Tragic twentysomethings

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
June 21, 2001

She’s 25 and dissatisfied. Who was she? Why hadn’t life lived up to her expectations? What was the meaning of life? Wasn’t this crisis of extended navel gazing supposed to happen when she turned 50?

Not if you’re going through a “quarterlife crisis.”

Abby Wilner was suffering through a preamble to the mid-life crisis she may be saying hello to in another 20 years. So convinced that other beleaguered twentysomethings were going through the same thing, she grabbed a partner–Alexandra Robbins, 24—and dashed out Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties (Tarcher/Putnam, $14.95).

“Part of the problem is that the 20’s are viewed as an easy, care-free time,” says Wilner, phoning from her dot.com office in Washington, D.C. “Don’t get me wrong. It is to a certain extent. But it’s also a time where there’s a major life adjustment and identity crisis.”

Before you can spit out, “Spoiled brat!” consider that experts site the 20’s as the period when psychiatric illnesses arise.

“There is a lot of pressure of people in their 20’s,” says Chicago psychologist George Smith. “They’re feeling expectations from their parents as well as peer pressure from within their own group. They’re dealing with society’s expectations of them. All of those things can have a real impact.”

While a war veteran may have little sympathy for a 25-year-old college graduate grappling with the trials of young adulthood, dismissing 20something blues as insignificant isn’t prudent, either.

“This one mom told me that when she was raising her kids, she was very uncomfortable having them fail,” says relationship expert Dr. Drew Pinsky, co-host of “Loveline” and “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” “We give kids trophies every time they blow their nose. We as parents don’t want to see kids unhappy. But the fact is that life sometimes sucks and you don’t always succeed. If you don’t give kids the opportunity to have these feelings, you’re sending them the wrong message. It’s hard to go into the world and be perfect all the time. No one could do that.”

The success of Quarterlife Crisis has alleviated some of Wilner’s woes.

“I’m not as worried now about the layoff that’ll be happening soon,” she says, laughing. “I’ll be all right.”

Let’s get some perspective on quarterlife issues by talking to young adults who are going through it and middle-agers, who have heard and seen it all before.

*****

My crisis is:

Liz Warton, 25, Bucktown, PR executive.
“I have a very close relationship with my parents, especially my father. I’ve always wanted to live up to his expectations of being perfect. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I had no concept of where my life was. I didn’t want to get out of bed anymore in the mornings to go to work. That indecision just wears on you and makes you feel like an old person. As I was approaching my 25th birthday, I made the decision a few days ago to quit my job. As of July 15, I’ll be pursuing acting fulltime. My father was teary eyed at first wondering how I was going to support myself. But then  my mother reminded him that his mother had been an actress as well. It’s in the blood.”

Derrick Darnsteadt, 24, Gold Coast, medical student.
“I’m caught up in a world where a lot of friends my age are already earning 80 grand a year and I’m making nothing. I shouldn’t be so materialistic. I tell myself that my friends are also really good at spending all the money that they make, too. Some kids get spoiled this way ‘cause if you graduate from a good school and have the right background, all these companies are just throwing money at you. I won’t be making any money until I’m 35. In some ways, I feel like I’m in a big hurry. I wanted to be married by next year. I don’t think that’s the norm for my people my age, but I really wanted that but it’s not going to happen for me.”

David Herbert, 26, Gold Coast, commercial real estate broker.
“Crisis isn’t the right word, but turning 25 definitely is a wake up call. It’s not like when you first graduated from college, where you have a three or four year window to jump around from job to job and blow your money on weekend trips and expensive dinners.  You need to grow up and figure out what you’ll be doing down the road. You’re thinking a lot about what’s down the road 10 years from now instead of just thinking about tomorrow. When you hit 24 and 25, you start to make a little bit of money and you tend to blow a lot of it taking the weekend trips and buying expensive dinners out. At the end of the year, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God. I need to start saving for the future. I need to be responsible.”

Catherine Hudon, 26, Lincoln Square, filmmaker.
“I’ve had the quarterlife crisis since I was 10. I was recently laid off from my job as an advertising production manager and I felt a huge sense of relief. I was working on a movie at the same time and it gave me the time to focus on that. If I hadn’t been laid off, I’d still be working two jobs. It’s actually a little strange for me to not be working more than one job because I’ve always done that. Actually, I sort of am because I just started doing some freelance writing for this web site as well. Something keeps pushing me. I’ll never feel like I’m ever ‘there,’ but that’s good. Hopefully I’ll always be at this state of conscious incompetence because once you feel you’ve made it, it’ll be over.”

*****

Back in my day:

Stefani Bay, 52, Lakeview, professor.
“Snap out of it! Why put yourself under such pressure when now’s such a great time to experience things? You can do whatever you want to when you’re 25. I grew up during a time when there were obstacles. I interviewed for a job with a restaurant group and the guy said, ‘Well, with your breasts, you should be a hostess.’ You had to put up with things like that. I never felt like there was an enormous rush to have all my needs fulfilled at once right out of school. I had to make mistakes to realize, because what I didn’t want to do was as important as what I did.  Life is about experiences, good and bad.”

Patricia Dodson, 76, Lakeview, retired.
“When I was younger, I was so busy raising my children and doing what I was expected to do that I didn’t do much thinking about whether it was what I wanted to be doing. I was concentrating on being a good mother and wife, working on community activities and going to PTA meetings. The days just went on and it wasn’t until my late 40’s that I began to think, “Maybe there’s another way to live.” I don’t know if that’s any different from what the present generation feels. I think entitlement begins in the head I paid my dues and I wasn’t expected to have everything, but I never really thought about it. I had what I had. I didn’t expect to have everything.”

Larry Kwiat, 51, Northwest Side, accountant.
“Get a grip on it! A lot of younger people have too much, too soon and they don’t know what to do with it. When you work for something, you appreciate it a lot more than when it’s handed to you. I paid my own way through college. My parents raised me and my brothers to keep things balanced with church, family and work. Those priorities helped me remained balanced throughout life. I think a lot of younger kids today are missing out on this basic foundation. I knew from an early age that would reap my rewards later, but that I had to stay focused and work for it and I never had a problem with that. Years of working allowed me to pursue my dream of sailing.”

*****

Chicago-based psychologist George Smith advises 20somethings on how to alleviate the quarterlife crisis by accepting  failure.

Q. I thought my boyfriend and I had the perfect relationship, but he is dragging his feet when it come to marriage. But I’ve already invested three years in him. What should I do?
A. Young men at 25 are usually not at the same level as women at that age. Young kids have this feeling that they things have to be great right now. If you’ve been in a relationship for more than two years and it hasn’t moved towards permanency, move on.

Q. I graduated at the top of my class and expected to get a job making at least $70,000 a year. Instead, I was hired as an assistant making less than half that. Why is this happening to me?
A. Young people have to recognize that you have to pay your dues. It takes time for great careers to evolve. In order to gain experience, you sometimes have to take a lesser job to develop your skills. This doesn’t mean you’re lessening your expectations. You should always keep your eye on the prize that’ll be there for you at the end. But you may need to fall flat on your face a few times before achieving your goals. This isn’t failure. This is success.

Q. I don’t want to disappoint my parents but I don’t want to become a doctor of lawyer. I want to do something more creative, like model or act. What do I do?
A. My mom once told me that every tub has to sit on its own bottom. If you want to pursue these dreams of yours, then make sure you are able to foot the bill for those dreams because your parents may not want to subsidize them. As long as they control the purse string, they will control you to a certain extent. This may mean that you have to take a second job until your modeling or acting career takes off.

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