03.21.16

The Key to Helping Young Adults Overcome a Quarter-Life Crisis by Andrew McPeak

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Today, we hear from Andrew McPeak. Andrew is a writer, curriculum designer, and speaker who has served with a number of non-profit organizations (and has spoken to thousands of Millennials) over the last 5 years. He now serves on our team at Growing Leaders. Enjoy. 

In years past Dr. Elmore has written about what psychologists, counselors, and life coaches now call the “quarter-life crisis.” It’s a term coined to reflect a difficult time of life that many past generations have faced as well. Historically, the mid-twenties are when young people might get married, start a career, have their first child, or experience their “fair share” of both success and failure. In this way, Millennials are no different from past generations. After all, every twenty-something is working to figure out who they want to be, right? There are a couple of reasons why this generation is the first to pick up a tag for this stage of life. While the problems are similar to times past, there are fewer options to get out, and their expectations for how to find success have been dead wrong.

A couple years ago my wife and I had some friends over for dinner. They were just a year younger than us, and because of that, we shared a lot of the same views on life and expectations for the future. Pretty quickly, the evening turned toward this subject, and our conversation went on for hours. We shared a common frustration with our college education, which seemed entirely disconnected from the practical characteristics that were needed for success in our careers. We each told stories of why we felt like we weren’t sure we would be able to succeed. Surprisingly, we all shared a feeling that we were relatively unprepared and somewhat told the wrong things. In recent years I’ve found that these sentiments are, in fact, backed up with sobering statistics.

There are three major shifts—and probably many smaller ones—that are causing Millennials to hit an early crisis point and stop short of their career potential.

  1. Statistics show that 44% of Millennials, the highest rate in many years, are stuck in low-wage, dead-end jobs.
  1. The average income of millennials is dropping to its lowest point since the 90s. With a record-high 23% reporting low-wage earnings (“low-wages” being defined as below $25,000 a year). Just check out this map of the average earnings of Millennials in each state.
  1. Millennials who work hard enough to get through school are now rewarded with the highest average debt in history. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015 that the average debt for 2015 college graduates climbed to $35,000.

I don’t tell you these statistics and stories so that you will feel bad for us Millennials. Quite the opposite, actually. I have a theory about crisis, and it’s one that you—if you are over the age of 25—are pretty well acquainted with, I’ll bet. Every moment of doubt, questioning, and frustration is a golden opportunity for maturity. If it’s handled well, a crisis can be just the condition needed to motivate growth. When young people, Millennials especially, meet moments of fear and questioning, they don’t need an easier way out. No, they need us to be ready to encourage them, to push them, and to invite them to succeed.

While the statistics don’t look good for Millennials out of college, the stories beginning to emerge are amazing. There is hope for young people like me because those that face a “quarter-life” crisis, and stick it out, have created some amazing solutions to the world’s problems. One of my most favorite recent examples are these young black millennials who are committed to positively changing one of the most adverse cities in the world: Detroit. In a city that has seen more than its fair share of decline, groups of young people are finding ways to overcome—in the face of crisis. You really should read a few of their stories, if you get the chance.

The challenge to encourage—rather than ignore—is one that I often give to myself. I’m 27 now, but I still get the chance to speak with some of my younger peers, those who are just emerging from college and taking their first steps into their careers. When I speak with them, it’s hard for me not to say “get over it” when they complain, or “you haven’t seen anything yet” when they tell me about their problems. For me as a leader, and a mentor, these answers are unhelpful not because they are untrue, but because they are untimely. I am sure that, in certain moments, all of us need a kick in the pants, but for a young person in crisis, a reality check is already on the table. What your quarter-life crisis students, children, and mentees need from you is not a wake-up call, but an investment.

I was asking questions about my future about four years ago, and I reached out to an author and consultant that I really respected. I actually tweeted him, and amazingly, he responded. I drove to meet him at his office and he took me out to lunch. Those were literally the three most important pieces of pizza I’ve ever eaten. Looking back, the advice he gave me wasn’t so profound. I already knew most of what he said. What I got from him was encouragement. Someone I respected took time out of their day to talk with me. He emboldened my resolve, and told me that if I was willing to work hard, I could find success.

This is what all Millennials need from us. They need our time. They need our words of encouragement. They need us to tell them that life is sometimes hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The Millennials around you, who may perhaps be in the middle of a quarter-life crisis, need you to stand in the gap with them. It’s a gap that exists between what is and what could be, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be writing these words today if someone hadn’t stood in the gap with me. Who needs you to stand with them?

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