Mike Nichols' iconic coming-of-age film The Graduate, which stars Dustin Hoffman as a recent college graduate seduced by an older woman, was ostensibly about a cougar and her prey before those terms were part of our cultural lexicon. On a deeper level, however, it was about something different, relevant and real for millions of young people today — the "quarter-life crisis."
The Graduate was based on a novel by Charles Webb about the psychological difficulty of managing the transition from college life to professional life. Its opening scene features Hoffman's character surrounded by well-meaning adults at a party as they unwittingly create anxiety in the young man, with tone-deaf career advice, like "Plastics!" How could they claim to know which path was the right one for him, when he didn't know himself?
The post-recession era we live in today isn't that different from the one The Graduate entered in 1967. Jobs are scarce, yet first-time job seekers and entry-level employees are still after more in a career than just a paycheck. Their desire for meaning in addition to job security creates a cluster of contrasting goals and desires as well as considerable uncertainty and angst across a generation.
Recently, social scientists have identified this phenomenon as the "quarter-life crisis," a generational existential crisis that creates anxiety in recent college graduates and can last until their early 30s.
I am not ashamed to admit that I experienced some "quarter-life crisis" anxiety after graduation.
I am not ashamed to admit that I experienced some "quarter-life crisis" anxiety after graduation. You might think this is merely an affliction of the unemployed, but I believe the crisis persists during the entry-level years of one's career.
I moved to a new city, knowing a handful of people in a place I had never visited. I was uncertain about a lot of things, but I took (and continue to take) certain steps to alleviate this uncertainty and improve my performance. Here are some helpful ways to reduce stress while developing professional skills and abilities during the "quarter-life crisis" years:
"Just keep chopping wood"
This was said by former Rutgers/current Tampa Bay football coach Greg Schiano when asked how he would go about rebuilding Rutgers' dismal football program with so many things to do and problems to fix. He replied by saying that he would take one log out of the pile, chop at it, then move on to the next log until the pile was finished.
I believe that this is wise advice against trying to fix everything at once, which only overwhelms and adds to stress. Remember to focus on what you can control. Multitasking is overrated, and worrying about future uncertainties is unproductive.
Avoid idle time
Stay busy. I joined a gym, which helped, but one could also volunteer, take a class or even just go on a run. At the office, you need to seek work instead of letting it seek you. Instead of drifting into a Facebook stalk session for 30 minutes after lunch, take a short brisk walk outdoors to rejuvenate yourself before an intense afternoon of work.
Additionally, if one is fortunate enough to have a job, now is not the time to worry about "work-life balance," a popular Generation X term used in the human resources blogosphere. Being married to your career and/or your personal/professional improvement at this point in one's life is a good thing and can actually reduce stress and anxiety because your mind is too busy to think about future uncertainties.
As the office elders have earned their stripes, it is the responsibility of the young professionals to roll up their sleeves, work long hours, suck it up and perform less desirable tasks when needed.
Develop reachable goals
Although we all hate the "where do you see yourself in five years" interview questions, start writing down reachable goals. At work, have an understanding of what the next professional steps are, target them, and seek out any opportunities to help you in reaching that step. Remember to look for self-improvement every day at work and outside of work, however small it may be.
A lot of Millennials do not have jobs, so never take a day at the office for granted. Most of us have battled unemployment stints anyway, so always remember to keep a positive perspective.
The "quarter-life crisis" is real, and affects countless young job seekers and entry-level workers in our country today. That doesn't mean it is a permanent affliction. Try out the above tips, and you'll feel better and be more productive.
And remember, this too shall pass.
Edward Bowling is a research associate at The Alexander Group.