Reposted from an email in one of my yahoo groups. A good read for those working, or those who are currently feeling a little empty inside.
By Gena Valerie Chua
Friday, August 29, 2008
I first heard it three months after graduation, over lunch with college
Blockmate 1 (earns twice as much as any of us): I'm depressed. Work sucks.
Is there any job that sucks more than mine?
Blockmate 2 (recently quit his job): Mine did. I was bored every day. I'm
applying abroad. Do you know how much you can earn there?
Blockmate 3 (confessed bum): Money isn't worth your unhappiness. You should
be dating more, I'll set you up with a friend.
Blockmate 1: But how can I be happy without money? Great dramatic sigh, I'm
having a quarter- life crisis. Who are you setting me up with?
And there it was, the mystifying term that single-handedly captured our
22-year-old chaos. At first it sounded funny, but when the thought sank in,
we were all quiet for an uncomfortably long period of time. Did we have it
Since then, I've heard the phrase thrown around a lot. After graduation
get-togethers have been surprisingly frequent. It could be a withdrawal
symptom, you're all desperate to hold on to the certainty you had in school.
Now that everything has become so unstructured, we cling on dearly to the
people whom we shared such carefree, and sometimes careless days with. We
reminisce about how our lives used to be, and how they are now. Many of us
are in our third or fourth jobs. More and more are leaving the country to
"find greener pastures," joining that ever-growing diaspora like spores
drawn to more fertile ground.
There is a shared sense of "lostness," not because we have nowhere to be.
No, we are all lucky enough to be somewhere, but most want to be somewhere
else. Everyone tells us we are meant to be great, or at least achieve a
slice of greatness. We are of that generation, the generation that has it
all. The generation that never had to work for anything because it's all
instant and automated. The natural expectation to surpass those before us
poses an unnerving problem: What happens if we don't?
Maybe the pressure has been there for centuries, but never like this. The
world used to be enormous, a planet of rocks we only see in science books.
But now the world is shrinking.
Everything, everyone is within reach. The overwhelming proximity of it all
has turned us claustrophobic. Wherever we find ourselves becomes too small a
place. We are always looking for that something, the thing that will
supposedly match our destined greatness.
Upon writing this article I decided to Google the term. Lo and behold, the
omniscient Wikipedia had some interesting answers. Quarter-life crisis is a
medical term for the phase following adolescence, usually for ages 21-30.
Some "symptoms" include: (1) feeling not good enough about one's job (2)
frustration with relationships (3) insecurity about life goals (4) nostalgia
for school (5) a sense that everyone is doing better than you. Furthermore,
the stage occurs shortly after young, educated professionals enter the "real
world", when they realize that it is tougher, more competitive and less
forgiving than they imagined.
So it's not a 21st centurything after all. Ah, but Wikipedia doesn't stop
there. It goes on to say that today, "the era when having a professional
career meant a life of occupational security has come to an end." Indeed, it
is no longer enough to get a well-paying job and do it for the rest of your
The lines used to be clearly drawn: you were a dentist, a doctor, an
engineer, a businessman. Today, things are not as black and white. Our "real
world" is now literally the entire world. We take our internships in
multi-national corporations, study abroad on exchange programs, and attend
art seminars in New York. We find worldwide options exceeding the
imagination of those before us: techie jobs in Silicon Valley, trading in
the Hong Kong stock market, even advertising for Google in hidden
GoogleLand. I had a classmate who took up forensics in Maryland, while
another one graduated from a famous fashion school in London. We are
constantly considering so many options, debating which ones we can qualify
for and which ones will ultimately help us define ourselves.
Older folks say this is generation me, me, me. We want it all now, now, now
- even when we really have no idea what we want. So we end up wanting it
all. They (my parents, friends of my parents, parents of my friends) shake
their heads in disapproval at our inability to stay in one job.
They say we can't stand any ounce of discomfort, any morsel of unhappiness.
It's true. We are impatient, always fleeing from one place to another -
because that is what we grew up doing. Change has always been inevitable,
but if there was ever a time when each year sees changes that used to span a
century, this would have to be it.
As adolescents, none of our music icons had the longevity of The Beatles-
every three weeks it was a new genre of sound. One minute we were shrieking
fans of the Backstreet Boys, and the next we were cult followers of Matchbox
20. We have no memory of dinosaur computers; to us everything runs at 5Mbps.
Our shelves of Britannica have gathered dust; we only have to go to YouTube
and streams of video would unravel. We had the networking craze Friendster,
but even that didn't last.
Soon we were creating separate accounts for Multiply, Facebook and
self-blogs. We shop on sites of local strangers and order via cellphone
banking. Oh yes, don't even get me started on cellphones. They have rendered
everything else useless: watches, cameras, music players, calculators,
dictionaries, even mirrors.
Every time the world changes a part of itself, we've had to change along
with it. I'm not saying we should go back to the era of
i'll-be-waiting- two-weeks- for-your- snail-mail. I cannot leave the house
without my phone. Maybe we've become little brats of technology, the spawn
of an age always trying to outdo itself. If patience is a virtue, then the
remarkable deficiency of it has become our unconscious vice. Our adult lives
are an extension of our adolescent years, when coolness was attained by
downloading mp3s of a newbie rock band before everyone else did. We are
always on the move. We are fickle-minded, discontent and extremely volatile
- which according to Wikipedia, are natural to those in their 20's. But to
be in your 20s at a time when clients at work are Australians you will never
see past email correspondence, then it becomes a world that gives you only
two choices: move, or get left behind.
We are expected to march out into the world with iPod in backpocket, one
earphone pounding against an eardrum. With our bountiful gifts from mother
technology and our cross-cultural media grub, we're supposed to find a way
to make ourselves great. Now more than ever, we have to prove ourselves
worthy of the time we were born into. So who can blame us, for wanting to
run all the time? The pressure is immense. So much is running after us and
worse, there is so much we are trying to keep up with. Like the reluctant
monster Incredible Hulk, we are always growing out of proportion, our
clothes tearing as we expand. And so we run, gasping for air, looking for a
place that can contain us.
I'm grateful for being born in an era that constantly pushes itself forward.
But we were raised in a period long past mere survival, where the worst
blunder you can commit is not so much failure but mediocrity. And so we make
this plea: don't be so hard on us. It may now be less challenging to defy
boundaries, but the world out there is still as tough as ever. Let us have
our little crisis; spare us the time that we never seem to have enough of.
Give us the chance to find our own corner, where we can dig and shovel and
bury ourselves in. Because when the clouds clear up - when we can finally
stop twiddling our thumbs and wringing our hands in restlessness - you will
see what we have built out of our chaos, and you will be damn proud.
A M + D G