by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
I will never forget my first encounter with a Stetson University grad. I had just moved to DeLand the summer before I was to start teaching and I wandered into a Pier 1 store in nearby Daytona Beach. I was proudly wearing an SU polo shirt when the cashier asked me if I worked at Stetson. We chatted for a while about Stetson. She told me she had graduated two years earlier. I asked if she was in the management training program at Pier 1. Nope, she replied, just a clerk. My heart sank. Is this the value of a degree from Stetson — a job as a retail clerk? No, she was just trying to discover what she wanted to do in life — and while she was deciding, a retail job was all the stress she could handle. She had been a philosophy major determined to go to grad school, but when her plans changed, she had no career focus whatsoever.
Welcome to the world of twentysomethings — that uncertain time of transitions from classrooms and professors to cubicles and bosses.
Numerous experts have identified a point in many people’s lives when they face anxiety and a sense of being adrift, lost. People change jobs, change careers, change lives. As identified in the early 1990s, this time of life is not a midlife crisis, but a quarterlife crisis. Twentysomethings around the globe struggle with the transition from college to career — and not just to career, but to the perfect career.
Experts say that the crisis hits folks in their 20s, because after years of learning the system of how to succeed in school, college grads are thrown into the world of work with no real understanding of how to succeed in it. Others blame the way pop culture has portrayed work, giving younger workers unrealistic expectations.
Don’t believe in the quarterlife crisis? Check out the Websites and books on the subject. The bigger question is, has there always been a quarterlife crisis, or is it something relatively new?
Studies show that folks in their 20s are working shorter tenures at multiple employers. Many are either going back to college or changing careers. Most feel overwhelmed with the plethora of options available to them — unlike their parents, who had more clear-cut career paths (and more loyal employers).
Certainly, whatever the causes, life is not what these folks expected — or were prepared for. And pressure from families and others to “just get over it” seem to make matters worse.
Are you in your 20s? Are you having some of these feelings? Does the description fit you? If so, then this article is for you. Here are five strategies you can take to right yourself and get back on track for fulfilling your dreams.
1. Develop realistic expectations. Unless you are extremely fortunate, you are not likely to get the corner office, the multimillion dollar salary, and the mansion in the suburbs while you are in your 20s. Life is not a sitcom — or a reality show. Life is what you make it.
Develop a mentoring relationship with someone in your same profession and learn the steps it takes to make the kind of progression you hope to make.
Most lower-level jobs, especially entry-level ones, are where workers “pay their dues” by completing all the assignments that the senior employees don’t want to do. You won’t be assigned account director for Mitsubishi’s $200 million advertising campaign on your first job with BBDO.
We have a great catalog of advice from folks in their 20s in our Real World Section.
2. Take time to discover your passions. Many folks get into a quarterlife crisis because they take the first job offer after college and embark on a series of wrong jobs/careers. This situation is especially the case, it seems, for liberal-arts students who did not think about career choices while in school.
Take a weekend or part of a vacation and spend some alone time conducting some serious self-assessment. What are your passions? What are the types of activities you love accomplishing? What do you dislike? What first inspired you about your college major(s)? Consider one or more assessment tests. Spending this time should allow you to begin getting clarity about your next steps in terms of career and education.
And beware that your passions may change as you experience more things and grow as a person.
Take advantage of these resources on Quintessential Careers:
3. Set goals and visualize your future. It does not do any good to have realistic expectations and an understanding about your passions if you do not have a plan for progressing in your career.
Where do you see yourself in five years? What type of job do you envision? What type of life do you want?
Once you have the answers to those questions, develop some action steps to take during those five years to get you to — or close to — your goals.
4. Consider changing careers. One of the things you may find during this process is that your current career is not for you — and that’s perfectly okay, even if you are already on your fifth career since college.
Most studies show that people will change careers multiple times over the course of a lifetime — some as many as seven or more career changes.
If you are unhappy with what you currently do, if you dread going to work in the morning, if your work is causing to be (mentally or physically) sick… then you must make a change.
The best way to make a career change is with a plan… a plan to gain initial experience in the field, get additional training or education, and expand your network.
5. Cultivate a positive meaning/definition of success. Too many 20-year-olds have a too materialistic definition of success. Does wealth and materialistic positions mean you’re successful?
You need to stop judging yourself by other people’s standards — and develop your own. How do you define success? What gives you the most satisfaction and happiness? What gives your life meaning?
As you go about defining what success means to you, remember that many of the so-called trappings of success — money, material possessions, etc. — are the results of success, not the definition of it.
An interesting article to contemplate is What Will 21st Century Career Success Look Like?
Resources to Help Twentysomething Job-Seekers
- Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice from Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived
- Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties
- They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World. Read our review of this book
- Things You Should Know by Now: A Mini-Life Manual for the Quarterly-Aged
- TwentySomeone: Finding Yourself in a Decade of Transition
- Twentysomething: Surviving and Thriving in the Real World
Also check out the books we list in this section of our online bookstore: Success After College Books.
- Quarterlifecrisis.com — a community for twentysomethings and companion site to Quarterlife Crisis: the Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties
- Soundtrack for the Quarterlife Crisis — 44 songs for the twentysomething soundtrack, with titles such as, “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English,” from Avenue Q
Final Thoughts on Beating the Quarterlife Crisis
There are certinaly more opportunities — and challenges — facing twentysomethings. Besides the materials in this article, please read Lisa’s Story: A Personal Account of a Quarterlife Crisis. And if you are still in college — or know someone who is — review this Checklist for College Students to Help Avoid/Reduce Quarterlife Issues.
How Life is Different from College. Reality Bites — If You Let It
Some new grads are in for a massive culture shock upon graduation. Do you know how the real world differs from college?
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Maximize your career and job-search knowledge and skills! Take advantage of The Quintessential Careers Content Index, which enables site visitors to locate articles, tutorials, quizzes, and worksheets in 35 career, college, job-search topic areas.