If you're in your 20s, chances are you've asked yourself one of these questions lately:
Will I ever get a job/raise/promotion?
When will I have the money to pay my bills/get married/buy a house/have kids?
We're told our 20s are the best years of our lives. That we can do anything we set our minds to. But the transition to adulthood can be terrifying. Especially during a recession.
That stage of life got a catchy name back in 2001, when Abby Wilner and Alexandra Robbins cowrote Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties. The often painful jump from academic to professional life, the book says, triggers a "response to overwhelming instability, constant change, too many choices, and a panicked sense of helplessness."
Instability, change, and helplessness - check, check, and check. But "too many choices"? Not so much in 2010.
Experts say the quarterlife crisis might be harder to navigate now than when the book came out. Entry-level employees, for example, are fighting for fewer jobs and lower pay, Wilner said in an e-mail interview recently.
"It's absolutely a tough time," she wrote.
Even those with jobs are in rough waters, said Dustin Williams, a career counselor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. A glut of older employees aren't budging because they can't afford to retire, so younger ones can't move up. Plus, less-experienced employees are more likely to get laid off. Job security is a real luxury these days.
"Four or five years ago," Williams said, "people would say, 'Well, I'm not happy, so I'll just change jobs and see how I do.' "
Now, more than ever, it's easy to get stuck in crisis mode. And recent college graduates are lucky if they land a job at all.
More than 75 percent of university students say job security is more important than pay and benefits, according to a recent survey of 350 university students by Netherlands-based professional-services firm KPMG.
Mikah Sampson, 25, has a secure job as a cytogenetic technologist, analyzing chromosomes in a medical lab.
Still, the single mother of two struggles to pay her bills. An accountant friend analyzed Sampson's budget and discovered she had $10 left from each paycheck after paying for rent, utilities, student loans, transportation, food, diapers, and day care.
"I broke down," Sampson said.
Sampson said when she chose her career, she expected to make $47,000 in her first year on the job. After three years, she's still not making that much. And she hasn't had a promotion.
"I have friends that work at banks and they were promoted within three months," Sampson said. "I'm wondering if this is what I'm wanting to do the rest of my life. . . . Am I ever going to get promoted? When do I make the big bucks?"
Sampson said she figured a biology degree and a career in the medical field would yield a comfortable lifestyle. But in reality, she can't afford to go to movies or out to eat. And her mother pays for her to get her hair done.
She said she's almost to the point of giving up. At 25.
"Instead of saying, 'I have 40 years left,' " Sampson said, "it's like, 'I've been here for 25 years and I'm not married yet!' "
Sampson said sometimes it's hard for her to imagine she'll move up, get a raise. That life will get better.
She's not alone in her gloom: A recent poll by Harvard's Institute of Politics found that six in 10 young adults surveyed worried about their financial survival. And less than half expected to end up better off than their parents.
Yeah, becoming an adult and figuring out your future can be painful, especially these days. But it's only natural, said Deborah Smith, a sociology professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City. Many people experience angst in their 20s because they're reflecting on their lives for the first time in a long time, she said.
"In my mind, it's not a crisis," Smith said. "It's a decision point, a pressure point, a life-stage change."
Smith added that once baby boomers retire, younger generations will move up. Meantime, she recommends remaining in the workforce if you can.
"Do not go back to grad school," Smith said. "It's too expensive in terms of time, energy, and money. Working is a really good thing."
If your career and your bank balance are not making you happy, look elsewhere, Smith added.
"Make an effort to create community," Smith said. "Talk to your neighbors. Join a softball league. Happy people have more meaningful conversations. They don't just talk about the weather and the Chiefs."
Sometimes we need to enjoy where we are instead of obsessing over the next milestone, said Williams, the career counselor. Plus, freaking out is normal, he said.