As has been said many times before, people these days are living faster. Everything is about speed: journeys are faster; computers are faster; TV news is faster. We can have everything now and we bloody well want it now, including the problems that life is always ready to throw in our faces. And so we have invented the quarter life crisis. Fundamentally, it’s the mid-life crisis of the 21st century, which in itself was the 20th century’s sassier alternative to the 19th’s end-of-life crisis, which mostly entailed worrying about cobbling together enough cash to receive a proper burial, while still making sure that your plot in the graveyard has as good a view of the church steeple as your fellow deceased.
The mid-life crisis is, or was, essentially yuppie bravado that involved men in their late forties buying big red cars and having affairs with women ten years their junior. In a nutshell, it was for wankers.
The quarter-life crisis is much more the kind of thing that might end up in a Woody Allen movie – it’s all about internal strife and endless pontificating over your place in the world, and it all starts when you enter into the wonderful world of work.
Here’s the scenario. You come out of uni with your 2.1 ready to take on the world, only to find that the kind of jobs you now want require several years’ experience and that you’re more likely to end up working in Virgin Megastore or typing reports with names like ‘Admin1’. Even your most recent application got stonewalled. Why can’t you be Assistant Director of Children’s Programming at the BBC? You’ve watched CBBC religiously for the last 17 years and have even got a Going Live t-shirt – which, incidentally, all your student mates think is wicked. You’ve got Wacky Races on DVD and once directed your own version of the show using Happy Meal toys and your dad’s old camcorder.
Why can’t you be Assistant Director of Children’s Programming at the BBC? Because you’re an idiot.
Up to now you’ve been wrapped up in cotton wool. As a child you would draw pictures that would look like vomit on paper, yet have your parents decorate your kitchen with them and tell their friends how much potential they show. At school you’d come fourth in some competition or other and get a giant pat on the back and extra pocket money. Now you’ve got your 2.1 and your groundbreaking dissertation yet people think you’re shit and don’t even want you around their offices long enough to have an interview.
The message is for the first time in your life being pronounced loudly and clearly: YOU STINK!!
And to top things off there are those relatively few successful youngsters who are there seemingly just to heap more pain on the rest of us. When you start to realise that you’re too old to get in the England football team, when novelists appear who are younger than you, when it turns out that actresses you’ve vigorously tossed off over in your lonely bed could get you in trouble with the law if your dreams became reality, you’re inevitably going to feel like you’ve missed the boat.
So how is your ego supposed to handle this enormous blow? Just like you came to terms with Santa Claus being pure fabrication and Blue Peter not catering to your interests any longer. By finding a different reality to inhabit.
Many people take gap years, some go back to uni to do vocational degrees – others hook up with a rich old person and sacrifice a few years of their dignity for flaccid sex and wads of interest. Whichever of these routes you choose, the tidings are good. In fact, as long as you choose to steer yourself away from the world of work, you’re onto a winner.
Just look at the statistics. Today, life expectancy is 82 for a British male and 85 for a female, which is a damn sight better than the 48 and 50 you would’ve been onto the end of had you been born in 1900. Why the rise, we may be inclined to ask? Because of living conditions; because of health and hygiene? Nope. Because of the age that we start working.
Today, most people become slaves to the wage in their early 20s after bagging their special pieces of paper from former polytechnics. 100 years ago, kids would be off to work aged ten. In both cases, the age we can expect to die is approximately four times the age we start work, and thus the longer we can put off working, the longer we can expect to live and to stave off our quarter life crises.
Why are there so many ancient professors? Why is life-expectancy in the third-world and the sweatshop capitals of the world so much lower than in the western world? Because of the ages that these people start working.
The kids in India are having their quarter life crises at 12, reading Salinger and toiling away making Gap clothes trying to raise enough to go Inter-Railing for a month in the summer, while their western counterparts are hanging around with nothing better to do than check whether their first pubes have sprouted and push shopping trolleys into rivers. Why do the working classes tend to have kids younger? Because they’re going through their quarter life crisis and are searching for a means of justifying their existence, which the 20-something middle class kids can do by starting an MA in Applications of Photography on Cafe Walls or by travelling.
As for the rest of us, we can just go and label up the latest “2 for 10 pounds” promotion or have that file logged by 5 o’clock.
by Ian Shine
Illustration by Philippa Bloomfield