Growing up scared

As aeroplanes were crashing into New York’s World Trade Centre, I was halfway through an online quiz to find out if I am suffering from a ‘quarterlife crisis’. Sometimes, the news really puts things in perspective.

The quarterlife crisis, apparently, is the twentysomething’s version of a midlife crisis. It refers to the condition of graduating from university and getting out into the real world for the first time, surrounded by options and choices and bereft of responsibilities. Since the syndrome was created a few months ago, by US journalist Alexandra Robbins and website administrator Abby Wilner, it has gone down a storm with all those twentysomething graduates waiting for somebody to feel their pain.

This new syndrome takes the form of a book – Quarterlife Crisis: How To Get Your Head Round Life In Your Twenties – and a website (1). The book is mainly a collection of anecdotes from twentysomethings about the traumas they experienced growing up/leaving home/getting a job/failing to get a job/finding a partner – and generally coping in a spiritually bereft modern world, when one is riddled with self-doubt.

The website is a cross between a university noticeboard and a self-help site, with listings of sites to help you find a job/date/apartment, and opportunities to sign up with a virtual support group, have a live chat with ‘Life Coach’ Mike Stoller, and email (2). (PS. I’m not saying you should….)

As an enterprise, the ‘quarterlife crisis’ is an inspired idea. As a thesis, it was somewhat shaky from the start. Robbins and Wilner introduce the book by protesting way too much that this newly-discovered crisis does exist, yes it really does – and they conclude with a quote from 90-year-old Irving about the ninetysomething crisis: ‘Learning to deal with the fact that many of your friends are gone.’ (They do concede that the ‘ninetysomething crisis’ must be ‘infinitely more difficult’.)

Now, in the aftermath of 11 September, one can imagine that Robbins and Wilner are feeling rather silly. How does a crisis that affects sheltered, pampered, complacent young Americans – precisely because they cannot cope with being sheltered, pampered, complacent young Americans – have any relevance in the shell-shocked USA today?

One major cause of the quarterlife crisis is, according to Robbins and Wilner, the fact that twentysomethings lack a ‘strong, collectively shared historical moment that helped to define them and continues to shape their identity’. Their book lists the things the baby-boomers had – the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the Kennedy assassinations, the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, and the civil rights movement – while older generations had the Great Depression, the World Wars, and the Cold War. But what do we have? The Challenger explosion (tragic, but no more than that), the Gulf War (too distant), the death of Kurt Cobain (which didn’t draw people together).

If you were to follow this logic, you might assume that 11 September would make quarterlife crisis – the idea, the book, the website – redundant. If previous generations’ broadmindedness, self-confidence, political engagement and social and personal resilience could be explained by the existence of a ‘collectively shared historical moment’, the self-obsessed neurosis of today’s apathetic twentysomethings would surely disappear overnight. So why won’t it? Why do I suspect that the shared moment of 11 September will only make twentysomethings feel more insecure?

The roots of the insecurity experienced by today’s twentysomethings lie not in historical events or the lack of them, but in the politics of everyday life. In their previously general state of peacetime complacency, this generation has been brought up preoccupied by relatively trivial fears (3). The anecdotes collected by Robbins and Wilner illustrate superbly the terror felt by undergraduates simply at the thought of leaving the cocoons of college and home, and the way they quake with fear at the thought that they might not find the ‘right’ job or lover.

You could fantasise that the ‘big’ terror caused by Tuesday’s events will cancel out all these little fears, but that’s just not the way things work. It is more likely that the younger generation’s everyday fears will be played out against the backdrop of feeling, as a nation, victimised and under siege. Some of the UK reporting has carried a subtle undertone of satisfaction that the US public has now had its complacency rattled. But if complacency is replaced with insecurity, what’s at all positive about that?

In any case, the point about the Vietnam War and the civil rights movements was surely not the fact that they were shared moments, but the politics behind them. The Vietnam War caused a generation to question the role of their nation, to take issue with the political status quo. The events of 11 September are most likely to make young Americans hunker down beneath the national flag, perceiving their nation as victim not aggressor, and supporting the subsequent reprisals in order to conserve their own safety.

The civil rights movement demanded rights. By contrast, the reaction to 11 September is likely to take shape around the voluntary giving-up of civil liberties, as previously pro-freedom America decides to put safety above all.

I wish I could join those who want to claim that Tuesday’s horror will have some kind of positive impact on the national psyche. But the context in which it happened, and the reaction to it so far, only seem to indicate that the younger generation will grow out of its quarterlife crisis defining itself as scared, and scarred for life.

Twentysomethings may indeed have benefited from some kind of ‘shared historical moment’ – but not, I fear, from one such as this.

First published by spiked, 14 September 2001.

Quarterlife Crisis: How To Get Your Head Round Life In Your Twenties by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner is published in the UK by Bloomsbury.

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