By: Jamie Librot, Gallup Senior Learning Solutions Consultant
Affluent 20-somethings in America are in crisis. Most are struggling to find a job, and many who are employed are grappling to find meaning and fulfillment. This Millennial Generation yearns for self-discovery and a connection to a greater good. Social scientists have called this phenomena the “quarter-life crisis.” In previous generations, the angst associated with finding meaning in one’s life happened much later — near the age of 50. As such, it was called the mid-life crisis.
As a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach, organizational psychologist, and Millennial myself, I have been fascinated by this issue. Why is this crisis happening at a significantly younger age, and how can the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment be used to persist through this difficult time?
History of the Quarter-Life Crisis
The period of adolescence (age 18-29) was not defined until after World War II. Prior to that time, children had to work at very early ages. By the time they were 18, they typically had at least five years of work experience and were considered to be adults. At this age they were getting married and starting a family. Their jobs were something that paid their bills. By 50, their children were grown and their mortgages were paid. The chaotic frenzy of their day-to-day lives (e.g., paying bills and taking care of children) dissipated and became an unnerving silence. In that quiet recess, they found they no longer had purpose in their lives and they didn’t really know themselves.
Today there is a strong middle class in America who has access to free public school until the age of 18. And 60% of all Americans enroll in four-year colleges. Marriage typically does not happen until much later. These circumstances have allowed the current generation to postpone their careers and family lives, and instead spend time focusing on themselves, their needs, and their aspirations. Many of them understand the privilege of their position and feel a fervent need to give back to the community.
What earlier generations had experienced in their 50s, today’s generation is experiencing in their 20s. Many well-known social scientists have verified the phenomena of the quarter-life crisis and have published numerous articles in countless family therapy and psychology journals. Social scientists agree that the 27% of Americans who fall within the 18-29 age range are largely in pain. This crisis is real.
Manifestations of the Quarter-Life Crisis
Today a job is more than something that just pays the bills. Many young job seekers consider the purpose, values, and global impact of companies when making employment decisions. They want a company that donates half its profits to charity, and has team outings that are community service events. They want flexible hours, a non-traditional work space, and the ability to work from home. They expect their entry-level job to directly link to achieving the company’s mission. And they expect to advance quickly through the ranks, just as young billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg promote young people to executive roles. Unfortunately no company can live up to these unrealistic expectations.
My advice to escape from the quarter-life crisis is to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment. Then pick a job and find meaning in it yourself, rather than hold out for a job that already has the meaning you’re looking for. For example, you may have achieved an engineering degree and your first job is to answer the phone at a medical device company. If you have Futuristic, think about the direction the company is going and be sure your interaction with customers reflects that brand. If you have Analytical, take note of which customers are frequently calling and whether you can extract data from the pattern.
Be realistic and understand that not everyone can work for Google or Apple. I don’t think that any company can live up to the standards our generation wants them to meet. As the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song goes, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” A mentor once told me that any company that has created good jobs for its employees is a company that is doing a good thing. Additionally, if the company you work for doesn’t donate to charity or run community service activities, take the initiative yourself and start leading such activities. Your efforts can make the work place better for yourself and everyone you work with.
Also realize that you will most likely need to start in an entry level job. I have used the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment to coach several Millennials through the frustration they feel in not advancing as quickly as they would like. My best advice for them is to see this period of their life as a gift. If their current job is too easy, then they will have time to learn about the next role above them. When you eventually get promoted, the time you took to learn the higher level role will help you quickly succeed. You can also ask your manager for clear performance objectives that you need to achieve to get promoted. Then work with a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach to help you use your strengths to meet and exceed those objectives.
Lastly, talk about your frustration. Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, coauthors of “Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties,” advise those who are experiencing the frustration associated with this time to talk about their feelings. They have found that many Millennials do not believe that they have a right to be upset, so they do not talk about it. This leads them to feel like they are the only ones with this problem, which leads to a feeling of isolation, and more reason to not reach out to others for help. This is a real problem, and you will probably need to reach out to your peers or a strengths coach to get help. Otherwise a quarter-life crisis can loom until it becomes a mid-life crisis.
Feel free to contact me if you are interested in working with a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach. Sarah Davis and Jennifer Fore are also highly-qualified Gallup-Certified Strengths coaches who can help you escape the quarter-life crisis.
Atwood, J. D., & Scholtz, C. (2008). The quarter-life time period: An age of indulgence, crisis or both?. Contemporary Family Therapy, 30(4), 233-250.
Robbins, A., & Wilner, A. (2001). Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties. Penguin.
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