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Men: are you having a quarter-life crisis?

By Hugh Wilson
Men: are you having a quarter-life crisis?
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We've all heard of the midlife crisis, that moment when balding forty-somethings take a long hard look at their lives, face up to the fact of their own mortality and decide the best solution to all that maudlin introspection is to buy a Porsche and acquire a mistress.

Oh how we laugh, but perhaps the joke is on us. Because more and more psychologists are starting to talk about the existence of a quarter-life crisis, a prolonged low that can afflict anyone — but often men — from college leaver age till their mid-30s.

Anxiety and insecurity
Studies show that the quarter-life crisis might indeed be real. The latest, published earlier this year by psychologists at the University of Greenwich in London, found that many young men are suffering from loneliness, anxiety, insecurity and depression.

All the classic symptoms of a midlife crisis, in other words, but a couple of decades earlier.

"Quarter-life crises don't happen literally a quarter way through your life", says lead researcher Dr Oliver Robinson. "They occur a quarter of your way through adulthood, in the period between 25 and 35, although they cluster around 30."

Dr Robinson believes the feeling many young men have of being trapped in the wrong job or relationship triggers quarter-life crises. "It's an illusory sense of being trapped," he says. "You can leave but you feel you can't."

Others think the quarter-life crisis might be on the increase because of hard times. Students are graduating into a tough economic climate, with anxieties fuelled by unemployment, high levels of debt and second-rate jobs.

Time to emigrate?
All this mixes with traditional insecurities about relationships, friends moving away for work and the desire to fly the nest and move out, and comes together as a perfect storm of mental upheaval for late-20 and early 30-somethings.

A survey by Gumtree.com confirmed the impression that young adults are feeling the pressure. It found that 86% of respondents felt pressurised to have success in their jobs, relationships and finances by the time they hit 30. Two in five who took the survey admitted to money worries, 21% wanted a complete career change and 6% even wanted to emigrate.

And a more recent survey by Vodafone found 73% of men between the ages of 26 and 30 believe that they are facing a quarter-life crisis. At least some of their angst is caused by the feeling that everyone else is doing better than them.

Psychologist Gladeana McMahon thinks that disappointments in one area of life are feeding into anxieties in another: "What we're seeing is a vicious circle, whereby feelings of inadequacy and disillusionment because of career and financial pressures are affecting other areas of their lives such as relationships."

A brighter perspective
So if you think you're going through a quarter-life crisis, what can you do about it? Psychologists like McMahon think the most important thing is to change your perspective, and learn to be less hard on yourself. After all, it's not your fault that you graduated into the toughest jobs market for a decade.

And it's not your fault that the housing market has gone belly up and no bank will give you a mortgage. But just because you can't move on in the way you want doesn't mean you have to stagnate.

Other experts advise opening up about your anxieties, and taking back control of your life in small ways that will make you feel like you're moving forward, even if the big stuff is still out of reach. So talk to friends and family about how you feel. If you can't get the job you want think about doing some volunteering — it will impress employers no end when they do start hiring again.

And the usual advice applies. Eat well and exercise. Working up a sweat will also flood your system with happy hormones, and give problems the perspective they deserve. And again, becoming master of your health and fitness gives you a measure of control in what can seem like a chaotic world, and that has lots of mental benefits.

It could be positive
Finally, the good news is that the quarter-life crisis may have a happy ending. In his research, Dr Robinson identifies four stages to the quarter-life crisis. The first is the feeling of being trapped, and that's what many 20- and early 30-somethings might be going through now.

The second is a sense that change is possible. "This leads to all sorts of emotional upheavals," says Dr Robinson. "It allows exploration of new possibilities with a closer link to interests, preferences and sense of self."

Things are starting to get more positive, and the best is still to come. The third phase is a period of building a new life, and the fourth involves developing new commitments that are more in tune with who you are. There's a sense that going through some anxious and insecure times in our 20s makes us strive to achieve what we really want.

"The results will help to reassure those people who are experiencing this transition that it is a commonly experienced part of early adult life, and that there is a proven pattern of positive change that results from it," says Dr Robinson.

In other words, your quarter-life crisis may do you some good. If the world seems against you right now, remember that a year or two down the line the experience may help you to soar.

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