The Midlife Crisis’s ‘Evil Younger Brother’: The Quarter-Life Crisis
There are movies that help define a generation. For the baby boomers, these included The Graduate, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and, of course, Bonnie and Clyde (“They’re young … they’re in love … and they kill people”).
For Gen X, there was The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Mean Girls and The Matrix. For the millennials, there were the especially sordid coming-of-age films tales Kids, Thirteen, Slacker, Fight Club and Reality Bites.
What are the movies that define today’s undergraduates? The titles might be less familiar to you, but these films share a common theme—the torturous path toward coming of age: Frances Ha, The Hunger Games, Real Women Have Curves and Twilight.
Less now perhaps than in the past, movies are never mere entertainment. These pictures reflect the moment when they are made, shape the way the young view and understand society and help young people define their identity.
I can’t help but look at this century’s coming-of-age movies and ask what they reveal about the 80 percent of students who are of traditional college age. What I see isn’t simply inclusiveness, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, but an understanding of the world that is captured by that widely used and racially inflected word “dark”: grungy, distasteful, foul, capricious, troubling and anxiety-inducing.
The midlife crisis is so passé. It’s been superseded by the quarter-life crisis, when many 20-somethings undergo a rough, troubled transition into the real world of early adulthood.
The 20s is a time of exciting opportunities, self-exploration and concerted efforts to establish independence but also a moment when many young adult lives stumble through young adulthood, moving to a new town, taking a succession of toxic or casual jobs, engaging in succession of casual romantic or sexual relationships, and, at times, returning to the parental home. It’s during this decade that too many young lives go off the rails, with long-term consequences for their career trajectory and personal happiness.
Popular literature offers many revealing and riveting accounts of what it’s like to stumble through young adulthood. There’s Franny and Zooey, J. D. Salinger’s 1961 description of “the emotional strains and traumas of entering adulthood,” the “crippling self-awareness” that some young people feel as they try to define an adult identity. Then there’s Sylvia Plath’s semiautobiographical 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, with its unforgettable portrait of the protagonist’s anxiety and disorientation following college graduation, as she undergoes a series of professional setbacks and traumas only to discover her inability to conform to her culture’s ideal of conventional womanhood.
Then, too, there’s Douglas Coupland’s 1991 cohort-defining Generation X, which describes the lives of post–baby boom 20-somethings mired in “low-pay, low-prestige, low-benefit, no-future jobs in the service industry” and “their fanatical individualism, pathological ambivalence about the future and unsatisfied longing for permanence, love and their own home.”
More contemporary accounts, like Candice Carty-Williams’s 2019 British Book of the Year–winning Queenie, also deals with the struggle to chart a direction in life, find a job and forge meaningful relationships and define an identity separate and apart from one’s parents’ expectations.
As the historian Harvey J. Graff has argued persuasively, “Growing up was always hard to do. It’s getting harder and universities are doing little to help.” How so?
- Attainment of the markers of full adulthood takes place far more slowly than in the past. It’s typically not until the late 20s or even the 30s that young people acquire a stable job, marry, bear children and purchase a house, resulting in a protracted period of uncertainty separating graduation from adult maturity.
- The passage through the 20s lacks a well-defined road map of expectations as emerging adults navigate these difficult years, in stark contrast to the post–World War II generation that followed a clear developmental sequence into adulthood.
- Contemporary society’s intense age segregation means that many 20-somethings have few adult role models or mentors, apart from parents, to provide advice or support.
- Colleges and universities do too little to prepare graduates for the realities of postgraduation life.
Then, Graff astutely observes, there’s a cultural dimension to today’s student angst that stands in vivid contrast to the greater optimism of his and my generation. He describes a sense of anxiety, insecurity and even depression about the future that isn’t merely in students’ heads, but is indeed a defining element in their lived reality. That sense of torment, fear and anguish isn’t a product of individual psychological disorders, but is, rather, an outgrowth of the Great Recession, the pandemic, this society’s reckoning over racial injustice and inequality, fears over a climate crisis, debt burdens, and a loss of trust or confidence in government, business and higher education itself.
As Graff suggests, colleges and universities need to do much more to help today’s “lost generation.” But how?
A recent book by American University’s provost emeritus and professor of business administration and policy Scott Bass offers his advice. Administratively Adrift argues that today’s bureaucratically fragmented universities, with their siloed services and rigid organizational division of responsibilities, do a poor job of meeting the nonacademic needs and expectations of today’s students.
The solution the book proposes is threefold: more guidance and support from faculty and staff, a proactive case management approach to identifying and responding to students who are adrift or off course, and a campus climate that prioritizes caring, belonging and inclusion.
I certainly agree that colleges need to nurture students more holistically and that institutions need to eliminate barriers that “complicate their efforts to help students.” I also share Bass’s view that the rigid, inflexible division of responsibilities for advising, career services, student life and academics has contributed to a campus culture in which no one is accountable for student well-being across multiple dimensions.
But how, in an environment of resource constraints, staffing shortages and conflicting faculty priorities and incentives, is it possible for institutions to provide the kinds of wraparound supports and assistance that Bass calls for?
Are one-stop student service centers, data-informed dashboards that consolidate student information and identify risk trends and automate outreach, and faculty and staff training sufficient to tackle the challenges that Administratively Adrift describes? Not, I think, without a profound shift in campus culture that does indeed place a much higher priority on mentoring and advising, faculty and staff-student connections, and career identification and preparation.
For all the talk about personalizing the student experience, the sad fact is that too many students are adrift and campuses are not doing enough to combat this sense of isolation. The result is to place an untenable and unsustainable burden on those faculty and staff members who do devote a great deal of their time to mentoring.
What, then, can institutions do? Here are five initiatives that promise to make a difference.
- Recognize and reward faculty and staff who engage in mentoring. A small proportion of faculty and staff, disproportionately consisting of women and people of color, take an outsize responsibility for student support and engagement, often at the expense of their career advancement. Campuses need to ensure that these individuals receive rewards commensurate with their commitment to student success. This means not just a once-in-a-career award, but ongoing salary increments.
- Incentivize departments to enhance engagement initiatives for majors and minors. A celebration for graduating seniors is not enough. Engagement needs to take place regularly and might include convenings of a department honors society, regular faculty-student lunches or potluck dinners, or a departmentally funded outing to a film, a concert or museum.
- Place as many students as possible into a cohort program where they have access to a dedicated mentor. These range from first-year learning communities and meta majors to opportunity cohorts, research cohorts and pre-professional support centers in areas like business, computer science and prelaw and premed.
- Expand programs that promote student-faculty interaction. Student engagement initiatives, including “ask a professor to lunch” programs, guest lectures and off-campus excursions to a cultural or research institution or a field site, are not especially expensive but offer a big payoff in terms of student morale.
- Integrate and infuse personal development across the curriculum. I consider this the single most important step that an institution can take. Literature and film departments might consider survey courses that examines the bildungsroman, those novels, short stories or movies that explore young protagonists’ moral and psychological development, including the losses and conflicts they experience as they struggle to define their identity and journey toward maturity.
Anthropology, history and sociology departments might offer classes that examine changes and cross-cultural variations in the life course, rites of passage and the challenges of achieving adulthood. A psychology department might tailor a course on biological, cognitive, emotional and social development to focus more on the specific intersectional challenges faced by young people with various identifies and backgrounds. A wide range of departments might offer variations on Stanford’s Designing Your Life and Yale’s Science of Well-Being courses.
It’s not surprising that popular media is filled with references to a quarter-life crisis—a sense of disillusionment, trepidation, uncertainty and entrapment among the young that’s reflected in popular film and popular novels. Contemporary society has cultivated among today’s young adults a profound pessimism about the future, a cynicism about national myths, a mistrust about government and a wariness about the intentions of older adults, who too often proved unreliable, self-absorbed, controlling and simply selfish and which is reflected in the gerontocracy that heads the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
The younger generation’s anxieties about their economic, political and climatic future are not misplaced. This makes it all the more essential that we, as faculty and staff members and academic administrators, do much more to mentor, inspire, prepare and support our undergraduates as they undertake life’s greatest drama: the wrenching transition to a mature adulthood.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.