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Thursday, 8 August, 2002, 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK
Life is hard when you're in your 20s
For people in their 20s, life may be full of opportunities which promise great things. But more of them seem to be concluding that that's just not enough.
Switch on the TV, take a glimpse at a glossy magazine, or hear people in their 20s chatting loudly on shiny new mobile phones. From the outside it can look like a world of choice and opportunity - designer jobs and lifestyles all round.

But researchers and psychologists say there's growing evidence of a crisis among twentysomethings. Rising suicide rates among young men seem to back them up.

People think you're well in there with degree but it doesn't work like that

Pana Tanden
In the US it's called the "quarter-life crisis" - a term coined by two twentysomethings who interviewed hundreds of their contemporaries and uncovered a sense of hopelessness.

However different their circumstances, many of them felt adrift and unsure of anything in their lives. But is this really a crisis?

At a recent graduation ceremony at Sheffield University, student debt was never far from the thoughts of those celebrating their new certificates. Today's graduate owes an average 11,000.

Pana Tanden is 21, has just graduated in neuroscience, and is worried that despite her degree, she'll only find a low paid job. "People think you're well in there with a degree but it doesn't work like that."


Richard Saxton is deputy director of the university's counselling service. He believes mental health problems are becoming more severe for young people.

Students on anti-debt demo earlier this year
Student debt a perennial problem
"The increase in student numbers has not been matched by increase in support services for students.

"At the moment, the common issue is alienation. People feel lost, there is question of why do they do all this? The 'why' is really about saying 'Is this it? And if this is it, do I really want it?'"

In recent years, there has been a 400% increase in student suicides, and knowing what you want can be part of the problem.

Freda Wright, a university careers advisor, says: "There are all sorts of new jobs, new job titles, new fields opening up. It's a bewildering array of choice.

"In the long term that is good but sometimes too much choice can be a bad thing. It's like going into a record or bookshop and seeing too much choice, and simply turning and fleeing. It's same for some of our students."

Job market

The nature of today's job market can also add to the sense of uncertainty. Increasingly, people find themselves in short term contracts.

Dr Janet Smithson, from Manchester Metropolitan University, has done research into young people and their expectations.

Screen grab of an increasingly popular form of release
"People who were 25 couldn't imagine when they would be in a position to have children or get married, or for some it was about being able to move out of their parents home. They couldn't imagine this without secure income; they couldn't see an end to this."

Another factor adding to the stress felt by young people is the boom in communication technology. It is becoming socially unacceptable to be out of contact, to take time out.

Dr Nick Baylis, a positive psychologist at Cambridge University, believes it's time for an urgent assessment of the effects of new technologies on mental health.

"There seems no excuse not to talk to everyone at same time, mobile phones, e-mails, Wap. And this creates unexpected pressures for us and they are not going to go away.

"I think we have to be very careful of assuming that IT and mobile phones are going to replace giving somebody a hug or a pat on the hand or just a big smile."


One way of coping with stress appears to be going back to school. - the retro nightclub - is currently Britain's most successful club night. Thousands dance the night away to cheesy pop, decked out in uniform: school ties, shorts for the boys and short skirts for the girls.

I think it's just a bit self indulgent to label it crisis when maybe it's really just working out what you want.

Sarah Carter
Ask those in the lengthy queue outside the club why they want to dress up like school kids, and time and again they'll mention pressure. Needing to escape from pressure. Regular Raphael Rocker is 24 and works in the City. He goes out to drown his sorrows.

"The best years of my life were at school. Now it's a nightmare I come here to get drunk and pull women. This is a haven of memories of yesteryear. There's nothing much for twentysomethings. I have been cheated, cheated out of a great deal."

Crisis, what crisis?

Some twentysomethings dismiss talk of a crisis as trite and say the angst is simply part of growing up. Sarah Carter is a 24-year-old PhD student at Sheffield.

"We were meant to have mid-life crisis then a thirtysomething crisis and now we're having one in our 20s.

"I think it's just a bit self indulgent to label it crisis when maybe it's really just working out what you want."

But in a world of spiralling choice - when just choosing the ring tone on your mobile can present a myriad of options - working out what you want on a wider scale appears to be getting tougher and tougher.

You can hear more about this subject in Generation Why?, the Five Live Report, presented by Rajesh Mirchandani. BBC Radio 5 Live, Sunday 11 August, at 1200 BST.

Is talk of a crisis real? Or is it just a matter of growing up? Let us have your views using the form below.

Your comments so far:

As one of the many suckered into completing a media degree I have found it impossible to get work in the area I have studied in. What is the point of running so many courses throughout the country covering the same subject when there are nowhere near enough jobs to go around. You can't get the work without the experience and you can't get the experience without the work. No matter how well you do, in some fields it's not what you know but who.
Dan, UK

What was it all about? The years spent studying with no income save student loans, doing without, scrimping. Then, when you do get a job, half your money goes into paying off debts, the other half in rent - because of the outright greed that is driving up house prices. This false wealth is making life hell for those looking to get on in this miserable little country that we've created. Great Britain? What's so Great about it?
Foggylad, England

It's real because so many reference points have disappeared. The flipside of an open economy is no guarantees- and a feeling that everyone else has it sorted- when they really don't.
Peter Morris, UK

Yes there's a crisis. Everyday I struggle to find the will to go on. I'm 29 and have been made redundant 3 times. Because of this I have no pension built up, even though I have been working for 13 years. I've not been able to build a career or have proper salary increases. To buy a small two bed terrace house in a rough area of where I live would cost me 160,000. A studio flat is currently about 97,000. I don't live in London, God alone knows how much you need there to buy property. In short I've got no future have I, no job, no home, no pension for my old age. Yeah I'd say there's a crisis, but it's not going to go away when I hit 30. I imagine it will only get worse.
Anon, England

Yes, I am in complete agreement. There is more pressure, we have more unrealistic role models paraded around as an examples of "success". Couple that with a rabid marketing environment where to be cool, you need to have all the latest gear as well as working yourself all the hours that employers send - it does nothing for your mental health.
Kwok Ng, London, UK

Most of this just sounds like excess whingeing about the sort of things we all had to put up with in our twenties, but I do feel sorry for any twentysomething who wants to buy their own home. That really can't be easy with today's silly property prices.
Adam, UK

Regardless of how much you have and how well you are doing there is always a social comment than you can and should do better than your "lot". I have had a decent education, a degree and have a fairly good job. I have a lovely wife and a child on the way - but still I feel that there is something missing. I figure that it is an overwhelming desire to retire. Roll on retirement!
Paul, UK

Please, you're breaking my heart. Perhaps we would have been happier at the start of the last century when generations of twentysomethings simply went off to die in wars and only the super rich got education. Perhaps we should opt out of all choice, go back a hundred years and simply go down a mine or work on a dock until we die in our 30s.
Stephen, UK

Our society (and particularly advertising-led media) constantly exposes us to images of beauty, success and affluence. Most people see a massive gap between their aspirations and the reality of their lives. In the fairly recent past there was not such a massive gap or 'deficit': Opportunities were possibly less, but so were expectations.
Julien, UK

I have a lot of friends who worked in the tech boom, made money and are now drifting around aimlessly. Very few people around me know what they want to do, and although they are surrounded by choice, apathy wins the day rather than be forced to make a decision on something. Maybe its because comparatively life has never been difficult. We've never had to cope with a major war or depression and so we don't appreciate what we have. These things do move in cycles though, so I imagine we'll get the reality check soon that we so desperately need.
Adam, UK

Maybe for us twentysomethings there won't be a mid-life crisis-maybe this quarter life crisis is when we decide what we want from life; perhaps we're all just growing up faster and faster.
Matt Brown, England

There is definitely a problem, but I don't think it is confined to twentysomethings - anyone who has to cope with 2 mobiles, a desk phone, 2 fax machines, and very active e-mail and being on call 24x7 for work knows what this pressure is like - sometimes you just want to run away. I do feel that the 20somethings have a disadvantage in that they are the victims of and education system that had "no rules" - be yourself was the motto and this has left them less capable of fitting in easily with the norms of society and work.
Noel, Leeds

I am an academic advisor for graduate studies students at a university in Washington D.C. I've been doing this work for 13 years. Although there are differences between the experiences twentysomethings have in the US and Britain, the same phenomena discussed in your article are evident here too. Usually appearing in the form of students feeling as if they will make a mistake if they take the wrong course of study or do not try to do everything at once, the stress students experience is huge. Add to this a sense that everything must happen immediately, instantly, and there is a great deal of frustration. I believe your story actually highlights an international phenomenon.
Mary Barton, US

A "twentysomething crisis" is hardly a new idea, check out Generation X by Douglas Coupland
Joe, UK

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See also:

11 Jul 02 | Education
09 May 02 | Business
25 Mar 02 | Health
27 Feb 02 | UK
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