Choice, Happiness and the Quarter-Life Crisis

Last month’s post ~ Does Choice make us Happy? ~ attracted a lot of attention. Thank you for your excellent feedback. Some of the comments I received prompted me to consider this issue further, but this time from the point of view of the younger generation, particularly Generation Y.

Alice Stapleton writes sensitively and authoritatively about the phenomenon of the Quarter-Life Crisis. Unlike the well-documented mid-life crisis, which afflicts people in their forties or fifties, and is linked to feelings of stagnancy and a desire for radical change, the quarter-life crisis stems from anxiety about change, expectations, instability and identity.

courtesy: flickr/Banksy

The Gen-Y population, those born in the period 1980 -1999, appear to be particularly susceptible to the quarter-life crisis.  But what is so different for this generation than any generations that have preceded them? What is unique about their challenges?

  • Identity    The gen-Y population have typically not figured out who they are or what they want to be, even by their late 20s. They have not settled down into a career as early as their mothers and fathers, they have been encouraged to do second degrees to differentiate themselves, and they have delayed occupying a place in the regular work-force. As such, they are still figuring out what they are, who they are and what they stand for.
  • Independence    Allied with identity,  they have typically delayed their independence. Career, car, house, and even relationships, may have been put on hold. Many have returned home to live with their parents. Contributing to this has been a shortage of good career opportunities, but also a willingness of this generation to ‘work for free’ on the promise of enhanced opportunities down the line.
  • Expectations    There is a big disconnect between the baby boomer generation and Gen-Yers in terms of ‘where they are’ at the same age. Their parents most likely were in a career, married, owning a house, and perhaps even parents before they were 30. There is evidence to suggest that young people feel pressure to follow a similar path. Society as a whole reinforces this pressure, and is especially seen within the self-help industry, all of which adds to the anxiety felt.
  • Comparisons   Social media is a major contributor to the Gen-Y population’s knowledge of ‘what is out there’. This leads to a constant drive to compare. What is on offer? What are my friends doing? This constant surfing of what appears to be everyone ‘having a good time’ makes people anxious that they are not where they should be.
  • Choice    Young people are inundated with choice. The internet provides a window to cheap air travel and global job opportunities. Anything is supposed to be possible. Parents and self-help have instilled the ‘anything you want you can get’ mindset. The choice can be overwhelming.

The overall result is overwhelming instability, a feeling of constant change, and too many choices, which leads to deep feelings of desolation, isolation, inadequacy and self-doubt.

Choice may feel good, it may give us the illusion of freedom, but we must not leave the way our world continues to be shaped to economists and marketeers. Behavioural science and psychology must play a more assertive role in bringing to the fore the growing evidence that greater choice is not a the route to satisfaction and happiness.

The parents of the Gen-Y population, the baby-boomers, experienced much of this same dissatisfaction too, but it appears to have manifested itself through an explosion of consumer choice, and at a later stage in their lives (mid-life crisis).  They were less affected by identity crises, deferred career choice and pressures of social media.


Coaching has a huge part to play in helping people experiencing quarter life crisis. At its core it appears to be an identity crisis, with people reporting that they feel under enormous pressure as a result of high expectations. They often also have feelings of disillusion when expectations are not achieved.  Self-awareness, perspective, normalisation and acceptance/commitment techniques are particularly effective for people experiencing these feelings.

Would you, or members of your organisation, benefit from exploring ways to make significant improvements in personal and/or collective effectiveness and productivity? Simply drop me your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to speak with you. 




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