‘Once we grabbed our diplomas and switched our tassels
to the other side of the graduation cap, every choice we made dictated our future happiness in a way that it hadn’t before.’
There’s a reason they call them cubicle farms, and it’s not because they inspire growth. Sitting in one for eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty weeks out of the year (if you’re lucky enough to get your two week vacation, or smart enough to take it) can make you feel like livestock being fattened up for slaughter. You may come in as a shiny pink piglet, but over time, the weight piles on until you’re too heavy to move, and there you stay until retirement.
At least this is what we fear.
We may not be the piglets we once were, bright-eyed and full of the kind of hope that tricks you into thinking I’ll only be here until something better comes along, but we haven’t yet gone whole hog. We can still maneuver our snouts around the latch of our pen and escape, if we so desire (in case you didn’t know, pigs are renowned escape artists – truly).
So we look out at the wider world and wonder what’s out there. Where could we go? Who could we meet? What kinds of adventures could we end up on? If we knew the answers to any of these questions, we’d be on our way out to pasture and beyond, but since we don’t, we hang back scared, trying to plan an escape with an end game – all the while aware that our window for change is closing with every passing day.
I’m not in the business of lying, or of providing false hope – the metaphor holds water. Once we grabbed our diplomas and switched our tassels to the other side of the graduation cap, every choice we made dictated our future happiness in a way that it hadn’t before. Every ‘just-for-now job’ we took straight away for the financial security and health insurance became the first point of our career trajectory, the headliner of our resume, the experience we needed to move up the career ladder.
The longer ‘just-for-now’ lasts, the more we feel like we have fewer ladders become available to us to climb. We start to feel that whatever dreams we may have had in other arenas are left further and further behind us, on ladders we didn’t know to climb.
Scared? You should be. We all are.
The dread of the Quarter Life Crisis is popping up all around us these days, spreading with viral insistency as we shed the skin of our college naiveté and look at our surroundings with the focused eyes of an adult. The security we once wanted feels more like a straightjacket. The job we were once grateful for have become burdensome and unfulfilling. The person we wanted to be our whole lives wouldn’t recognize the people we are now. She would accuse us of ‘selling out,’ of being boring, of giving up.
The shock of this realization is unnerving. It drives us to drink, to stay up late at night, to cry at something as small as a broken shoelace – now a symbol of the way our entire lives are falling apart.
Soon we’re imbued with more questions than answers, retreating further into the maze our minds have become until we’re focused so far inward that we believe no one could possibly be as confused, as lost, as totally screwed as we are.
And the ‘we’ I mean is my generation: Millennials.
For some of us, the country’s financial stability crumbled around graduation day – those were the first wave Millennials to enter the real world, and I don’t envy them. For others of us, though, the economy tanked in the middle of college, or the beginning, or while we were still in high school. We thought we had all the time we needed for it to recover. We had a year. Two years. Four years. Six years. It would get better.
It’s been eight years since the housing crisis and resulting crash of 2007, and while the numbers have improved, the job market is still dreadfully barren. No one, we think, could have possibly gone through this before. This is new. This is uniquely ours. We own this particular type of crisis. Nothing before now could possibly have triggered such introspection and fear.
But we’re wrong.
Abby Wilner coined the term “Quarter Life Crisis” in 1997. She graduated from college, moved back home, and didn’t know what to do with herself – so she wrote a book, exploring her state of mind.
This was prime time for Gen-X, the Slacker Generation. Instead of writing think-pieces and listicles with GIFs bemoaning their twenty-something sense of loss and fear, they skateboarded, hung around the malls, talked about it with friends, and somehow managed to grow up and get on with their lives. They even managed to make it through the mire happily, according to recent polls.
So maybe this crisis isn’t ours after all. Maybe it has nothing to do with the economy. After all, 1997 was smack in the middle of the Clinton administration, during a period of unparalleled economic prosperity and job growth. If twenty-somethings were in crisis then, the crisis itself must come from somewhere else, the birth of a different lifestyle, perhaps.
After all, Gens X and Y were largely raised by Baby Boomers. We are the best-educated generation thus far. We were born and raised in a world without a draft, a world without segregation, a world in which men and women could pursue careers without fear of disrupting traditional gender roles. This lifestyle of privilege must be to blame for our current predicament. With so much time to think of our possibilities, who wouldn’t wonder if we were making good on all we had set out to achieve?
But there’s another problem.
In 1967, The Graduate hit theaters. While most of us are familiar with the idea of Mrs. Robinson, it can be easy to forget that Dustin Hoffman’s character graduates college (around the same time as some of our parents) and has no idea what he’s doing, admitting to his father that he’s worried about his future, that he wishes it were different.
How far back can this feeling of crisis be traced?
When it did it originally emerge?
Does it matter?
The parentage of the crisis itself has no bearing on its impact, or on its solution. However, it can safely be said that while it’s a buzzword these days, Millennials aren’t the first to cower before these feelings, wondering where we’re going, what we’re doing, and what we’re going to mean to the world. We’re not the first to look inward and wonder why.
But we might be the first to try another method of escaping the madness. Instead of disappearing inside ourselves, our tweets, our clever listicles with well-placed GIFs – instead of all that, we could try looking outward.
We could try to listen less to the fear that screams ‘what am I to do?!’ and listen more to the world around us, to the people who have survived the same storm, albeit years before. The men and women we encounter – the adults we meet daily – have all put this piece of their life behind them, some happily, some regretfully, some with no feeling at all. They are no different than we, and are not to be despised or shunned as sell-outs, sheeple, poor unfortunate souls that had no choice about their lot in life and so have no idea what it is we suffer. They’re us – just a little further down the way.
I would challenge our generation, then, to find a way out of our ego – out, even, of our own way. Maybe if we stopped focusing so much on ourselves – our fears, our worries, our certainty that no one could possibly have had it this hard – and instead looked to the people around us for guidance, we might find a well-trod road to meaningful adulthood. Or, at the very least, something worth listening to.