As I See It: Introducing the New Quarterlife Crisis (with Cheese)
September 13, 2010 Victor Rozek
Quarterlife Crisis. When I first heard the phrase, I thought it sounded silly. The notion of 20-somethings having their mid-life crises two decades early had the suspicious ring of some trumped up Madison Avenue condition that Pfizer would gladly sell you drugs to assuage. I could almost hear the cheerful announcer intoning the disclaimers: side effects include kidney failure and rectal bleeding.
But the more I looked into it, the more convinced I became that the Quarterlife Crisis is every bit as serious as, well, the dreaded Restless Leg Syndrome. OK, maybe more so. Having a generation of kids who grew up as the most affluent offspring in the history of the planet suddenly discover that work is necessary, can be hard to find, and can be a drag once you find it–well, I can just imagine the crushing disillusionment. But there is a worse fate.
Having grown children return home to take up residence in what is now your den, blaring music you hoped you’d never have to hear again, while waiting for their laundry to be fluffed, constitutes a Three-Quarterlife Crisis for the parents. A marketing opportunity for anti-depressants if ever I’ve seen one. (Introducing new Child-Be-Gone, for the parents of returning adult children. Just one capsule and even though they’re still on your couch, you’re guaranteed not to care.)
Sociologists blame the jobless economy and diminishing prospects for much of Gen Z’s angst, but I have an alternate theory: The culprit is technology.
Once it becomes ubiquitous, technology doesn’t get enough credit for its life-altering prowess. When the novelty wears off, even world-changing technologies become just another gadget, like the fridge in the kitchen. In short order, applied science arcs from idea to miracle product to commodity to recycling challenge. But it is precisely the distribution of technology that, like a benevolent cancer, results in greater changes to the status quo the further it spreads.
Take the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many attribute its fall to a bankrupting arms race or the entreaties of the eloquent but muddled Ronald Reagan. Nah. Dictatorship requires controlling the flow of information. But what were the proletariats doing in the 1980s before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down? They were watching television. Imagine trying to convince people freezing in food lines that they were living in a worker’s paradise when they can huddle around a TV and watch Dallas. The cars, the clothes, the jewels–not to mention the food–America didn’t look so oppressive to the huddled masses yearning to eat regularly. Technology confirmed their suspicions; the people “just said nyet” to communism, and the system collapsed.
Likewise, technology has rocketed the expectations of the first American generation that, unfortunately, will not do as well as their parents. To borrow a phrase from Louis XIV, Gen Y and Gen Z (the end of the alphabet generations) look at the shrinking economic pie and suspect that après the Boomers, comes le deluge. And they are wisely prolonging childhood as long as possible. According to census records, 57 percent of men and 43 percent of women age 22 to 31 either lived at home with their parents or planned to move back after graduation; 65 percent of young adults in their early 20s rely on economic support form Ma and Da, and 40 percent continue to do so into their late 20s. From which we may conclude that although they may not have had happy childhoods, they certainly are having long ones.
And why not? As I said to my own father when he finally booted me out of the house, “But, who will do my laundry, who will put gas in my car?” But the heartless cur would not be swayed. OK, so I exaggerate. Truth be known, I actually had it pretty tough: when I was 20-something I had to stand up and walk across the room to change the channel.
Now, it’s all done remotely. What possible good is there in disciplining teenagers by sending them to their rooms, where remote access to the world’s pleasures awaits? There they will find their cell phones, game consoles, flat screen HDTVs, computers with high speed Internet connections, and iPods. That’ll show them.
For young people especially, technology quickens the pace of life to a degree that it encourages them to skip over phases of normal development. Specifically, it eliminates the need for struggle, which appears to be a requisite for the healthy development of all creatures. Help a butterfly emerge from a cocoon and it will die because it will not be strong enough to fly; do too much for children and they will be unprepared for life. But technology eliminates struggle in a thousand little ways. There is no need to write coherently, because you can text. There is no need to learn math, because a calculator will do it for you. No need to read a map, because a GPS will give you instructions. No need to pay for the creative work of others, when you can download it free. No need to write term papers, when ideas can be plagiarized. The young are in a hurry. They demand instant access, instant answers, instant gratification, and above all, ease. Regrettably, adulthood doesn’t work that way.
“In 1960,” writes Keturah Gray for ABC News, “77 percent of women and 65 percent of men” had reached certain adult markers by age 30. They had graduated from college, left home, found full-time work, got married, had a child, and were financing their own existence. By the year 2000, those numbers had dropped to 46 percent of women and only 31 percent of men. Adulthood takes work and hard-earned knowledge, but work is unappealing and knowledge seems superfluous for those who think technology will take care of them.
To make matters worse for the end-of-the-alphabet generations, the smarter the technology, the dumber its users are privileged to be. According to Michael Winship writing for CommonDreams.org, a 2006 National Geographic-Roper Survey showed that: “Only 23 percent of college-educated young people could find Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Israel. . . on the map–a map, by the way, that had the countries lettered on it. So, in other words, it wasn’t a blank map, [which] meant they didn’t really know where the Middle East was either. . .”
But why should they care? In the palm of their hand they hold the power of the human-made universe. They have access to the world’s music, literature, and movies; they can play games, shop, participate in social networks, find constellations in the heavens, take advantage of a full range of communication options, and order pizza–just to name a fraction of the capabilities available to information technology users. Most of what Gen Y and Z learned to do is effortless. How can we ask such powerful, god-like creatures to work in an office? Or learn a trade? Or concentrate? Or solve difficult problems? Or do laundry, cook meals, vacuum rugs, and not get bored with the repetition of adult life? Technology has made their expectations exceedingly high; while their preparation is strikingly low. If things continue along this trajectory, you can bet the Eigthlife crisis is just around the corner.
The proliferation of new technologies is like introducing a new moon to the firmament: they exert their own gravitational pull. Technology is pulling the young into passivity and the unprecedented expectation of ease and gratification with every keystroke.
Gray recounts the angst of young people who visit a Web site appropriately called quarterlifecrisis.com. They tell their stories, share their woes and, inadvertently, reveal their expectations. According to the Web site manager, many of them “want nothing more than to figure everything out.” They want to find a good paying job; they want to feel passionate about their work; they want a nice place to live; they want to meet their soul mate; and they have no idea how to do any of it.
Well, don’t panic kids. Take it from a Boomer who knows: that’s what midlife crises are for.