Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 26, 2001

Twentysomethings learn transition into 'real world'

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

WANTED: Recent college graduate seeks high-paying job, supportive work environment, opportunities to travel, meaningful romantic relationship with the possibility of cohabitation (maybe marriage) and ridiculously cheap rent for a phat pad.

Jennifer Oshita, left, and Birgitte Brubakken are University of Hawai'i students learning to deal with the expectations society has placed on twentysomethings.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

That's the wish list of today's twentysomethings who want it all — if only they knew what that was.

They want power with happiness, money without obligation. They want paychecks for their passions. They want to settle down, but they don't want to grow up.

And now the angst-ridden twentysomethings are undergoing a collective freakout. The ailment: "Quarterlife crisis."

"Society has definitely changed," said Kathleen Kozak, a 28-year-old internist at Straub Clinic & Hospital, who herself underwent a period of uncertainty and frustration in her mid-20s. "We're in a high-paced world. We want everything right now. We want everything perfect. We don't take the time to find out what we really want."

The latest buzz word comes from the title of a recent book focused on this mid-20s condition of feeling lost in a plethora of options and searching for an identity that has no name.

"We wrote the book because we had our own problems, too," said Abby Wilner, the 25-year-old co-author of "Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties" (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, $14.95). "We were adjusting to the real world after college, and we noticed our friends were going through similar transitions. We were amazed that there was nothing out there to validate what we were going through."

And with more than 39 million twentysomethings in the United States, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, it's safe to say Wilner and her confused Gen-X friends are not alone.

Compadres employee Romell Esteves, 24, says he’s “on the right path.”

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Filled with anecdotes about the dreaded and often frustrating transition from the predictable college realm to the erratic real world, the book confirms the perceptions of a generation that feels misplaced and misdirected.

"Things change when you're out of school," said Michael Stoller, president of Chicago-based Stoller Coaching, who is trained in the area of personal growth and development and works predominantly with twentysomethings. "Life's great, you're having a good time, then four years out of school you start asking yourself, 'What do I want to do and how do I get there? Do I worry about it? Do I live my life without thinking about it? Should I be content? Do I want more?' "

High expectations are common among the quarterlifers, many of whom had a plan: Graduate by 22, career by 25, married by 28, kids by 30.

Romell Esteves didn't think, at 24, he would still be in school and working as a waiter.

"I thought I would have graduated by 22, but there's a lot of bills to pay," said Esteves, between serving patrons nachos and margaritas at Compadres Bar & Grill. "I'm a little slightly disappointed."

But because he's on the right path — majoring in education at Honolulu Community College — he feels content with his life right now. He has goals: Graduate, get married, buy a boat.

If he doesn't achieve them?

"That's OK," he said. "I'll just find something else to do."

This generation, like previous ones, is bombarded with choices and often feels pushed and pulled in different — and sometimes unwanted — directions, as dictated by society, parents and peers.

"People really put a lot of pressure on themselves," Wilner said. "A lot of people, after graduation, just want to make money. But a couple of years out of college, they start to want more fulfillment out of their lives, more than just money."

Clif, an alt-rock guitarist and Borders sales associate, is a twentysomething who’s willing to risk failure — something many don’t want to do.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Cutthroat competition in the job market doesn't help, either. There are more college graduates than before. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded between 1987 and 1997 rose by 18 percent, the number of master's degrees by 45 percent and doctorates by 35 percent.

And the uncertainty of the job market, in particular the tech industry, which had sold Gen-Xers on a brand of the get-rich-quick concept, has contributed to the feeling of instability.

"There are thousands of career options out there that college doesn't prepare you for," said Wilner, an unemployed ex-dot-commer living in Washington, D.C. "There's more graduates, more competition, more pressure from the media. The normal, average twentysomethings aren't portrayed in the media, only the dot-com and entertainment millionaires. And it's hard today because there's nothing that really unifies our generation. We lack an identity."

Credit card debts. Health insurance. Roth IRAs. Cable bills. Student loans. Rent.

To today's twentysomething, those signal adulthood.

"I think of us as the low attention-span generation, always looking for the next best thing," Wilner said. "It's taking longer than ever for us to settle down in a career and relationship."

Gen-Xers are getting married later and having a series of relationships before that. Nor are they as loyal to their workplaces as their parents were. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical person holds 8.6 jobs between the ages of 18 and 32.

Great expectations

Teachers and parents are increasingly encouraging students, especially at the high school level, to decide on a career early.

"They do have high expectations," Stoller said. "Parents, teachers, friends all influence those expectations. You should have kids by 30 and be established in your career. Who said that? Is that something you really believe in? They put expectations on themselves and, when you really get down to the core of it, they don't even realize why they made those expectations."

That's exactly how Jennifer Oshita felt. The 22-year-old English major at University of Hawai'i-Manoa lived a planned-out life, worrying about her future and not focusing on living in the moment. It was natural for her, she said, to plan for the future and stress about it.

"I felt like I was trying to work really hard, that I was forced to make decisions when I was young," she said. "I felt rushed. You have to know way ahead of time what you want and where you want to go. But now I see life is a lot more flexible than you think."

After a summer at a meditation camp in California, Oshita discovered the joy of not knowing, of leaving expectations behind her, of relishing in the now.

"A lot of anxiety comes from thinking there's only one formula to happiness," Oshita said. "I think young people who want to be successful and happy look at ... society and parents to see what that means. Go to a good college, make a lot of money — that's what they need to be happy. And that's not true."

Slowing down is one thing quarterlifers, most master multitaskers, can't seem to do.

Critics have their say

Critics dismiss the notion of a quarterlife crisis, saying that every generation at every life stage goes through some awkward transition, that Gen-Xers are finding yet one more problem to whine about.

This phenomenon, they say, is merely a form of postgraduate culture shock, an unsettling shift from a safe, structured environment to a daily work routine that comes without a syllabus.

And what quarterlifers are feeling isn't so much despair and depression, but a sense of not belonging, of not knowing what comes next, of not understanding what they want and how to get it.

"It's difficult for me, sometimes, to live in the moment," said Adam Sprouseblum, a 21-year-old UH student majoring in English and biology, discussing life with his classmates at Borders Cafe one afternoon. "I find myself worrying about things I can't help. My natural tendency is to not worry, but when I fall into it, and if I grab onto it, it takes over."

His friend, 24-year-old Birgitte Brubakken, said she's going through a quarterlife crisis.

"Most of my friends are done with their education and have started working and are buying homes," said the UH business/finance major. "I'm still borrowing money.

"But in a way," she quickly added, "I must be where I want to be since I'm here."

In six years she hopes to have a good job and a boyfriend, but not kids yet. "If I don't have that, it'll feel like I haven't reached my goals."

With all these expectations and goals, failure is a possibility — and a risk some quarterlifers don't want to take.

"I don't think our generation is as risky as you might think," Wilner said. "A lot of people have dreams and never even go after them just because they want to do something more sustainable. I think there's still that fear of failure."

But some Gen-Xers see the risk as part of the adventure.

"I feel the need to see the world," said Clif, a tattooed alt-rock guitarist and Borders sales associate who goes only by his first name.

His dreams of touring and recording albums will take him to San Diego in October, leaving family, friends and everything familiar behind.

"I'm excited," he said. "There's worries because it's a big, new place, but that comes with it."

His attitude is one all quarterlifers could learn from: "At least I can say I did it."