We are not unlike a particular crustacean. The lobster grows by developing and shedding a series of hard, protective shells. Each time it expands from within, the confining shell must be sloughed off. It is left exposed and vulnerable until, in time, a new covering grows to replace the old.” – Gail Sheehy, author of Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life

Remember when you were a little lobster and everyone told you that you could do or be anything? The possibilities were endless! And then you hit your mid-20s, and while you sat on a beach as the sun set, you recalled what the little lobster thought they would be when they became a big lobster, and the freak-out ensued.

It starts out quiet. A slow, uneasy feeling. Mild panic.

You fight back depression as you aimlessly fail to figure out what wrong turns you took in your life to become this lobster that is unlike the one you thought you would become.

Despite how you feel right at this moment, you’re not alone and this is actually totally normal.

No one is going to boil you alive. You’re just getting ready to shed the next shell.

Gail Sheehy, who inspired this endless lobster nonsense, studied life crises in the 1970s, and found that we experience self-identity challenges in our 20s, 30s, and 40s. Some of that is due to what we think we should be doing (getting a job, getting married, having kids, blah blah blah), but it’s also what Sheehy calls “gaining our authenticity”, or figuring out who we are. And that, as any romantic comedy has shown you, is never easy…but it can be verrry funny.

While timeframes have changed since the 1970s — the average age for marrying was 21 for women and 23 for men back then — the quarter or midlife crisis (depending on how long you live…) is not new.

Great, so we’re all freaking out

It really depends at how you look at your quarter-life crisis and what you intend to do with it. There is this weird perception we have when we’re younger that we’ll have things figured out and feel accomplished and settled by a certain age. Have a good chat about the ol’ days with Mom and Dad and you’ll find out that’s all complete bullshit.

Blame it on all of those happily-ever-after Disney movies you watched as a kid.

According the American Psychological Association, “Millennials are the most likely of all generations to say their stress has increased in the past year (36 percent vs. 30 percent of Gen Xers, 24 percent of Boomers and 19 percent of Matures).” (p.12)

What are we freaking out about? My hypothesis is that it’s instability. The fear of the unknown.

The APA report lists the most common stresses as money, work, the economy, family responsibilities, and personal health concerns. Do you feel in control, experienced with, or crystal-ball clear about any of those topics?

At a recent networking event for writers, a very clever fellow-Millennial brought up the idea that our generation has no frame of reference for how to deal with all these sources of stress. Things are different now than they were for our parents. Many of us became young working adults when the 2008 financial crisis hit, which opened our eyes to a future of instability.

  • How do you buy a home when your rent costs more than a mortgage, and you can’t save up enough for an actual mortgage in order to stop paying rent?
  • What are the implications of having children out of wedlock?
  • How do you gain a fulfilling career, when it takes at least four years to gain the paper to qualify you for an entry-level position that doesn’t pay enough to pay off the education needed for said paper?

These problems are all fairly new. And without trusted advice, it can be really damn hard to figure out what to do. Cue quarter-life crisis.

When is this quarter-life crisis ever going to end?

Like Sheehy, Dr. Oliver Robinson discovered common life phases, though Robinson worked on a much more compressed timescale. Robinson focused specifically on Millennials, and found there are four phases to our quarter-life crises:

  1. That false sense of feeling trapped or stuck.
  2. You sense a breakthrough, a catalyst that helps you believe change, on your own terms, is possible.
  3. Rebuilding.
  4. Committing to your new direction.

It all reminds me of a little David Bowie (who swapped out several lobster shells) song:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
Don’t want to be a richer man
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
There’s gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time…

So, as shitty as it sounds, hang in there!

It may all come down to willpower and time

When the APA did their study, they asked their respondents what their most common barriers to change are. Ringing in at 32% is the lack of willpower to make a change.

And if we refer back to Sheehy, it might just take time. Actually, she says that if you don’t have a crisis in your 20s, you could be looking at a bigger one later in life.

Becoming yourself is no quick and easy task, especially when you’re dealing with the tumultuousness of today’s real estate, job, and financial markets. It turns out, a quarter-life crisis is likely inevitable. However, my little lobsters, do not lose hope. Be curious, be kind, and consider how you can work on your will to change in this next chapter in life.