Some academic writers have aligned it with Erik Erikson’s Intimacy vs Isolation stage in human development theory.
Intimacy vs. isolation – This is the first stage of adult development. This development usually happens during young adulthood. By successfully forming loving relationships with other people, individuals are able to experience love and intimacy. Those who fail to form lasting relationships may feel isolated and alone.
Gen Y’s experience of the quarter-life crisis is broader than Erikson’s lifestage description, though the search for authentic intimacy is certainly a significant part of the experience.
Putting the Quarter-life crisis in a generational context
The concept of having crisis associated with a lifestage is nothing new, but it does shift the marker earlier in life and the focus of the crisis seems to be different.
Silent generation crisis stage
The Silent generation was born into a time of crisis. Just being alive and living through their formative years was an experience in crisis survival. But, as children they experienced these crises as part of their worldview and values formation processes. Consequently, the Silents didn’t need to / have to experience a developmental crisis in later life.
In essence the relative stability and change resistance of the Silent generation life experiences is rooted in the crisis that was childhood. The Silent generation didn’t go through a life crisis in adulthood because they had gone through one in childhood, and everything they had learned mitigated against life being taken over by crisis later on.
Baby Boomers crisis
The Boomers grew up in a world that was stable and increasingly affluent. Their childhood experiences were essentially idyllic – encapsulated in their nostalgic recollection of the “Good old days”. Boomers entered adulthood having experienced little disruption and moved into a world of work that allowed them to aim for, live, and achieve their dreams. Sprawling suburbs filled with nice houses, manicured gardens, shining cars, and Boomers off at the office enjoying working hard to make it all happen.
Then they hit their 40’s and mid-life. They had achieved what they wanted to career wise, or realized that they were doomed to never achieve their goals. They looked at their kids and didn’t know them because they worked too hard to spend time connecting with their progeny. Critically they also looked at their partner and questioned whether this was the person they wanted to spend the rest of their life with.
Trigger the mid-life crisis.
The reaction was escalating divorce rates, second and third marriages and families, and burn out in the workplace. A generation of people suddenly realized that they didn’t know how to live if they weren’t chasing a goal or target. Some Boomers decided to kick up a gear in the workplace and built amazing careers and corporations. Others decided that family was their new goal and redirected all of their drive into making sure that their second or third family didn’t fall apart the way their first ones did. As they had Gen Y children with their new partners they switched into Super-Parent mode and actively engaged with their young kids and their development.
Generation X crisis
The Gen X crisis kicked in as they transitioned in true adulthood and were confronted with being expected to act and be “grown up”. This happened as they transitioned into their 30’s.
As Gen X made this switch they considered the chaos they experienced as a result of the decisions Baby Boomers made in their mid-life crisis. They also looked at the world they were in and the steady erosion of stability that older generations took for granted. At the same time they looked at the “boring” world of the Silent generation. Gen X looked at the two extremes in the adult lives of the generations who preceded them, the boring stasis of the Silents, and the self-centred workaholic loneliness their Boomers parents put them through. Now adulthood confronted them and they didn’t want to be like either of these.
Couple this questioning and possible disillusionment, with the self-sufficiency generated by how they grew up, and add in the increasing awareness of alternative choices generated by growing globalization. The effect is that Gen X entered their thirties and experienced a crisis as they realized they weren’t sure if they wanted to stay in the job they moved into once they had finished studying whatever their parents had been prepared to pay for. They also looked at their families and decided they wanted something different for them. But, they couldn’t just quit life…..
Trigger the adulthood crisis of Gen X.
Gen X responded by finding ways to create space to consider their future. Many chose to step out of work for a period and do post-graduate studies in a field of their choosing if they knew what they wanted to do with the rest of their life. Many, though, knew what they didn’t want to be but weren’t sure of what they wanted to be so they stepped into a more general sphere. This second trend gave rise to the escalation in people signing up for MBA’s in the 90’s with the average age of MBA students dropping down to the upper 20’s by the early 2000’s.
Gen Y Quarter-life crisis
Gen Y have moved into young adulthood and as they have done so they have been confronted by an earlier and more existentially focused quarter-life crisis. Men and women in their mid-20’s are asking the type of questions and experiencing levels of angst that older generations were completely oblivious to in the corresponding stage of life.
Gen Y are questioning life on all levels:
At all of these levels they are asking: “Is this who I want to be?”
There is, however, a difference in the orientation of these questions that is significantly dissimilar to the corresponding ones asked by Boomers and Gen X. Older generations experienced their questioning and crisis from the perspective of disillusionment or lack of self-awareness, Gen Y are asking these questions from a place of heightened self-awareness and optimism for what the future could be like. From this space they want to be positioned to take best advantage, or make the best contribution to, the world that they optimistically see far more positively than their seniors do.
The correlation between lifestage and existential crisis can be more clearly seen when we line the generational lifestages with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Life Crises and the evolution of human need
The Silent generation had their crisis experience low down on Maslow’s hierarchy. Essentially the experiences of needing to survive the impact of World War 2 and the Great Depression meant that the crisis experience in their childhood occurred between the Physiological and Safety levels. It was an intense existential crisis focused on survival and managing with little. Jobs were lost, homes were not secure, incomes were tenuous, and in the war zones themselves living itself was uncertain. Living through experiences at this level it is little wonder that any trials and tribulations faced in later life were taken in stride and created little crisis in this stoic generation.
The mid-life crisis experienced by Baby Boomers was in the Love / Belonging level. The world Boomers experienced was stable and safe with all of their most basic needs met. The high divorce rates that accompanied the mid-life crisis events of the Boomer generation indicate the love / belonging nature of the crisis.
As Boomers have moved into new families the renewed focus on their Gen Y children having a clear sense of family and stability also reflects the love / belonging nature of their crisis and their desire to meet those needs.
As products of the sexual revolution [love / belonging activity in earlier life] it is also possible that experiences from this period have found expression and resolution in their attempts to resolve their mid-life crisis. The presence of the sexual revolution within their young adulthood indicates that Baby Boomers have been grappling with this level of need for most of their existence.
Mid-life ended up being the period during which they were forced to meet the need in a way they were not fully equipped for.
As a result of the “broken family” and “workaholic” dynamics Gen X experienced with their Boomer parents they have grappled with needs at the Esteem layer within Maslow’s hierarchy.
As Gen X entered adulthood and experienced their crisis they asked questions related to who they wanted to be in their life. These questions were asked more holistically than the Boomers mid-life challenges as X’ers looked at life in total and avoided segmenting into work and life.
The self-reliance Gen X developed growing up generated crisis because they realized that nobody else was going to live their life for them. They wanted to, and needed to take control of their lives and be comfortable with where they were going. The increased importance of their children in their lives meant that they wanted to make sure that their kids would benefit form the adulthood crisis resolution. Unfortunately, they probably didn’t effectively communicate this priority to their children because they are so self-driven in the way they address issues.
Realising that they didn’t want to be the same as their predecessors, and that life is too short to live regretfully Generation X moved into their 30’s attempting to make decisions that give esteem, respect, and achievement to their self-sufficient way of living.
Gen Y’s Quarter-life crisis
Generation Y’s quarter-life crisis has come on earlier. Gen X studied what was expected of them, then moved into an initial career consistent with these expectations, then only began to question when the expectations of adulthood pressed in. Gen Y is experiencing this crisis of identity as they move out of the “education” phase of life into young adulthood and entry into the world of work.
Gen Y have a highly developed sense of esteem and confidence based largely on the way in which they have been parented by both Boomers and X’ers – though each parent group motivated by different drivers. Gen Y have also grown up in a world that is largely affluent with Gen Y having a sense of very little actually being needed to live. This world of security and relative stability does have a shadow side that Gen Y is experiencing. Boredom is ever present.
Generation Y are transitioning into the world of work and young adulthood with a sense that the world is their oyster and they can do whatever they set their minds to. Overly supportive and protective adults have drummed this message into them. At the same time, Gen Y have a very tempered sense of failure brought on by being told that they were winners just because they tried something, or that they didn’t fail at something as long as they had fun doing it.
Consequently, as they start to look forward and consider their future they are in crisis because they don’t know what they actually want out of life, and they have never been pressed to develop any sense of this. Pair this with the Gen Y paradox of being one of the most street smart yet naive generations ever and they end up have a very real understanding of ALL of the options available to them, and yet are consumed with questions about what it all means.
Generation Y’s quarter-life crisis is driven by their striving to meet the needs inherent in achieving self-actualisation.
Understanding that the Gen Y crisis is a continuation of the crisis events experienced by older generations and also driven by a logical progression from humanity’s survival toward self-actualisation, how is the quarter-life crisis survived?
Surviving the Quarter-life Crisis
Generation Y need first to accept that it is a real life experience and embrace it for what it is. They also need to realize that older generations will look at the quarter-life crisis through the lens of their own crisis experience and probably not understand that it is as significant as it is. Boomers and X’ers may even deride or reject the crisis totally.
The mid-life and adulthood crises forced Boomers and X’ers to make decisions leading to significant change – whether they were ready to do so or not. The quarter-life crisis is similarly forcing Gen Y to make decisions that will change their life. Gen Y need to accept the responsibility for these decisions as they make them. If the consequences are not fun, or what the Y’s hoped for, they will be tempted to fall back into the nest. Generation Y is being called the Boomerang generation because of this tendency to move back to their childhood homes when the going gets tough. Gen Y need to learn to accept the consequences of their decisions and move on with life. Of all the generations alive at the moment Gen Y is the most likely to be confronted with further choices that will redirect their life again, and again. If they don’t learn to live with, and follow through, on their decisions they run the risk of future lifestage paralysis.
Do speak to us if you would like more insights into Gen Y or working with the different Generations in the workplace.