Sky-high rents, career fears, social anxieties… It’s no wonder so many young people can’t face the future
by Juliana Piskorz for The Guardian
Last week I found my 15-year-old self’s diary. In its angst-riddled pages alongside gripping stories of unrequited love, fake IDs and Lambrini-fuelled exploits, I discovered a list of things I wanted to achieve by the age of 25. These included: own a house in Notting Hill; be a successful TV presenter; be engaged; own a pink Audi TT. “Fuck,” I thought, not for the first time that day. I am 25 and a half; single, unable to pay my rent and the closest thing I own to a car is a broken skateboard. My head began to spin, a familiar tightness seized my chest and the sweat glands in my palms went into overdrive, signalling the beginning of a panic attack that would last the best part of the day.
I’ve suffered from anxiety attacks since my first year at university when, with the trusty help of WebMD, I diagnosed myself with late-onset asthma and, on occasion, cardiac arrest. A doctor prescribed beta blockers during my third-year dissertation, which I was too scared to take. But, as life settled into a more stable rhythm and I stopped consuming Chekov vodka at the rate of a thirsty Cossack, the attacks all but disappeared. Except, over the past few months they have returned with a vengeance. The smallest things set me off: an Instagram post announcing a friend’s engagement; finding out a celebrity I fancy is several years younger than me; Monday mornings; anyone “living their best life” on a beach. The idea that people are “achieving” while I flounder fills me with panic.
I’m in the throes of a quarter-life crisis. A very different animal to its middle-aged cousin, mostly because no one aged 26 can afford a vintage Jag and is unlikely to have progressed far enough in their career to have a secretary to shag. The quarter-life crisis, or my experience of it, manifests itself in me wanting to run away; to start again; or bury myself in anything that will distract me from my own reality. Clinical psychologist Alex Fowke defines it as “a period of insecurity, doubt and disappointment surrounding your career, relationships and financial situation” in your 20s. Check, check, check.
Young people are told they have a kaleidoscope of opportunity, but are fettered by a complete lack of stability
It seems I am far from alone. A LinkedIn study last year discovered that 72% of young Brits have experienced a quarter-life crisis, and 32.4% would say they are currently having one. Darain Fawaz, a career advisor at LinkedIn, tells me that on average the crisis hits at 26 years and nine months, and lasts 11 months or more. Surprised by the scale of these figures, I posted an Instagram story asking anyone who felt they were experiencing symptoms of a quarter-life crisis to message me. Within an hour my inbox was full of earnest messages from friends saying they had felt “lost”, “anxious” or “unfulfilled” over the last year, and strangers detailing their own concerns.
It struck me that all of these people were going through the same anxieties as me, but none of us has had the language to articulate this peculiar sense of failure. I appear to have it all. I’m healthy, with a good job, close friends and a loving, if dysfunctional, family – and yet I feel lost. As do the people around me. Almost all the people who replied to me had pursued some form of higher education and had gone on to live and search for work in urban areas. These young people are ambitious, educated and seemingly well adjusted – all the ingredients for a life of privilege.
The spectre of 30 is looming. It seems too old to still be living at home, for your card to be declined buying loo roll, to have no interest in a serious relationship. But at the same time, society and popular culture consistently tells us that your 20s are a time to “make mistakes”, have experiences, get an STI, just get out there and live your life, man.
Dr James Arkell is a consultant psychiatrist at the Nightingale Hospital in London, and often treats young people. He says he is consistently surprised at his patients’ lack of self-esteem. “Very often 20-somethings I see here are beautiful, talented and have the world on a plate, but they don’t like themselves and that’s got to be about society making them feel as if they have to keep up with these unrelenting standards.” The problem with these standards is that in today’s society the markers for growing up have been obliterated. Our grandmothers may have been married with children at 21, but today’s 21-year-olds are as likely to still live at home with their parents. Arkell says that in his own experience, in the 1980s, when you left university you could afford to get a mortgage and a small flat. “That was a concrete marker that you were moving on with your life and you were becoming an adult. Now that’s just not possible.”
Our grandmothers may have been married at 21, but today we are likely to still be living with our parents
Our childhood visions for our lives, moulded by listening to parental anecdotes of their milestones and reinforced by TV and films, are no longer realistic. Due to unaffordable housing, less job security and lower incomes, the traditional “markers” of adulthood, such as owning a home, getting married and having children, are being pushed back. This has left a vacuum between our teenage years and late 20s with many of us feeling we’re navigating a no man’s land with zero clue when we’ll reach the other side.
Rory Brecknock, 25, replied to my Instagram story, saying his quarter-life crisis started when he lost his job. After almost two years working in marketing he went on holiday and returned to find he had been made redundant. He’s been in an odd state of limbo ever since. “Now I’ve been stuck at home for nine months unemployed. I’m 25, but I feel like a 16-year-old. I want to move on with my life, but I can’t.” After months of applying for new roles, he says he’s lost a lot of confidence: “I feel like I’m stuck in a place where I’m not a new grad, but I’m not experienced enough for mid-level positions. For a while I wasn’t getting any interviews and I was finding it hard to get out of bed and have a sense of purpose.”
As I struggle to articulate to Arkell the sense of disconnect I feel between where I thought I would be and where my life actually is, he suggests that the importance of religion, or the lack of it, has a large part to play. “One feature of religious belief is that your value is intrinsic rather than based upon performance or image,” he explains, “and as we move away from a religion-based society, young people are looking towards their careers to validate their sense of self.”
Although I rarely think about religion these days, I grew up being forced to go to church by my grandmother. She spent her childhood during the Second World War in a labour camp in Siberia, and for the rest of her life she credited God and her Catholic faith for saving her and her family. As my sisters and I fidgeted and complained, she would hang on the priest’s every word, taking comfort from the rambling sermons that we tried but failed to understand. We were children of peacetime, consumerism and Tony Blair – there was no impetus for faith, no urgent need for salvation. When she died in Charing Cross hospital in 2012, she requested a priest be present to conduct the last rites. Unwavering confidence in God had given her a lifelong purpose and with her last breath, all those Sundays, all her whispered prayers, were neatly fulfilled.
We are children of peacetime, consumerism and Tony Blair
For my generation, work not prayer has become the personal project. The struggle for meaningful employment is something I read about time and time again in my Instagram inbox. The retirement age for those in their 20s has crept up into the 70s and the likelihood of receiving a state pension looks slimmer than ever, meaning for most of us our work will be our lives. For the first time ever the pressure to find a career that could define you for the next 50 years feels as important as finding a life partner. So when you have neither it’s easy to feel as if you’ve failed.
James Irons, 25, also felt compelled to reply to my Instagram story – he feels an acute need to find the “right” career. He thought he wanted to do medicine and spent eight months working as an unqualified nurse in the NHS. “I eventually got on to a medical course, but I never had that emotional jolt of happiness. I think it’s because I knew given the next six-year investment I had to make, it would be an unsure pay-off. It was really upsetting. I felt as if I had something to give, but I didn’t know what I wanted to give it to any more. I want to do something fulfilling, but also spend the rest of my 20s in London with my friends. I’ve now applied to do the Met Police grad scheme.”
When I speak about these insecurities with my parents, they can’t understand why I spend so much time worrying about where I am in my life – for them your decisions are a means to an end. Their advice is often pragmatic – “If you can’t afford your rent get a new job” or “Move out of London” – and it seems to me that their relationships with their jobs are motivated by fiscal security over ideological fulfilment. This is certainly nothing to be sniffed at: our parents’ sacrifices mean that many of my peers and I are in the extraordinarily privileged position of having options.
It strikes me that we are living in a time of extreme contradiction – young people are told they have a kaleidoscope of opportunity, but are fettered by a complete lack of stability. We were fed a narrative that we could be whatever we wanted to be, our heads filled with spangled dreams of ballerinas, astronauts, footballers and Girl Power. But for many of us the reality is working all day at a job you wish away, and spending every last penny to live in a rented flat with four strangers and a bad case of damp. According to one calculation by the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment, 25-year-olds need to set aside £800 a month over 40 years to retire with a £30,000 a year income. Personally, if I did that, I would have barely enough left for one Pot Noodle a week, let alone avocado on toast. I’d rather live in the present than worry about where I’ll be in years to come.
As we face an uncertain future, many of my friends and I have adopted a “fuck it” mentality. The more lost and stressed we feel, the more we find ourselves looking for an escape. While for me this usually involves tequila and a 20-pack of Marlboro Lights, for Lottie Acland, 26, this meant leaving the UK. Acland had just finished a job at a tech start-up, had broken up with her boyfriend and she felt trapped. “I didn’t believe in my own ability and was scared of rejection,” she says. “I was burning through my savings and I was struggling to suss out what I was supposed to be doing with my life. Within a short space of time my cousin committed suicide and my grandpa died. It felt like a wake up call to go out and live my life. I left London and moved to Palma in search of a job and, almost immediately, found myself working on a boat doing a Pacific crossing to the Galapagos islands.”
The irony that these strangers were contacting me through Instagram, a place known for triggering anxiety, was not lost on me. But it’s hard not to compare ourselves when we’re constantly bombarded with the edited highlight reels of other people’s lives. Thanks to social media we are living in what career coach Chloë Garland describes as a “grass is always greener culture”. Garland, who founded Quarter Life, a coaching service for people in their 20s, says she has noticed that the constant exposure to “better options” through social media has left many of her clients with a perpetual feeling of dissatisfaction. “The same phenomena is appearing in relationships now, too. It is harder to commit to one person when a possible ‘better option’ is merely a swipe away.”
I ask Arkell if he has a solution to the quarter-life malaise. There’s a long pause before he says: “You can go faster and faster and faster and get nowhere. Sometimes it’s important to accept your life for how it is now, even if it’s not where you want to be yet.”
I put the phone down and realise the tightness in my chest has loosened a fraction. When I started writing this I felt like I was going mad. My life was good, I was lucky, but sitting at my desk every day all I wanted to do was scream. As the messages trickled and then poured into my inbox, it dawned on me that I am not alone.
My generation has the odds stacked against them, but in our collective struggle we are a community. We are not afraid to talk about how we feel, although we should probably talk more. We stand up for the causes we think matter, we are not afraid to try new things and we are not willing to have a life half lived. One day I will get that pink Audi TT, but in the meantime I’ll focus on passing my driving test. One step at a time.
Millennials: the facts
- People aged 25-34 are more concentrated in London than any other UK region. There were around 1.69 million millennials in London in 2015
- Half of UK millennials will rent rather than own their homes into their 40s, and one-third will rent into retirement
- People aged 25-34 make up the largest percentage of the population with no religion (49%) and the smallest percentage who were Christian (39%)
- More than a fifth of 25- to 29-year-olds live with their parents, compared to 17% in 1996
- 60% of millennial referendum voters voted to remain in the European Union
- Millennials are now spending almost a quarter of their income on housing, three times more than the pre-war generation, who are now aged 70 and over
- Millennials will spend almost three full days more commuting in the year they turn 40 than baby boomers did at the same age