perhaps your instagram-fuelled feelings of inadequacy aren’t such a bad thing after all
How to deal with your quarter-life crisis.
A day after her 24th birthday, Queen of Instagram Selena Gomez joined the quarter-life crisis club. In a now-deleted post, the Insta supreme used her favourite platform to describe feelings of inauthenticity and stagnancy to her 90 million followers: "Tonight I felt extremely unauthentic [sic], unconnected to both myself and my music," she wrote. "I've never really felt like my materials, wardrobe or a video could define me. […] I've shown who I am but I need to rethink some areas of my life creatively and personally." The star concluded that she wasn't trying to detract from her work so far, but was just being honest with her dedicated fans.
The heartfelt post was instantly jumped on as a "cryptic" missive by the gossip columns, but Gomez's sentiments would have rung true with many of her followers. In recent years it has become common wisdom that, rather than being the time of your life, your twenties are more likely a decade of disappointment, blighted by low wages, high rent and job dissatisfaction. Sure, Gomez's experience is a far cry from a typical life—it seems unlikely that she's struggling to make rent every month—but the questioning over her creative legacy and its ability to define her are a universally held truth of the twenty-something experience.
In fact, the 'quarter-life crisis' has become something of an epidemic amongst Gen Y; feelings of inadequacy or insecurity are so common, they're almost inevitable. But this has to do with trends that have grown not just in our own generation, but in those before us. In an article published in 2000, Jeffrey Arnett, a professor at Clark University, described how these trends, such as the deferral of major life commitments, including marriage and babies, has led to a new stage of life called "emerging adulthood". Straddling adulthood and adolescence, "emerging adulthood" is characterised by factors including a sense of idealistic possibility, instability in residence and relationships, and an exploration of the self. At this stage of life, independence is prized ahead of everything, and maintained before steps into real adulthood—i.e. settling down and making those major life commitments.
It's this mixture of sweet freedom and instability that can turn your average twenty-something into a quivering ball of angst. Like Destiny's Child, we love our independence. But unlike Destiny's Child, we can't deal with the instability which all that independence brings. In a study on emerging adulthood published last year, Dr Oliver Robinson, a senior lecturer at the University of Greenwich, identified four key stages of the quarter-life crisis. The first was a distinct feeling of being trapped—either "locked in or out" of adult commitments such as a job or a relationship.
It's an easy feeling to recognise. You feel restricted by your life choices in some way, but you're not sure exactly what the cure is. And while it feels exclusive to our generation, that may just be because the quarter life crisis is being afforded increasing airtime as Gen Y start to voice their dissatisfaction. Abby Miller, co-author of Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties, argues that these feelings that result from emerging adulthood are not unique to Gen Y. Hopping from job to job to find your one true passion, or living at home with your parents longer than you thought was humanly possible are things that were experienced by previous generations, too.
What we have now, though, are daily reminders of our own inadequacies thanks to social media. Where the angst of former twenty-somethings has long lost its bite in old diary entries and forgotten conversations, millennials are now reminded daily of their shortcomings in the minefield of their Instagram or Facebook feeds. Every scrolling sesh has the potential to spike insecurity, or remind you of your own imagined inadequacies. With every shot of azure seas or someone's new French bulldog comes the invitation to question when you last went on holiday, or when you'll be settled enough to get the pup of your dreams. No wonder recent studies have revealed a positive correlation between social media use and instances of depression and anxiety.
As tedious as the constant feelings of inadequacy are, there may be a light at the end of the quarter-life crisis shaped tunnel. Returning to Dr Robinson's study, the progression of phases identified with a crisis point towards the possibility of a happy ending. Once you find yourself in the first stage of a crisis—those pesky feelings of being trapped or locked in—you'll naturally begin to work through the following phases. These involve realising that change is possible, starting to make said changes and rebuilding your life in line with a new understanding of what you want to achieve. You may just come out of the other side with a job in which you're happy or a renewed commitment to your own personal interests.
So, if you're feeling a little Selena Gomez about your station and, like her, feel it's time to rethink, chances are this is actually a good thing. Next time you find yourself having a toxic Insta scroll, tear yourself away. If you're feeling stuck in your job, start making a plan and stop comparing yourself to other people. And when you're feeling really low just remember—even pop stars get the quarter-life blues.
Text Rachel Wilson