Sara Freedman has recently been dreaming of a life as a country club mom in the suburbs of Atlanta. After four years in the workplace, the thrill of buying "work" pants and standing in the Starbucks line is gone.
"I keep thinking I'm just in a rut and I'll grow out of it, but thinking about doing this the rest of my life … wow. Enter country club mom daydreams," the 26-year-old half-joked.
For millions of 20-somethings, Freedman's dilemma, commonly known as the Quarterlife Crisis, rings true. The spring, with its memories of high school and college graduations, is a natural time for reflection.
"This time of year is a yardstick," said Alexandra Robbins, author of "Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice from Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived." "Not only do you have graduation as a trigger for current students, it's the anniversary of many of the most significant milestones for a 20-something."
While cutesy names have been suggested for these very real feelings, like the twixter (they're 'betwixt and between') or the adultolescent, scholars and sociologists recognize this period as a legitimate developmental stage.
"It's 'real' in the sense that many young Americans feel anxiety when faced with a wide range of opportunities in their 20s and are unsure of how to choose from among them," said Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, author of "Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through The Twenties." Arnett prefers to call these 20-somethings emerging adults.
"They have grown up as the most affluent generation in American [or world] history, so they have high expectations for life," Arnett said. "They all expect to find a job that not only pays well, but is enjoyable, and they all expect to find their 'soul mate.' "
The Search for Permanence
Once past the honeymoon period with their first real job, their minds often begin to wander. With the excuse of being a "recent graduate" no longer viable, the search for a more permanent career, relationship and place to live begins. Many are stuck in front of a computer screen for hours, often posting online to pass the time.
"What the hell do I do? Is there anyone else who can relate? What is my passion? Will I ever meet the One" are among the refrains on www.quarterlifecrisis.com. With 10,000 registered users and 1 million hits per month, it's a place to meet, gripe and help each other out.
"The transition to adulthood today is a much more complex, prolonged process than it was for our parents," said Abby Wilner, who runs the site and has a career advice manual coming out called "The Quarterlifer's Companion." "According to the many 20-somethings who visit my Web site, they want nothing more than to figure everything out, move up in the world and eventually settle down, but external circumstances do not allow that to happen, and they are not properly equipped with the skills and resources to make that happen."
The statistics seem to support Wilner's views.
- Half of all students graduate with college debt, which averages $12,000, according to the American Council of Education.
- Nearly two-thirds of young adults in their early 20s receive economic support from their parents, while 40 percent still receive assistance in their late 20s, according to the American Sociological Association.
- The average American aged 18-30 has held seven to eight different jobs, according to the U.S. Census.
- 56.8 percent of men and 43.2 percent of women 22 to 31 years old lived at home with their parents or planned to move back home after graduation in 2002, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.
Fewer 20-Sometings Reaching Adult Benchmarks
There are also significant declines in the milestones a typical 20-something has reached. Using benchmarks such as graduating, leaving home, getting a full-time job, marriage, having a baby and financial independence, the ASA found new trends. In 2000, 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men had reached those markers by age 30. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had reached those same markers by age 30. Among 25-year-old women, 70 percent in 1960 had attained traditional adult status, as defined by reaching those benchmarks, whereas in 2000 only 25 percent had done so.
The economy is a contributing factor. Today's 20-somethings will be the first who won't do better than their parents. A college education doesn't deliver the same promises that it once did -- with a 53 percent increase in enrollment since 1970, the qualified competition for a job has intensified. Attaining a decent standard of living today requires a college degree -- to reach the level that their parents have achieved often requires a professional degree.
Many 20-somethings want to attend graduate school, but the thought of additional debt is almost too much to bear. Many postings on quarterlife crisis.com reflect the worry, "Will I find it just as hard to find a good job when I have my graduate degree?"
Wilner suggested that graduate school is not a way to avoid the "real world." She said 20-somethings should only return to school "because you already know you enjoy working in a particular field and want to progress in that area."
Career Concerns Persist
In Atlanta, Freedman worries about her career. She works in the sourcing department for Carter's, which makes baby clothes.
"Am I in the right profession, because if not I need to figure that out now. I don't want to start at the bottom at age 30. Am I in the right city? I have no idea how to answer these questions so I keep plugging along praying for an epiphany," she said.
For those who might not know where their passion lies, places like the nonprofit AIMS Aptitude Testing in Dallas offer help. Roughly 30 percent of the 900 people it has tested each year since 1976 are between the ages of 23 and 39.
For $750 and a day-and-a-half of your time, a battery of tests is given to determine natural strengths.
"We are testing for memory aptitudes, design aptitudes, musical ability, three-dimensional thinking, how quickly and accurately you can do paperwork, dexterity, and creativity levels," said founder Irvin Shambaugh. "We also do an interest test to make sure that what we're recommending are things you are interested in."
Test administrators interpret the results and provide examinees with college or career suggestions based on the combination of the individual's aptitudes and characteristics. To determine the success of the system, a follow-up questionnaire is sent out a few years after the individual has completed the program. In these surveys, the percentage of "satisfied" and "very satisfied" responses to the different questions was in the high 80s to low 90s.
Robbins' book offers numerous examples of 20-somethings who have decided to take a risk to pursue their passion and find they're happier than they've ever been. She suggested that 20-somethings ask themselves what they would do if they won the lottery and didn't need to worry about money ever again. Her advice? Focus on that goal, be dogged in your pursuit of it and ignore outside, age-related, societal pressures.
Arnett puts things in perspective, "What's the hurry? Nearly everyone grows up and settles down by about age 30. The 20s are for trying out options, developing self-understanding and moving toward making more enduring choices. There's nothing wrong with that. They all get to adulthood soon enough."
"I do know that one day I will 'grow up' and be settled, but somehow that doesn't lessen the pressures along the way," she said.