I had my students meet in a computer lab so they could start poking around on the web for a possible research topic. I looked over one young woman’s shoulder, and she was reading about something called “the quarterlife crisis.” She was wondering if this quarterlife crisis thing might have something to do with the consumer society. I said I wasn’t sure since I didn’t know what the quarterlife crisis was.
So she explained it was sort of about the agony of being twentysomething. She, for example, was working and just taking a couple of classes to finish up and living in a house with three other young women, just out or soon to be out of college, and she said they didn’t know really what they were doing and where they were going. My student was paying for her own education and was trying to find a job that paid more, but in the meantime she still has to rely on her parents for rent, and really she isn’t all that happy about that.
Turns out, I guess, I did know something about this crisis, which, it appears, started getting press around 2000. I had just missed the term, but not the obvious. Ten or twenty years ago, when students dared to complain about life in college, I would go on a rant and say, just you wait, just you wait till you get in your twenties, that’s when the hell really starts. First you can’t find a job, then you do, but it’s the wrong one, so you go back to school for another degree, and by the time you get it, the market is glutted. And you get so depressed about this that your partner in life, just pray you aren’t married, gets fed up with you and leaves town to take a job elsewhere. Meanwhile, you slip up and get the herpes.
After a bit, I stopped delivering this rant. Sometimes the students–maybe it was just the mention of “the herpes”(that a teacher should mention such a thing) –looked stunned, even a bit ashen. I tried to soften the blow by saying, hey, not to worry. You have all of your twenties to figure it out. Adolescence has just been extended. If you hit thirty and don’t have the semblance of a life you could be in trouble.
That’s the fact. Along with the general extension of life goes the extension of adolescence. If you read Rousseau’s Emile (not that I recommend it) you will find that he thought adolescence (the trouble teens) lasted about six weeks. Now we have billion dollar industries catering to the malaise of the teenager; teens are now a social institution. But this is mostly a middle class thing. As Barbara Barbara Ehrenreich argues somewhere, the middle class loves to exploit its young. They are consigned to immaturity because they can’t lay their hands on adult responsibilities. Instead, they have to go college forever, while acquiring massive debt, to get into their profession of choice, and then they are required to serve extended and low paying apprenticeship before they can really get a “career” and with that the stability that might make for longer term commitments on the personal relations front.
I am not without sympathy for the firstquarter crisis; I am going through the lastquarter crisis being, as I am, a sixtiessomething. But going through the firstquarter crisis might appear something of a luxury to a working class kid who has life, whether it be adultlike or not, more or less thrust upon him or her by the force of economic circumstance.