More than a decade ago in the song “Why Georgia,” musician John Mayer put words to a phenomenon that many 20-somethings sense all too well.
“I rent a room and I fill the spaces with/ Wood in places to make it feel like home/ But all I feel’s alone/ It might be a quarter-life crisis/ Or just the stirring in my soul/ Either way I wonder sometimes/ About the outcome/ Of a still verdictless life/ Am I living it right?”
Despite its inclusion in a hit pop song, the quarter-life crisis isn’t always taken seriously by society at large. “Nobody questions the midlife crisis,” points out Cyrus Williams, an associate professor in the School of Psychology and Counseling at Regent University, but the same isn’t always true of the quarter-life crisis, which Williams defines as a period of significant life and career transitions for young adults between the ages of roughly 22 and 30.
“As a culture, we all think that age 25 is the best stage of your life — these folks are happy, they’re doing everything they want and it’s a great time of life,” says Williams, an American Counseling Association member who has been studying and speaking about the quarter-life crisis for more than five years.
In the counseling session, however, the quarter-life crisis — a developmental time period of potentially high anxiety — needs to be given the same level of respect and attention as the midlife crisis rather than being dismissed out of hand, Williams says. “We really need to acknowledge and not minimize this time period,” he emphasizes.
Decisions, decisions, decisions
In their early 20s, many young adults are graduating from college and find themselves faced with a deluge of life transitions, Williams explains. There are choices and changes swirling around them in almost every major area of life.
They are deciding where to live, whether moving to their own apartment (or a shared living space) in a new city or back into their parents’ home. They want to pursue a career but sometimes find themselves stuck in entry-level jobs that don’t pay their bills or student loans. They wonder whether they should already be in a committed relationship headed toward marriage and a family. They question whether and how they will develop new friendships while hanging on to old ones from their high school or college days.
All of those issues can lead to feelings of anxiety, fear, instability and an existential crisis of “Who am I?” Williams says. “There are too many choices, too many decisions to make, and it’s scary,” he says.
This time in life can also dredge up self-doubt, says Melissa Nelson, a doctoral candidate in counselor education and supervision at Regent University who has been researching the quarter-life crisis with Williams. For example, some young adults might see that a peer has landed a successful job and become financially stable and start wondering why they haven’t been able to follow the same timetable. This can make young adults question themselves, their decisions and their abilities, says Nelson, a member of ACA. “Did I major in the right thing? Is there something wrong with me?”
It isn’t uncommon for clients in their 20s to present in the counseling session with feelings of depression and anxiety, says Katherine Hermann, an assistant professor in the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The idea of leaving a close-knit community, whether the town where someone grew up or the circle of friends an individual developed at college, can be isolating, says Hermann, who has presented on transitions in adulthood. The search for a romantic partner can also feel isolating and provoke anxiety, she points out.
Young adults in this stage may also feel a sense of betrayal, Williams says. Many of these individuals have grown up being told by parents, teachers and others that if they follow the rules and check all the boxes they’re instructed to, life will work out as it is supposed to. When things don’t fall into place that seamlessly, Williams says, these young adults feel lied to.
In such cases, Williams says, it can be helpful if counselors talk through those feelings of betrayal with clients, allowing them to express why things feel unfair and then working together to move forward past those feelings.
All of the anxious feelings that are normally experienced at this time of life can be exacerbated by social media, Williams adds. For instance, on Facebook and Instagram, people tend to post messages and photos documenting only their best experiences, which doesn’t translate to a realistic account of life. “That is one of the things that other generations didn’t have to deal with,” Williams says. “They [didn’t] have to have this in their face every day of ‘Wow, my friend is having a great life and I’m not.’”
Nelson agrees. It is easy for people in this stage of life to get caught up in comparing themselves to peers who post photos or messages related to career success, romantic adventures or starting a family. “What does that mean for an individual who doesn’t have those things yet?” Nelson asks.
One key is for counselors to talk with these clients about how social media rarely shows the day-to-day reality of people’s lives, Williams says. That simple action can help young adults begin to put things in the proper perspective, he adds.
Keep your ‘therapeutic antennae up’
With all those choices and transitions hurtling toward young adults in rapid succession, how can counselors help most? “I wish there was a magic answer,” says Hermann, a member of ACA. Short of that, developing a strong therapeutic relationship is perhaps most important, she says, along with gathering and attempting to understand the perspective of the client as much as possible.
“I think having your therapeutic antennae up is one of the most important things,” says Hermann, who adds that the client’s presenting problem isn’t always the real problem. Get to know these clients and work on the issues they present with, she says, but also be open and attentive to exploring other issues of which they may not even be aware.
Counselors should also know that these clients aren’t afraid to walk through your door, Williams says. “This generation is not like generations in the past,” he explains. “There’s not a stigma involved in mental health issues [with them]. They’ll come in to your office and they’re like, ‘Listen, I’m stressed out, I’m anxious. I need some help.’”
In return, Williams says that he stands ready to help these clients identify what they are experiencing. He specifically uses the term quarter-life crisis with young adult clients because he says it is empowering for them to hear a phrase that defines their experience. “It’s liberating for them,” Williams says. “They’re like, ‘Holy crap. OK. I get it. This is what I’m going through right now.’ So normalizing this is very important.”
Nelson agrees, adding that 20-somethings are reading magazine articles and self-help books on this topic as a way of finding support and normalizing their experience. “If we as counselors and therapists don’t do the same in normalizing this and recognizing this,” Nelson says, “then we’re not providing the comprehensive services that we need [to].”
Even if career counseling is not a counselor’s specialty, being well-versed in career counseling topics is imperative when working with these clients, Nelson says, because career issues are intricately tied to many other areas of life, from identity to finances to relationships. For example, Nelson says, paying for a house or paying for child care is tied to family and partner relationships, but it is also dependent on career decisions. That means that even if a counselor doesn’t specialize in career or academic counseling, it is critical to have a basic understanding of those areas of counseling, she says.
On the flip side, Nelson says, career counselors might have young adult clients come in for help writing résumés, only to discover that their parents are pressuring them to create the “perfect” résumé in order to find the “perfect” job. Or perhaps a counselor working with a couple in premarital counseling might find that one member of the couple is struggling with career and financial worries. Nelson suggests that counselors try to look holistically at everything going on in these clients’ lives.
Williams points out that, of course, not every 20-something is going to experience a full-blown “crisis.” But the potential is there for these various life transitions to lead to crisis if young adults don’t have the coping skills and supports in place to weather changes in a healthy way, he says.
Counselors would be wise to do assessments with these clients at the outset of counseling, Williams says, especially to help determine whether they might be experiencing clinical depression or anxiety. Then, he says, counselors should hear these clients out and try to understand where they’re coming from.
Williams often explores existential questions such as “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” with clients in this age group. He also reminds these clients that the answer to what they want to do with their lives doesn’t necessarily have to be related to their jobs; a job can pay the bills without necessarily “satisfying” or defining every aspect of the person. Williams prefers a holistic perspective, asking clients to think about what things in life make them happy, bring them meaning and help them make sense of the world.
No one right approach
When working with clients on quarter-life crisis issues, Williams suggests that practitioners remember to keep the counseling brief. Although these clients tend to be more willing than generations past to seek out counseling, they also generally want a faster route to a solution, not years of sessions, he observes.
“They come to counseling, but they don’t stay in counseling,” Williams says. Brief, solution-focused and existential approaches are often the best alternatives with these clients, he says. At the same time, many young adult clients aren’t afraid of doing work toward arriving at the solution, he adds, so counselors shouldn’t hesitate to suggest books for them to read, questions for them to ponder or other homework for them to do between sessions.
When deciding which interventions to use with these clients, Nelson suggests that counselors familiarize themselves with the literature on evidence-based practices related to life transitions, such as the school-to-work transition or the transition of becoming a family. Because the quarter-life crisis is a newer area of study that hasn’t yet been extensively researched, Nelson says it is hard to pronounce whether one counseling approach would be more effective than another. She believes almost any evidence-based approach can be effective with these clients, although she tends to lean toward existential-based approaches.
Williams came up with an intervention that he calls the “NEEDS” approach. The “N” stands for normalize, which all three counselors interviewed for this article highly recommend trying to do with clients confronting a quarter-life crisis.
The first “E” stands for empower. Williams says counselors can do this by arming these clients with anything from books to YouTube videos that will help them feel less alone and more confident that what they are experiencing is real.
The second “E” stands for taking an existentially focused approach. Williams says this involves helping clients explore who they are, what their calling is and the “why” behind it. For example, if young adult clients are focused on landing a particular job or moving out of their parents’ house, Williams will ask them to examine the “why” behind those desires.
The “D” stands for a developmental approach, in which Williams encourages clients to explore the “long continuum” of their lives, and also the decision-making skills that are required at this time in life. The decisions that 20-somethings make can have consequences that extend into their later years, he points out. For example, some young adults make the decision to run up their credit card debt so they can rush to move out of their parents’ home, while others decide to get married and have children before they are truly ready.
The “S” stands for screening and assessment, which Williams says is a must in determining whether clients are experiencing a normal transition or if their experience has crossed over into crisis mode.
Prevention where possible
Although counselors must be prepared to help 20-somethings who already find themselves in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, Nelson says practitioners should be thinking with a preventive mindset whenever possible. For example, she says, counselors who work with college students can help those students better prepare for what lies ahead by engaging them in exercises to build their self-esteem and raising their awareness of the challenging decisions and transitions that might pop up in the near future.
University counseling centers might be able to offer graduating students continued career counseling services until they land jobs, Nelson says. If such services aren’t feasible, she suggests that college counselors ensure that their clients who are graduating leave the school equipped with referral sources. She encourages college counselors to add website resources for recent graduates “who are feeling the heat of the quarter-life crisis.”
Nelson says counselors must do what they can to arm graduating students with the tools they need before they actually need them. “Getting the information out there and the resources out there before it becomes a problem is really important,” she says.
In preparing to work with clients on issues related to the quarter-life crisis, Nelson says it is crucial for counselors to be aware of changing cultural dynamics. For example, she says, counselors should understand how social media can further complicate life transitions for young adults and how changes in unemployment rates and student loan rates can have “very real implications” during an already frightening time period for 20-somethings.
Counselors who desire to work with young adult clients should read more about this generation, Williams says. Understand what makes them culturally unique, what is significant to them and what has shaped their lives. Among the resources that Williams suggests is the 2001 book Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner.
“Cultural shifts of parenting style and expectations are one of the greatest mitigating factors in understanding millennials,” Williams says. “Concepts such as positive reinforcement rather than punishment, or self-esteem building rather than tough love, became popular during the millennials’ formative years. Millennials were revered by parents and sheltered from the world, developing unrealistic expectations of self and never learning skills necessary for survival in the ‘real world.’ Often they have been sheltered so much that they have not been allowed to learn to survive on
“In addition to the confounding dynamics such as parental influence, millennials have come to age during a period of significant corporate downsizing, unemployment, underemployment and outsourcing,” Williams continues. “The estimated unemployment rates for young adults are more than double that of overall unemployment rates. As a result, young adults face increased financial stressors, often resulting in an inability to pay student loans, save for retirement or maintain independent living. It is estimated that approximately 44 percent of recent college graduates are currently experiencing underemployment, working in fields and positions in which they are overqualified. Like many other generations, work is a crucial aspect of one’s identity and expression of self. Consequently, when employment aspirations and ideals are not met, crises of personal identity may result.”
Hermann agrees. “Understanding the culture of this population will be important to sustained treatment success,” she says. “I think a systemic perspective is very important, and understanding the individual within [his or her] environment, especially as it pertains to relationships — family of origin, intimate, social, professional — is imperative to treatment.”
Hermann recommends two journals published by ACA divisions to counselors who might be working with this population. One is Adultspan Journal (published by the Association for Adult Development and Aging), which includes topics relevant to young adults. The other is the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health (published by the Association for Creativity in Counseling) “because of the innovative, therapeutic applications that engage and challenge clients to think differently,” she says.
To help counselors better prepare to work with clients undergoing a quarter-life crisis, Counseling Today asked these experts to weigh in with their best advice and guidance. Here are their top tips.
- Don’t minimize the quarter-life crisis, Nelson says. “Far too often, that’s one of the reasons that an individual is there [in counseling] in the first place.” In many cases, parents, peers or co-workers have minimized what these 20-somethings are experiencing, which only ends up increasing the pressure on them, Nelson says.
- Do focus on wellness, decision-making and the future, Williams says, not pathology.
- Don’t make assumptions, Hermann says. “Every client has a different past and goals for the future. Focus on the individual,” she says. Although counselors develop models and frameworks to understand patterns, “every person is a unique human,” Hermann reminds her colleagues.
- Do your research, Nelson says. Become aware of factors outside of your counseling specialty or area of practice that may be affecting young adults. “Awareness is half the battle,” she says.
- Do make it clear to these clients that this is short-term counseling, Williams says, “because you lose Generation Y if you are going to ask them to come back for 15 sessions. They really need to see the end from the beginning.”
- Don’t rely solely on clinical intuition, Williams adds. “I love the fact that we are intuitive, but we have instruments and science out there that can help us,” he says.
- Do consider group therapy. “If you are working in a setting that has the ability to utilize group therapy and group counseling interventions, I would say go for it,” Nelson says. “I think that group counseling can really help that process of normalizing the crisis [and] developing a support network for individuals beyond their counselors.”
- Do take the time to explore the individual’s relationships, including family relationships, intimate relationships, friendships and work relationships, Hermann says. “This exploration will give counselors an understanding of the individual and also the depth and capacity of [his or her] support group. In addition, so many of the changes that occur during this developmental period are connected to changes in relationships, so having a complete understanding of the relational aspects of an individual can be helpful in understanding and focusing a treatment plan.”
- Do encourage these clients to address their relationship with their parents, Williams says. It is a relationship that has likely changed now that these young adults are in their 20s, but it is a relationship and an influence that has long been paramount to them, he says.
- Do normalize the crisis, Nelson says. Point clients toward books or other resources to help them recognize that they are not alone in experiencing these struggles and challenges.
- Do explore identity development with clients, Hermann says. What is meaningful to them, and how do they create meaning?
- Do give these clients resources, books to read and homework to do, Williams says. They are typically used to being on the computer and doing research, so they are likely to engage in the homework related to their own counseling, he says.
- Do ask questions and then address any issues that become apparent from the answers, Nelson says. “Is it stressful to pay your student loans each month? Is it stressful to be pressured by your parents to be married and to have children, and how are you dealing with that?” Nelson suggests asking. “I don’t think that counselors need to be afraid and shy away from addressing the quarter-life crisis.”
To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:
- Katherine Hermann at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Melissa Nelson at email@example.com
- Cyrus Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lynne Shallcross, a former associate editor and senior writer at Counseling Today, works for Kaiser Health News as a web producer. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org