When I was 15, I thought that by the time I turned 25 I’d be a successful, confident, grown adult. I pictured myself travelling the world; I also figured I’d be making a ton of money. Unfortunately, neither of those things are true. In fact, in many ways I feel less like I know what I’m doing at 25 than I did at 15.
Some refer to this as a quarter-life crisis: an introspective time filled with existential dread and unanswerable questions about the meaning and purpose of life that usually occurs during our mid-to-late 20s (assuming we’ll live to be 100, I guess). While it’s not as well-known as the mid-life crisis, people have been talking about the quarter-life crisis for decades. But some experts are saying that the historic pandemic we’ve been living through for the past 14-plus months has made this particular stage of life even more stressful.
For the past year, we’ve experienced insurmountable loss — including the loss of life, loss of jobs, and loss of security, which Caitlin Arthur, MA, MHC says has created a kind of crisis on its own. “The quarter-life crisis is a period of general uncertainty,” she tells Refinery29, adding that “the pandemic is, by definition, also a period of uncertainty.” During a quarter-life crisis, people tend to question their career direction, experience relational difficulties — whether with a romantic partner or with family or friends — and feel financial stress, she says. COVID-19 has brought all of those areas of life to the forefront as well, and taken away our sense of control over our lives. Which begs the question: Aren’t we all kind of experiencing the symptoms of a quarter-life crisis right now?
Angela Mastrogiacomo thinks so. “There’s almost this rush to figure it all out — and very quickly — which is how I remember feeling when I was in my mid-to-late 20s,” the founder of The Blossom Agency and Muddy Paw PR, tells Refinery29. “But now at 32, almost 33, I’m experiencing it all again in a completely different way.”
Instead of grappling with the idea of what to do with her undergrad degree or what city to move to, Mastrogiacomo is questioning whether her decade-long career choice is still right for her — and what the future could look like. “For 15 years, I was always like no, I’m never having kids,” she says. But something in the past year had caused her to change her mind. “I was trying to trace back to where that switch happened for me in the pandemic, and I’m not even sure. It’s just one of those things that I think through the fear, the anxiety, the being stuck inside, the sort of reevaluating things as you do when this major world event is going on, I started rethinking that part of it,” she says. “That was very strange and really alarming to me, because my whole identity — really a big part of it — was wrapped up in [not having kids], and then all of a sudden I was like, Wait, who am I? I was freaked out by it.”
Arthur says that the feelings being brought up by the pandemic is singularly similar to the quarter-life crisis — which, while similar to the midlife crisis, is in many ways still distinct. While the the former tends to be present- and forward-focused (a fear of falling behind or not meeting goals), the latter tends to be past-focused, and is characterized by a period of reflection on past accomplishments and sadness or insecurity around aging. One common thread that many people have expressed this past year is the sensation of losing time, or that time is running out, which is “a really common thought for people to have when they’re in this quarter-life crisis,” Arthur says. “When our lives are put on pause for a year, truly in every sense of the word, people feel like there’s no movement so that really exacerbates the issue.”
So, we’re all going through it — but actually being in your mid-20s right now can be uniquely challenging. A significant amount of young adults moved back into their childhood homes due to the pandemic. We’re not able to freely see our friends, or meet new people or work contacts during a time of life that’s usually particularly social. And the lack of travel, even just to and from our offices or our friends houses or really anywhere, has made us feel stuck and immobile, tied to the computer screen as we work, or look for work. And that ties into one of the main culprits of the quarter-life crisis: job security. Any notion we held that hard work equals career security has been smashed. Instead, the pandemic has made us realize that the dream job is dead and we’re better off prioritizing our lives over our nine-to-fives.
It sounds bleak, and in a way, it is. But the uncertainty we’re all feeling can point us towards something worthwhile: growth. “The beginning of the pandemic was so filled with anxiety that it was almost immobilizing in a lot of ways,” Mastrogiacomo says. “But I think it was a catalyst for rethinking all these things.”
If you’re experiencing the feelings of a quarter-life crisis at any age, there are ways to get out of it — or at least, get through it. Therapy can be useful, if you have access, Arthur says. “It’s so helpful to talk to somebody just to help with perspective,” she says. But she’s also a huge advocate for spending less time on social media. “Looking at other peoples’ highlight reels really does not help when we’re already feeling behind or like we should be farther along than we are,” Arthur says. Along the same lines, she suggests starting to take inventory of your accomplishments more often, to counteract the internal monologue telling you that you’re off-track. Finally, talk to other people who are going through the same experience as you, and try out new hobbies or volunteering, Arthur says. “For a lot of people, they work for eight hours a day, come home, eat dinner, go to bed, and do it all over again,” Arthur says, “so trying to create a more robust day to day life can be really helpful.”
Whether you want to call this period of uncertainty and existentialism a collective quarter-life crisis, an early mid-life crisis, or just a crisis in general, the one thing to remember — and maybe find comfort in — is that we’re not alone in this feeling of being lost. “I think we’re all trying to figure it out and I think, like everybody, I wish [the pandemic] had never happened,” Mastrogiacomo says. “This is horrible. It’s been devastating, it’s been everything awful you could imagine, but if I had to look at the silver lining I’d say that my life is going to look completely different than it would have — and I’m better off for it.”