pace Yourself

You see, there is no race to attaining “success” as defined by the given societal norms and culture of the day. The competition you may be sensing is mostly a figment of your own imagination—a response to perceived expectations. So, when those filter-perfect Instagram pics on your feed leave you feeling like you are living a sub-par existence, try these strategies to lift you out of the quarter-life crisis pit of despair:

  • Focus on what you have accomplished. If needed, make a list of personal accomplishments and triumphs on a sticky note and place it where you can remind yourself daily.
  • Remind yourself that you are not stuck. Life remains fluid and full of possibilities, so make another list with some ideas for positive changes you intend to make—then follow through.
  • Set realistic goals. Do not allow outside influences determine the path you want to take in your life. Set some short-term and longer-term goals with realistic benchmarks that slowly but surely take you down that path.
  • Don’t let your college major limit your options. Many people never use their specific area of study in their career, finding offshoots to more intriguing jobs or discovering a penchant for an entirely different career path.
  • Do an honest review of the relationship you are in, both romantic and friendships. Consider if these are edifying or toxic, and cull the dysfunction from your life. Life is too short to be tethered to those who do not uplift you.
  • Define a personal purpose. Finding one’s purpose is a lifelong endeavor, but listing the ways you wish to make a difference in this world can lead to fulfilling volunteer opportunities, help target your next job search, and stoke passions.

For the those who make up the current crop of humans in quarter-life crisis mode, do not fret. Ask your parents and your grandparents and they will confirm that they, too, made it through this common coming-of-age quagmire intact.  We all experienced it – some (like me) are more aware of it than others. But it doesn’t always feel this way – and once you’ve done the work to figure out what you want it is worth it!

Life can be complicated, messy, and rarely progresses in a straight line.  PeoplePsych is a Chicago-based psychotherapy group that treats adults seeking profound change in their lives.  We provide services that affirm the dignity, worth, and value of all individuals. We strive to create a safe non-judgemental space for clients to explore the issues that bring them. To connect with one of our therapists, please contact our Clinical Coordinator at (312) 252-5252 or