Curbing the quarterlife crisis

Students and faculty reflect on the pressures and uncertainties today’s twentysomethings face

University students busy their lives with classes, assignments, essays, and friendships, so thinking about future plans sometimes gets put on the backburner.

But when those thoughts do creep in, students are often flooded with worries of about the future and confusion about the direction in which their lives are heading. These kinds of concerns are creating a new type of anxiety, called the “quarterlife crisis” in the 2001 book Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique challenges of Life in Your Twenties by Abby Wilner and Alexandra Robbins.

Mike Deaves, Sci ’11, took a year away from university after the completion of his second year in 2008 to travel in South America.

He said he’s wanted to be an engineer since high school, but something was missing from his cultural life.

“We live in our own kind of culture and way of life, and I wasn’t sure if it was the right one,” he said. “It was kind of a spur of the moment decision. I was just thinking about it for a couple of days, and was just like, yeah, I’ll do it.”

With the conditional support of his father and faculty advisor, he left and joined Canada World Youth, a volunteer organization, promising to return the year after.

“You volunteer three months in Canada and three months in a different part of the world,” Deaves said. “But then after the program ended I didn’t really want to go back to Canada I didn’t feel like I was done. So I stayed for six months after, did more volunteering and some travelling of my own.”

Deaves said the experience changed his way of viewing the world.

“I feel like I’m more conscious of my global citizenship. I know what I want to do,” Deaves said, adding that his travels didn’t lead him to change his degree program but his values were renewed.

“I used to want to be a Formula One engineer. But now I’ve changed my perspective. It’s really cool, but in the big scheme of things it’s not really something important and what I would want to spend the rest of my life on,” he said. “Now wind turbines are something that really interest me, and something I’d want to get into.”

Deaves said his quarter-life crisis involved leaving his comfort zone. He advises anyone in a similar situation to do the same.

“Don’t just follow along because you think you should.”

Assistant psychology professor Tom Hollenstein said there are three reasons some young adults go through quarterlife crises.

Hollenstein said young adults are faced with more choices now than ever before. “You’re not the blacksmith’s son or daughter, and destined to be the blacksmith because that’s what your parents did. Now you can do anything. The opportunities are so vast.”

Hollenstein said the shift to adulthood has been happening gradually later over the past 100 years. In other words peoples’ adolescences are longer he said.

“Given that there is this delay, then this is the first time that people are becoming fully independent and responsible for themselves. And that’s a shock, because they’ve gone 25 years without doing that.”

Hollenstein said in today’s job climate, people are no longer pushed into career decisions in their early 20s.

“The structures that were in place where people could decide exactly what they are going to do with their life by 20-22 are outdated. Now people tend to have several different career paths,” he said. “I always tell people, do the next thing, do the thing that’s most compelling, even if it scares you. Even if it’s not connected to what you are doing, just do it anyway.” For Hollenstein, this meant selling all of his possessions, and moving with a backpack and his guitar to Hawaii.

Hollenstein said he believes students should ultimately do what not only makes them happy, but also what gives them a sense of purpose.

“It’s that meaning of striving towards goals that is what makes meaning for us. Its how we connect and move along. Gandhi once said, ‘Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.’”

For Mark Ouseley, ArtSci ’10, the crisis surrounded academic-related decisions. Pressured by his parents to pursue one of four conventional career tracks — doctor, lawyer, engineer, or accountant — he had set his sights on becoming an environmental doctor, pushing himself through life sciences and medical school.

“Those were the tracks I thought would lead to a real job, the environment was something I was just interested in on the side,” Ouseley said.

Ouseley said he changed paths after studying for first-year science exams.

“I looked at every single course that I would be taking in LifeSci, realized that I wouldn’t enjoy any of them, then looked at the courses I would take for physical geography, and realized I would take all of those for fun.”

Making the switch to environmental science, Ouseley said his current program, required a bit of a leap of faith.

“I guess it’s like jumping out of an airplane with your eyes closed. Before that you are sitting on something you know quite well. But then the ride starts to get really rocky, and you can choose to stay on the airplane, or you can choose to jump out with your eyes closed,” he said. “Until you jump out of the airplane, you never realize that you could survive on your own.”

Ouseley’s said he’s attending the University of Waterloo in the fall to study environmental planning, and hopes to eventually get his PhD.

For students seeking a more concrete solution, Queen’s Career Services can offer some advice, career counsellor Paul Bowman said.

“I think it’s around the whole thing of seeing your career as a long-term project,” he said. “That means knowing yourself well, knowing what your skills and abilities are and being able to direct yourself with this, but also knowing that life can take twists and turns.”

Bowman said Career Services aims to help students recognize their own interests and abilities. Last year, Career Services saw 2,500 students for one-on-one appointments and taught workshops to 4,000 students.

“A good thing to do is, for a period of about a month, just keep a notepad with you and every time you find your attention going towards something just write it down,” he said. “Whether it’s a TV show, or a lecture or reading you got really excited about, or a conversation you overhear at a coffee shop. Once you’ve been doing that for a few weeks, you have a fairly good list, and then we can look at that and figure out any themes.” Bowman said it’s important for students to take time to reflect on what their passionate about.

“Pay attention to your attention,” he said. “Another thing too is look back on the last two years in your life and think about those times when you’ve lost track of time,” Hollenstein said no one should feel pigeon-holed by their life decisions, as nothing is set in stone.

“You can always change your mind. You are not locked in.”

crisis? what crisis?

Student Affairs Career Services — Catering to Queen’s Students, offers career tools, job and internship posting, resources for resumes and interviews to help you land a job, and information sessions and workshops. Visit their website, 300 Gordon Hall, or call 613-533-2992.

Career Counselling — Designed to help you find answers to questions central to your career search. Make appointments seven days in advance. Visit the site

Networkq — An online platform where students can connect with over 800 alumni volunteer that can give you advice about career options, share experiences and opportunities. Visit their site Business Career Centre — Targeted towards business students, the center offers coaching, seminars, information, online resources, resume books, and more. Visit them in Goodes Hall room 203 or at their site for other inquiries

Global Passports — An online database of international internships open to students. Visit the website

AIESEC — Offers internship opportunities in over 110 countries and director positions at Queen’s that help explore areas including marketing, finance, HR, management, and more. Visit them here

Emily Davies and Katriina O’Kane

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