At 25, Paula Coogan seemed to have it all. She worked in one of Ireland’s top HR consultant firms and enjoyed a stable, happy relationship with her boyfriend of six years. And yet Coogan could not help but feel something was wrong. A “horrible anxious feeling” plagued her, what she describes as “a black hole, a crawling emptiness in my chest.” Occasionally, she would suffer from panic attacks, and over three years she gained nearly 30 pounds. “I was quite annoyed with myself because I told myself this was exactly where I wanted to be,” she says.
Abruptly, everything changed. Between November 2009 and January 2010, Coogan was let go at work and her boyfriend dumped her via text message. It would be enough to throw anyone into a tailspin, but for Coogan it was more than crushing bad luck; it was an identity crisis.
“I used to say, ‘I’m an HR employment law consultant’—that was who I was,” she says. “I really had no clue who I was without that relationship or that job.”
When she considered her obvious next move—finding a job in another HR firm—her insides curdled. “The idea of going into that industry again just didn’t appeal to me at all, which was bizarre because this is what I had studied for,” she recalls. “I thought, if I’m not going to do this, then what am I going to do?”
Coogan soon learned that there was a name for what she was going through: a quarter-life crisis. Few formal estimates on how many individuals experience this period exist, but a 2010 survey conducted by Vodafone in the UK found that 73 percent of 26-to-30 year olds say they have encountered a quarter-life crisis. And a September 2013 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Development (published early online), also done in the UK, uncovered crises in nearly half of men and more than half of women in their 30s.
Some therapists believe the quarter-life crisis surfaced relatively recently, with people taking longer to settle into careers, marriage and families of their own (not to mention the dream-reality of Pinterest). The term entered the modern vernacular in 2001 with the publication of "Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties." (More than 100 books with similar titles have come out since then.) In the 90s, developmental psychologist Daniel Levinson described the period between ages 28 and 33 as “a time of moderate to severe developmental difficulty for most women and men.” Kirk Akahoshi, a life coach and psychotherapist in San Francisco, cites Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic “Death of a Salesman,” in which a son tries in vain to live up to his father’s dreams, as early evidence of the condition.
Whether they’ve been around for a decade or half a century, quarter-life crises are periods plagued by doubt, stress, loneliness and an existentialist search for meaning that affect both men and women. The condition most often strikes people around age 30, though both teenagers and people in their 40s—and everyone in between—may suffer from them, too. “I think ‘uncertainty’ is the key word across my clients,” says Corinne Scholtz, Ph.D., a family therapist, and founder and director of the Center of Connected Living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “In some way, they’re not quite sure who they are.”
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