We asked an expert and the quarter-life crisis is a real thing

It’s a natural to feel lost in adulthood

Moving into the adult world you’ve imagined all the way through school, and all the way through university, is terrifying.

It is open-ended; there are no safety nets. You must leave the only bubble you’ve ever understood and enter the unknown. It’s thrilling, though frightening – and we’re all a bit timid about talking about it.

But we wanted to find out whether feeling alone, sad or just a bit lost during the transition period is normal – so we spoke to Dr Oliver Robinson, Programme Leader for the BSc Hons Psychology with Counselling degree at the University of Greenwich. His  specialist area is adult development.


What is the quarter-life crisis and why is it happening?

“A quarter-life crisis is an episode which lasts typically around a year in one’s twenties or early thirties.”

Quarter-life crises tend to cluster between 26 and early thirties and the central part of it is dealing with the beginning of major life changes in an unstable and transformative period.

There are two types. The locked-in type where people feel trapped by a job or a relationship. They have the opportunity to change but don’t feel like they can.

The second type is locked-out, where you feel left out of adult roles by trying unsuccessfully to either get a job or become an adult properly, even though there is no definition of what an adult is.

Can it happen at a younger age?

Dr Oliver admitted that it can: “All the way down to twenty.”

The locked-in type tends to occur between 25-30 whilst the locked-out version tends to be a bit younger.

The reason it can start earlier is just to do with starting a job or getting married young: people find themselves unable to create the lifestyle they want and might feel like they have no prospects.


Is there a gender divide?

“Our research suggests it’s a little bit more common in women or at least more women admit to it than men.”

There might not be a huge difference as they’re both pretty common, but there are some age differences ((or selective memories). When Dr Oliver asked people currently in their 30s, 60% reflected they’d had one and when they asked people in their 40s about 30% said they’d had one.

That could mean that it’s becoming more common or that it’s more raw for 30-somethings. Although in all age groups it still seems to be more common in women.

Has it got anything to do with social media?

“It contributes to background stress but it’s not the stuff that gets talked about in the key elements of the quarter-life crisis. It’s there in the background humming along.”

Although it’s not a main cause, people reading distressing news and feeling left out on social media means it’s a challenge to maintain an appropriate perspective. The news picks up on the negatives because that’s what catches people’s attention.

He noticed that many young people decide not watch the news or go on Twitter to try in order to create some calm space. It’s important to remember that the things they are reading about cannot be controlled anyway.

To say it is a result of social media is incorrect though, as Dr Oliver also asked those over 70 – and many said they’d had one.


How does it manifest: is it stress- or depression-based?

The quarter-life crisis may look like depression, but it is best not to think about it as a mental illness since people grow out of it. The quarter-life crisis is not around forever and often people notice that afterwards they feel better than they did before.

During the crisis it is natural to feel sad about how your life has turned out, or feel you’re in a difficult relationship, and stress and anxiety are a part of those emotions.

Is it similar to the mid-life crisis?

“A mid-life crisis is generally harder as a process because you have to factor in children, there are no more simple transitions from one stage to another.”

The mid-life crisis tends to have similar themes, but is a lot more intense since people have to deal with things like the death of their parents. Kids are often involved, so there are more commitments that make changes in life a lot harder.

Will it be better or worse for future generations?

“When I went through mine, which I did – the classic quarter-life crisis – I had no idea what I was going through, so I now know that mine was very typical and I went through many of the experiences I now write about.”

By building awareness, it should be helpful for young people to recognise when they encounter one of the types of the quarter-life crisis. There’s a way out, they’re not ill: it’s just about going through a difficult part of life.

Illustrations by Bob Palmer