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Published: Verve Magazine, Essay, November 2008
Illustration by Farzana Cooper

In a time when being young is ageless and wisdom is selective, the 20-something age group is in a different space from where it has ever been. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh ruminates on the phenomenon called the ‘quarter-life crisis’ and explores the factors that contribute to a generation on autopilot


Youth has taken on a new maturity, and a new sensibility has attached itself to age. What is it that makes one feel old – age, a thought-process, experience or wisdom? And what exactly, defines a crisis – an inability to deal with circumstances and life? The mid-life crisis is quite been-there-done-that; what is now in prime focus is the quarter-life crisis (QLC) referring to a period immediately following adolescence – a decade of chaos lasting from the early twenties to the early thirties of one’s life, a phenomenon recognised by therapists and mental health professionals.

Characterised by feelings of incompetence, frustration (with relationships and work), identity crisis, insecurity, stress, confusion, boredom, opinionated and short-tempered responses, loneliness, nostalgia towards youth and a pressure-free school life, an inability to deal with situations and to face the reality of responsibilities; the ‘crisis’ seems to hit everyone in the age-group that suddenly realises that they have to grow up, fast. These emotions tend to occur pretty soon after the youths enter the post-college-make-important-decisions-about-life-stage.

Tweens are in a tearing hurry to be teens, teens are in a tremendous rush to be 20-something-mature-and-in-charge-of-their-lives, while the 20-somethings just want to stay 20-somethings. Suddenly the buck screeches to a halt there – leading to obvious maladjustments. Those who take life by the horns get burnt out, and those who ponder and plan, simply don’t move. It is a generation of extremes. ‘How will I know what I want to do so early? I need to find myself, test waters, I need space!’ Or a grimly determined, ‘I know where I want to go, and I wanna get there fast!’

At an age when, post MBA or post graduate school, the younglings would be just stepping out of the shelter of their parental lock and into the world wide web, these kids are faced with too many options, too many choices and a cheese that’s highly indecisive and constantly moving. Whilst embracing change fondly, this uncertain generation opts to hide behind the cloak of experimentation. It is difficult to step out of the comfort zone: marriage takes a backseat as jobs and partners switch with remarkable ease, towns and countries are no longer ‘long distance’, corporate ladders are meant to be parachuted up, and the age at which life ‘settles down’ is not in the near future. As a young magazine editor puts it, “We are living in an ageless world – the whole notion of age has been ‘problematised’.” After all, 30 is the new 20.

And so, 20 is the new 30. With the ‘new maturity’ – a biological fact that the age of puberty is being advanced – by the time we have reached our 20s, we are thinking like we would in our 30s; and ironically, to hold onto a desperate sense of youth, the 30-somethings are thinking, looking and behaving like they are in their 20s. As you mature faster, you also want to stay ‘younger’ longer.

And yet, it gets more complicated! Medically, 30 is the new 40. Stress, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, mental angst and all the adjoining ailments are hitting the 20-somethings in supreme irony, as the medical world finds new means to extend life. Consultant gastroenterologist, Dr Chetan Bhatt, finds the “hurry, worry, curry” syndrome has found its mark. QLC is officially a part of the psycho-babble and the 20-something age group is the cash cow of today.

Dr Ashit Sheth, consultant psychiatrist at Bombay Hospital, feels it’s the transitionary stress of the last 50 years – with a changed lifestyle, values, exposure, and disintegration of the joint-family system – transition from dependency to independency. The media hype and advertising-generated consumerism is all about “what you want being more important than what you have”. Women especially, are leading dual roles, with increasing demands. There is an excessive concern about weight leading to anorexia; the yuppie population doesn’t have time to consummate their marriages; and it eventually can lead to silent depression. The solution, according to Dr Sheth, is a five-fold answer: “Accept, follow recommendations, alter demand and expectations, enjoy what you have and learn to value basic needs.”

Expectations and needs are at the crux of this problem, agrees Dr Bhatt. It is the time of low tolerance and instant gratification – why slog and wait a few decades to enjoy things that can be had in an instant? Instant coffee, instant marriage, instant divorce, instant travel, instant loans and instant break-downs. As the older generation reminisces about the pleasures of delayed gratification, the need to work hard to reap the rewards; this generation agrees – but now years become days and delayed becomes instant. Money flows in easily – the concept of ‘working hard’ has changed to ‘maximise returns’. The youth often has their priorities straight – earn a ‘pot load’, somehow, and retire early. ‘And what exactly is a pot load?’ A 26-year-old financial analyst, casually describes a crore of rupees a year as being thoroughly acceptable – in all seriousness – “to lead a comfortable life.” High ambitions and an unreal sense of a consumerism engulf the youth, creating fantastic expectations and setting impossible goals.

As the material world threatens to swallow up the fresh recruits ripe out of school, it is the frenetic pace, which leads the 20-something in the quest of more or an existential nothingness. It is the epitome of the psychological fight-or-flight syndrome, dealt with a querulous sense of foreboding and complete confusion. As questions pile up and the answers don’t, these 20-somethings turn to mind-numbing, mind-altering and mindless states of being, hoping to alleviate their sense of frustration. It is especially worrisome, when India’s median age currently is 24.9 years – with over half its population under 25 years of age. The 20-somethings are riding a fast bike and driving a hard bargain, and it is important for someone to sit up and provide a guiding light. As Dr Bhatt concludes, “Dreams are not what you see while sleeping, dreams are what makes you restless and don’t let you sleep.”