In the midst of a quarter-life crisis? 5 tips to emerge happier

Then 15-year-old Shahzaman Nazar Ali teaches at a school run by volunteers at the Pakistan Navy Relief Camp during the 2009 floods. Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND 

While a quarter-life crisis can affect professionals in any sector, those engaged in humanitarian work are particularly prone. Attracted by the mission and promise of making the world a better place, some quickly realize that changing the world is not as easy as they thought. As they reach the age when many of their peers are getting married and starting families, they may start to question a life that requires constant travel and relocation. And if they aren’t seeing their work making an impact, they may start to wonder if all of the sacrifices that come along with a career in this sector are worth it.

At the Career Development Roundtable in Oslo last month, Hiba Dabis, a career coach and career consultant for the London School of Economics, introduced the idea of a quarter-life crisis to a room packed with human resource leaders from some of the biggest international development and humanitarian relief organizations.

The term earned some chuckles in the room and a healthy dose of skepticism  — how can a 20-something have a life crisis when their life is just getting started? Dabis quickly made it clear that this is a real issue affecting many young professionals today. In fact, she experienced one herself.

While a midlife crisis is brought on by questioning one’s past decisions, a quarter-life crisis, typically occurring in someone’s mid-20s to mid-30s, is questioning one’s decisions today and how these will impact their future self.  

Dabis’ own quarter-life crisis led her from a fast-track career in management consulting to helping others manage their own careers. Discouraged by the lack of research on a life event affecting so many, she devoted her graduate research to better understanding the quarter-life crisis and how individuals can emerge from them stronger, more resilient and more fulfilled.

There are four stages to a quarter-life crisis, Dabis explained. Knowing where you are and what is next can help make the process feel more manageable.

Locked-in: A quarter-life crisis starts out by someone feeling unhappy and trapped in one’s career. This goes beyond disliking your boss or current employer to a deep sense that what you are doing is not what you are meant to do. This is the stage when people consider making drastic life changes.

Separation: A sense of dissatisfaction is so great that an individual makes a clean break. This can mean a mental or physical dissociation from one’s previous life structure.

Exploration: At this stage, individuals start to experiment with a new possible self. This is a time of self-reflection and awareness as well as transition.

Resolution: Individuals emerge from their quarter-life crisis with a different life structure.

If you recognize yourself in any of these stages, here are five tips on how to navigate your quarter-life crisis.

1. Change your environment

Changing your environment can mean a physical move to a new city or country, but it can also mean changing the team you work on or the people you socialize with at work. Getting some distance from your current environment can provide the space for reflection on what long-term changes you really need to feel more satisfied.

It also doesn’t have to be a permanent change. Rather than quitting your job and moving to a new country, try taking a vacation or sabbatical where you can try on a new life to see if it fits before you make any drastic changes you can’t take back.

2. Find support

Finding people who are going through or have gone through the same thing is incredibly important to not feeling isolated, Dabis advised. Because there can be a stigma to someone so young already experiencing a life crisis, many are afraid to talk about it openly. Knowing you are not alone can help manage the emotional anxiety of a quarter-life crisis.

3. Be decisive

The height of anxiety during a quarter-life crisis is at the point when you make a decision to make a big life change. It may be to quit your job, pursue a new degree or move to a new city. However, once you take that action you will be well on our way to a more fulfilled life.

4. Plan your finances

In order to logistically navigate a major life change, get your financial house in order. Feeling stuck financially contributes to much of the quarter-life anxiety. If you want to take a sabbatical, volunteer or be prepared to weather months of unemployment while juggling student loan debt or a mortgage, start saving and making a financial plan now. Even if you can’t make any big changes today, setting yourself on a path to make a transition in the near future can help ease the sense of dread.

5. Stay positive

While those in the throes of a quarter-life crisis may be overcome with anxiety and despair, focus on the positive, Dabis advised. Most people emerge from a quarter-life crisis happier and are thankful for the experience. They become more resilient, self-aware and, some early research suggests, less likely to experience a midlife crisis down the road.

Have you experienced — or are you experiencing — a quarter-life crisis? Please leave your tips for navigating this life event in the comment section below or tweet me @DevexCareers.

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About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.