Understanding The Quarter-life Crisis

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Often, the 20s and early 30s are thought to be the best time of a person’s life. Individuals in this age range are generally in good health, have minimal responsibilities and are able to explore opportunities and take chances in both their professional and private lives. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that young adults are not free of the stresses that come later in life. In fact, many people in this stage of life experience periods of uncertainty and anxiety during which they question their goals, plans and even relationships. Professionals have named this occurrence the quarter-life crisis.

When young people experience a quarter-life crisis, they may turn to a trusted family member or friend for advice, but they often opt to seek professional counseling. It is important for counselors to be familiar with the signs and symptoms of this stage and be ready to respond appropriately to help clients navigate this season of life.

What is the quarter-life crisis?

Similar to the more widely recognized midlife crisis, the quarter-life crisis is a period of uncertainty and questioning that typically occurs when people feel trapped, uninspired and disillusioned during their mid-20s to early 30s. Clients may feel that they are stuck in a dead-end job while all of their friends advance their careers or wonder why they cannot seem to make a romantic relationship last when other members of their social group are getting married and having children.

Common stressors that can lead to this kind of crisis can include:

  • Job searching or career planning.
  • Living alone for the first time.
  • Navigating relationships.
  • Making long-term personal or professional decisions.

The Harvard Business Review reported that a quarter-life crisis typically presents in four phases. First, clients feel a sense of being trapped in some form of commitment, either in their personal or professional life. Then, there is some kind of separation or loneliness, whether it is moving to a new city or leaving a romantic relationship. During this period of isolation, they will reflect on where they are in life and perhaps change their plans, before exploring new activities, social groups or career opportunities, and come out on the other side of the crisis.

One of the major problems with the quarter-life crisis is that clients who find themselves in this situation often feel that they have no reason to be struggling because these years are supposed to be fun and relatively easy. Consequently, either they themselves — or others in their life — may try to brush off the problems they are experiencing.

“As a culture, we all think that age 25 is the best stage of our life — these folks are happy, they’re doing everything they want and it’s a great time of life,” American Counseling Association (ACA) member Cyrus Williams told Counseling Today, a publication of the ACA. “We really need to acknowledge and not minimize this time period.”

Although the midlife crisis is more well-known, that does not mean that it is more common. According to a 2011 study, British psychologists reported in The Guardian that people in their 20s are just as likely to experience a crisis as those who are middle aged.

The counselor’s response

In most ways, working with a client dealing with a quarter-life crisis is not so different from a client of any other age who is working through a personal crisis. However, there is one advantage. People in this age range tend to value the services of mental health professionals and see the benefit of regular sessions. Clients in their 20s and early 30s may even be eager to attend counseling to discuss their feelings of anxiety and depression.

“This generation is not like generations in the past,” Williams told Counseling Today. “There’s not a stigma involved in mental health issues [with them]. They’ll come in to your office and they’re like, ‘Listen, I’m stressed out, I’m anxious. I need some help.’”


Recommended Readings

Marriage and Family Counseling or Mental Health Counseling? A guide

Psychology or Counseling Master’s: How to Choose Your Path

Bradley University Online Counseling Programs