Monday, May 01, 2006

James Russell: Quarterlife crisis? Come on

Is this some sort of joke? Can they really be serious? Apparently, the latest term to describe the agonising dilemma facing the 20-something throngs of layabouts incurring gi-normous debts and living with their parents is - wait for it - the 'quarterlife crisis'.

In a nutshell, the quarterlife crisis goes roughly along these lines: Teen leaves school, goes to university in order to defer making a decision regarding a direction for the rest of their life, graduates, goes back to study some more (see earlier reason), graduates again with a debilitating student loan, and goes out into the world. Suddenly, they are gripped with a inability to make decisions, decide on a career path or a clue how to even begin paying back their debts. They are firmly in the throes of the quarterlife crisis.

Author Douglas Coupland in his novel Generation X: Tales for an accelerated Culture defined 'mid twenties breakdown' as 'A period of mental collapse occuring in one's twenties, often caused by an inability to function outside of school or structured environments, coupled with a realisation of ones's essential aloneness in the world. Often marks induction into the ritual of pharmaceutical usage'.

TV3s John Campbell dubbed them 'the lost generation'; in Britain they have been called 'adultescents' and Dr Phil told them to 'grow up'.

According to the infamous Wikipedia, the term 'quarterlife crisis' was coined in 1965 by Canadian psychologist Elliot Jaques. However, Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, authors of Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your 20s, beg to differ. They claim they were the first to devise the phrase when examining the futility of their own 25-year-old lives. The success of the book has gone on to generate another book from Wilner - The Quarterlifer's Companion - and a website - - where all the troubling aspects of life over 20 are mused over by tormented young bloggers.

David Trought, director, Auckland University Careers Centre, says that a crisis of sorts (which come under a number of different banners) is a very common occurance for graduating students. "There there is a good 18 months to two years before people really get themselves in a proper career after they graduate. They don't know what to do when they leave and they flounder around and try some jobs and because they have a lack of awareness of what they could do or what the skills are they just end up jumping into something because they need money."

Could the troubled students be setting themselves up for a fall even earlier by rushing into the first university course they can think of? "There are some that are on the conveyor belt who've gone through school, like a subject and go on to study it at university. That's not necessarily a bad thing. If you're going to spend three or four years studying something you've got to do something you've got a passion for. At the end of the day there a lots of jobs where just getting a degree is important - not necessarily what the degree is."

Financial pressure is arguably the largest source of stress for young people. Student debt now tops $7b, with 60 per cent of the borrowers under the age of 25. On average, each of these students borrows $6120 a year. In addition, the number of students eligible for student loans has dropped from 70,000 in 2001 to 56,806 in 2005, this despite the fact that more people are in tertiary education than ever before.

Says Trought: "The financial pressures are extremely significant and increasing. When I was a student I had it easy compared to what people are faced with now. The fact people are doing part-time jobs to survive is another pressure because they are doing so many hours it could be affecting their study.

Advice for those that can't see past the quarterlife? "I think if you're really unsure you should get help as soon as possible because what often happens is people think 'I don't know what I want to do so I can't go and see a careers consultant'. That's actually part of the issue to try and support them with that. That can easily be dealt with through a careers guidance interview, or we can use computer-aided guidance to generate ideas based on interests and aspirations, psychometric testing and various other tools. At least it will get them to the starting point where they have some ideas."

Trought says that the Careers Centre is being used more now than ever, prompting the University to increase staff numbers from 4 to 14 over the past two years. Graduating students are also supported up to three years after they have left university. "The careers service has traditionally been seen as a Cinderella service. I don't think you could say that anymore."

So it really is true then - our 20-year-olds are under pressure. They aren't just having a whinge. Dr Phil can grow up himself.


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