An Unfortunate Truth About the Quarterlife Crisis

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I literally spent my twenty-fifth birthday in tears. I called my parents in a panic—I hadn’t accomplished enough, I didn’t know where I was going in life, I wasn’t established in any career, I hadn’t found my soulmate, I hadn’t become rich and famous and wildly beloved and celebrated for all the ways in which I personally had contributed to the betterment of the world. Plus, would they lend me some money?
 
My parents, for their part, politely listened to me blubber for a half hour or so, then excused themselves to go play a round of golf. The message was unmistakable: Your predictableness is boring us; buck up, it gets better.
 
And they were right. Now I’m thirty-two and I’m married and I have a killer job and make tons of money and I have it all figured out. Life’s amazing and perfect!
 
Ha! Yeah, right.
 
I really am thirty-two years old and have indeed managed to find a man who’s not sick of me yet, but as for the rest of it, I’m still waiting. Despite having a better job than I had at twenty-five, not to mention more expensive furniture and a retirement plan, I’ve only figured out approximately 2 percent of What Adulthood Is, and that 2 percent mostly has to do with sunscreen. (Wear it!)
 
It turns out that the Quarterlife Crisis isn’t some finite period of turmoil from which we eventually emerge, confident and victorious. It continues forever. In other words, it’s just life. Welcome to adulthood, newbies! Yes, it sort of sucks here. 
 
Each day, I wake up and feel more or less just as terrified, untethered, and unprepared as I did at twenty-five. I worry about money, I worry about whether I’m far enough along in my career, and I compare myself to other people my age, along with people who are younger than me but whom I perceive to be doing better professionally, which makes me fret even harder. I compare the furniture in my house to the furniture in my friends’ houses. I wonder if my husband and I are taking the “right” vacations for our current life stage, or if our friends’ vacations are all better than ours. I feel totally unprepared to be a parent, buy a home, or to make any decisions more involved than picking out a pair of shoes. I feel a general unease and dissatisfaction with all my life choices, the future, the state of the world, and the quality of the produce at Whole Foods. I live every day with the secret knowledge that I am most absolutely, definitely, a complete failure, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone around me figures it out and begins the shunning.
 
And I’m not alone—plenty of thirtysomethings feel similar dread and apathy about adulthood and all its unpleasant, drudgerous, and irritating responsibilities. “Huh?” we ask. “Is this Grownuphood? A neverending carousel of emptying the dishwasher, paying the electric bill, and fighting over where to spend Christmas? What happened to changing the world?” Urban, suburban; single, partnered; rich, poor…the feeling is the same. “This is not what I thought it’d be like.”
 
It’s not even a thirtysomething thing. Or fortysomething. “I still have to remind myself that I’m an adult,” my dad confessed to me recently. “I still feel like I’m an eighteen-year-old kid waiting for life to start.” Time may bring money, career acclaim, love, or whatever other accessories we consider to be fully “adult,” but those accessories don’t always convince us that we’ve actually arrived.
 
The idea of the Quarterlife Crisis as just a temporary phase is quite soothing, though. It helps us endure those turmoil-filled years of our twenties, when we feel like we’re Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, putting in the hard time so that later on we can feel wise and Buddha-like, bettered by our suffering.
 
In your twenties, you think, “I’ll have it figured out by twenty-eight.” Then you hit twenty-eight and say, “Oh, well maybe thirty will be my year.” Then thirty comes and goes and you think, “Thirty-five is really when adulthood starts these days anyway.” That’s where I’m at right now. Thirty-five must be when it happens. Anyone older seems so wise, and then we get there and realize they didn’t know shit, either. If there’s one thing life is great at, it’s moving the goalposts.
 
Every personal setback I overcome, every professional milestone I achieve…I keep hoping that one of these days, it’ll all start making sense and I’ll start feeling like I’ve arrived. Fingers crossed! But in reality, each step on the journey makes me feel more unsure of the future. The more I know, the more I know that I don’t know anything.
 
So in the meantime I just go home to my apartment, which we rent and is always messy, and still contains several pieces of furniture that were found on the street. And I think about how meaningless my job feels and how disappointed the nineteen-year-old me would be that I haven’t solved homelessness yet. And I fret about my too-small 401(k), and call my best girlfriend and commiserate over a glass of wine. Because even if I don’t feel like it, my driver’s license says that I’m an adult, and this is what adults do. 

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