Post-college adjustment can spark a quarter-life crisis

Students often find new adjustment difficult after two decades of highly-structured lives

Emily Johns

College students today are constantly reminded of how many options are available to them and how many different ways they can live their lives both during and after college.

What is not discussed, however, is that students often find these options and newfound responsibilities daunting and overwhelming.

Coming out of nearly two decades of institutionalized education with a set path to follow and a parental support network, the transition from college to the real world can be a traumatizing one, plagued with self-doubt, confusion and often depression, according to Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner. The two coined a phrase and co-authored a book, “Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties,” about this phenomenon.

“The career and financial opportunities for college graduates have skyrocketed in the past decade and, therefore, so has the pressure to succeed,” wrote Robbins and Wilner. “The sheer number of possibilities can certainly inspire hope. But the endless array of decisions can also make a recent graduate feel utterly lost.”

Glenn Hirsch, assistant director for University Counseling and Consulting Services, said many students getting ready to graduate realize their major does not necessarily lead to a specific career and wonder what to do with their lives.

“They need to focus then on where they are going to go,” Hirsch said. “Some students are concerned about the loss of structure and safety provided by the University. You graduate, and all of a sudden that structure is gone and you have to make decisions about how you’re going to spend your time – that creates a lot of anxiety.”

Searching for jobs is often the biggest source of anxiety for graduating seniors, and that tough task has been made even tougher by a slumping economy.

“I’m sure I can find a job, but I’m nervous about finding one that I’d like,” said Joe Ahrens, a Carlson School of Management senior set to graduate after this semester.

Ahrens said he never had the initiative to use career counseling options through the Carlson School or the University but does not believe he is falling behind his classmates.

“A lot of the people seem to already have jobs lined up,” Ahrens said. “They’ll probably get the big-time, prime-time jobs, but I don’t think I won’t be able to find a job.

“If I don’t find one, I’ll go to graduate school.”

Graduate school is an option for many, providing a transition between the free-spirited college years and the reality of a 9-to-5 daily grind.

Hirsch said students with a considerable amount of student loan debt feel more pressure to know what they want to do immediately.

“It doesn’t really give them the option of taking time off from school,” he said.

Average students also have to battle changes in their evolving social lives. It’s more difficult for recent graduates to devote as much energy to their friends as they used to.

“One basic problem for 20-somethings is that, because they are so used to meeting people at school, after graduation they naturally fall into the habit of trying to meet people at work,” wrote Robbins and Wilner. “Unfortunately, their standards are often so high because of the intense quality of the four-year relationships they formed in college that their relationships with colleagues do not quite match up.”

Ahrens predicts that it will be harder to stay in contact with his friends because they won’t be near.

“I won’t be living with six of my friends, so I might grow apart from some of them,” he said.

Ahrens said once he gets a job, his schedule and priorities will change, but he wants to stay close to his friends.

“I don’t plan on working nights and weekends a lot unless I have my own business,” he said.

“But then they can come hang out,” he added with a laugh.

Hirsch said the graduate’s relationship with parents often comes under the most stress.

“When students get out of college, parents usually have an expectation that their sons and daughters will be really independent,” Hirsch said.

Parents expect the transition will be flawless for recent graduates, she said.

“Otherwise, parents still expect to have their sons and daughters around a lot or checking in a lot, and the sons and daughters may really be moving much more into their adult life – focusing on their careers or their relationships outside of their families,” Hirsch said.

Because the quarter-life crisis is a relatively new field of study, according to Robbins and Wilner, little research exists on how many students deal with this crisis every year.

“Nearly all the 20-somethings we spoke to believed that their identity crises were unusual, which only made them feel more isolated,” Robbins and Wilner wrote. “But the funny thing was that all of them were going through pretty much the same experience.”

Emily Johns welcomes comments at [email protected]