On Campus

Facing your quarter-life crisis

Sometimes the most mature thing you can do is make time to be a kid

A couple of months ago Eye Magazine ran a well-received article on the quarter-life crisis. Time was I used to think I might have invented the concept, but apparently it goes back to 2001 (first mainstream references) and the first time I can recall thinking in these terms was 2003. I noticed something of this nature happening to students around me in university. And while the article in Eye is quite good (I’d encourage anyone to read it) I’d like to discuss the quarter-life crisis as it relates to post-secondary education.

The basic theme is this: It’s great fun to play at being a grown-up when you’re young. It’s even more fun when people seem to play along. This starts to happen around the late teens for most people. Suddenly you start getting opportunities to do adult-type things. Maybe it’s a job where your responsibilities extend further than bussing tables. Or a romantic relationship where you’re the mature party. Or, if you have really forward-thinking parents, maybe they let you decide for yourself when and if you’re going to come home each night. Any experience like this is a milestone in hindsight, but in the moment it doesn’t necessarily feel like anything has changed. It’s easy to take an event like this as more of an exception to the rule. You aren’t really an adult yet – and it’s just funny that you get to pretend otherwise once in a while.

The quarter-life crisis hits at exactly the point where it stops being a game. You wake up one morning and you realize that this whole adult thing isn’t a mask you can put on and take off at will anymore. Now it’s your life. And just like your typical midlife crisis, that can be profoundly scary. You always thought you’d be able to go back again and now you find that maybe you can’t. Some people respond by trying to go back anyway. Which in a quarter-life context means retreating from all those adult responsibilities and trying to be a kid again. Of course this doesn’t happen to everybody, but I think it’s more common than we tend to notice.

This topic is especially relevant to students in post-secondary studies because their lives as students are just full of adult responsibilities. To begin with, there’s the fact that no one is monitoring their attendance in class and no one particularly cares if they hand in work on time or even at all. The failing grades will roll in around the end of the term but other than that there are no immediate consequences to slacking off. And there are the many organizations that students form and may become involved with. I know from personal experience that some of these organizations come with startlingly real responsibilities. And of course there’s the general life-management stuff that comes with greater independence – especially for students who have moved away from home. The only adult voice left around to point out that bedtime matters, or that pizza can’t adequately cover the four food groups on its own, or that laundry day was three weeks past – well, that’s the student’s own.

People talk a lot about students who aren’t ready for the adult responsibilities of university and there certainly are some who aren’t. I’ve seen some students show up and I seriously wonder if their mothers walked them to the bus stop. But those are easy to spot and there’s no mystery about what’s going on there. Some teenagers just aren’t ready. What’s more interesting to me is when a student who seemed like they had everything completely together suddenly falls apart. And I’m convinced that a particular variation of the quarter-life crisis is to blame. That student is perfectly capable of functioning as an adult so long as there’s a choice. But then when they notice the choice is gone and adult behaviour is now a full-time expectation the wheels come off.

There’s no magic bullet solution to the quarter-life crisis. Pointing out that something happens isn’t a guard against it happening. But this may help explain what’s going on with someone you know, and it may help you identify a problem in your own life before it gets out of control. Because a quarter-life crisis, much like a mid-life crisis, is really just an over-correction. It’s a response to feeling as though your life has become something you aren’t happy with or ready for. And the way to prevent that from happening is to keep your life more tolerable and stay happy with it.

My advice to any students, therefore, who feel overwhelmed with the sudden adultness of their lives is to make time for a break every once in a while. Pick one day of the week where you slack off and do whatever juvenile thing you feel like doing. Keep at least one hobby from your high school days no matter if it seems like you should have outgrown it already. Learn how to say “no” to new responsibilities and demands on your time, even if someone is giving you a great opportunity to do something important. One of the dangers of seeming like an especially mature and accomplished young person is that people will keep loading things on you until you collapse – unless you learn how to say no. Sometimes the most mature thing you can do is make time to be a kid.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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