“What am I doing with my life?”
“Is this what I want to commit my entire career to?”
“What if there’s something else out there for me?”
It’s hardly uncommon to hear these laments from many a college student on campus. It’s understandable, certainly, what with major declarations and internship applications looming. But it made me wonder to what degree this sense of what a lot of my friends, peers, and classmates have been dubbing the “quarter-life crisis” has grown in comparison to generations past.
Personally, I’ve changed my mind a thousand and one times about what I want to do after I hopefully graduate with my bachelor’s degree. I’ve experienced first-hand that inner battle where you convince yourself that maybe you’d be good at Career A, or maybe you’d be better suited for Career B, , but you can’t seem to get your mind off of Career C. It took me quite a few months to even remotely move beyond the constraints I felt from my program in order to consider that maybe it wasn’t all about picking and adhering to a rigid career construct.
But that new development didn’t make things any clearer for me. I had spent so many years believing that college was the automatic progression after high school, and that deciding on a career based on my major was the next inherent step after that. I was lucky enough to learn in a great educational environment and it had provided me with a lot of tools to pursue a college degree, but never had I experienced so much autonomy as I felt right now in being able to say: “Maybe whatever I’m going to do for the rest of my life doesn’t entirely depend on my college degree.”
But that, I think, is the biggest catalyst in a college student’s mindset when entering the Quarter-Life Crisis—the consideration that there is much more out there than the career pathway that follows your college graduation. That’s not to say pursuing a college degree and a career that fits with it isn’t incredible or noteworthy. Quite the opposite. The constructs of higher education were undoubtedly set with the purpose of propelling graduates toward their specialized fields, armed with knowledge and experience.
And it has never been the case that a college degree determined an individual’s future, My parents have friends who studied geology in college and ended up working as a big-time manager at an electrical company, friends who never earned a bachelor’s degree and ended up heading a consulting department. There is no doubt that higher education has never had the final say as to what your future will hold.
But more and more, we have been seeing the success stories of tech company start-ups, entrepreneurial minds, life passion-seekers, and wayward career explorers crop up everywhere we look. I have a friend who developed an app after years of tinkering with coding and programming and has seen his app take off beyond anything he would have originally imagined. This all happened before he even step foot on a college campus. A friend of a friend launched an independent “bakery” as a side project, baking and delivering baked goods through an online website instead of a brick-and-mortar establishment. There are people making names for themselves on Youtube, blogs, and reality television. What does this all mean?
Well, it certainly speaks to the power of the Internet and the expansive influence it has over careers across the board. But it also means that, with sites like Facebook keeping tabs on all of our friends and peers, people who have found success by taking, to quote Mr. Frost, “the road less traveled” are constantly under the spotlight. Your high school friend just updated his job on his profile. Your college classmate just posted an album of photos from her time studying abroad. Your old teammate just posted a status promoting her new start-up. It sets all the most awe-inducing “what if”s in the forefront, causing us to ask ourselves these “what if” questions.
What if science isn’t right for me?
What if I’d thrive in a marketing class?
What if my hobby for jewelry making could become something much bigger than a weekend pastime?
What if a backpacking trip to Europe will change my life?
Having access to so much information— about the world and its inhabitants—so readily has quite possibly shifted our perspective of the society we live in but just as significantly, our perspective of ourselves. Seeing others do big things almost perpetually has caused us to turn our attention to our own accomplishments, our own “status” in our lives. Where have we gone? What have we done? Who have we met?
It can be dangerous, I’ve noticed. I’ve felt sparks of jealousy over a friend’s new internship, stared in envy at someone’s photos from his trip to Thailand. In a society where our scope is ever-expanding with the help of the Internet and the connections it builds despite physical or geographical limitations, it’s difficult not to question just how far we’ve branched out. It forces us to think about how much is truly out there and how much of it we crave.
Hence, the Quarter-Life Crisis.
It gets its name from how much earlier people have been struck by it than by the more commonly known Mid-Life Crisis, and perhaps the lightning speed that the Internet offers has something to do with it. We get information instantly, we can search people, places, and ideas in a matter of seconds, and we find ourselves entrenched in a constant state of rapidly forward movement.
It might be easy to cast these crises off as flippant or facetious, which I have heard on multiple occasions by some who believe that they are much like trends or phases that disappear almost as surely as they materialize. But I think that the Quarter-Life Crisis is a part of something much bigger than a phase where you’re left itching to chase after something for only a week or a month. Instead, it seems to be a part of an expansive culture that seems to grow faster than we can run—a world where limits have been fading and people have found ways to unconventionally contribute to their communities. And that only lends itself to self-questioning—something that, if used critically and thoughtfully, could make all the difference.