Besides inquiries about drink specials and the check, the most common question Kyle Wright heard as a bartender in San Francisco was, “So what do you really do for work?” The honest answer — that bartending was his work — slowly wore him down, year after year, for nine years.
“What’s my purpose? What am I doing? What’s my contribution?” Wright, now a 31-year-old in New York City, remembers thinking. “It drove me insane.”
It also drove him to drink too much, jump from one unfulfilling restaurant industry job to another, act like a jerk to colleagues and subordinates and attempt to earn a college degree four times. Comparisons to his family’s expectations, his wife’s accomplishments and his friend’s social media feeds didn’t help. “It sucks seeing people who are my age or a year younger and older with these [apparent successes],” Wright says.
Wright was only in his mid-20s, and yet he was grappling with a similar type of challenge often associated with middle age: What was he going to do with his limited time on Earth? Even though Wright is likely to have more time left than his parents who are actually middle-aged, the fast pace of life today and the internet’s influence on how fast we believe everyone else’s lives are moving can bring on a similar sense of urgency far earlier, some experts believe.
“I am seeing more of the recent college grads, mid-20-year-olds who are displaying physical agitation as if they’re in this midlife crisis,” says Dr. Johnny Lops, a psychiatrist in New York City and author of “Reinvent Yourself: Essential Tools from a Brooklyn Psychiatrist Who Has Seen It All.” “Their dopamine reward system has been hijacked by the rapidity of life; they want their own lives to move as fast.”
And rather than buying a fancy car, having an affair or getting plastic surgery — unproven stereotypes of so-called midlife crises — 20-somethings may struggle with anxiety, depression, disordered eating and substance abuse problems and even thoughts of killing themselves in part because they haven’t developed the resilience to cope with these pressures.
Research supports that young people today are, indeed, feeling the pressure. The American Psychological Association’s recently released Stress in America Survey found that 27 percent of 15- to 21-year-olds (“Generation Z”) and 15 percent of millennials report their mental health is fair or poor, much of it due to the (super accessible and nonstop) news.
A nonprofit public health organization’s survey last year of 14- to 24-year olds in the UK found that Instagram in particular spiked anxiety, depression and body image issues among users. Yet another study published this year by the health company Cigna suggests that 18- to 24-year-olds are America’s loneliest generation — a characteristic now considered deadlier than obesity and just as potentially life-threatening as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Especially startling is the finding that suicide was the second leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds in 2016, the most recent year for which national data is available, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. “There’s the risk of suicide because of the existential crisis of what’s the point of living if it’s not the ideal life?” Lops says.
At the same time, there’s little scientific support that people are especially likely to have these sorts of crises in midlife, despite the popular portrayal of such experiences, says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who studies adult development and aging. “The (concept) ‘midlife crisis’ is hated in the academic community, but it sticks because it’s something people find to be an easy explanation,” Whitbourne says. “Then it creates its own mythology, which leads to other problems, like not recognizing that this isn’t normal.”
Hers and others’ research in the area finds that if, when and how often people experience so-called crises depends a lot more on circumstances like their job satisfaction and their propensity for mental illness than what stage of life they’re in. Some people “bounce from crisis to crisis,” Whitbourne says, “and other people go through periods of evaluation without having a crisis.”
Whitbourne also says newer research suggests that people tend to consider the most recent decade of their lives one marked by crises, but as their view of that decade shrinks in the rear-view mirror, its image improves. “Whatever decade you’re in is the decade that sucks,” says Whitbourne, who also points out that the heavily covered “happiness curve” suggesting that people get happier as they enter middle and older age is skewed. In reality, the “curve” is a fairly flat line. Bottom line: Everyone’s path — and the bumps on it — is different.
More important than what stress and aging-related periods of uncertainty, fear and anxiety are called or when they happen is how the people who experience them respond. “Really look at periods of change and transition points as an opportunity to take stock — it’s never bad to do that,” Whitbourne says. Rather than minimizing it by calling it a quarter- or mid-life crisis, she adds, “I’d rather see people use turning points for evaluation, if not change and intervention, if need be.”
Lops recommends acknowledging small, day-to-day pleasures like meeting a friend for coffee or enjoying a brisk walk at lunch rather than letting yourself get bogged down with grand, long-term goals that will take time — and failures — to achieve. “There are so many great moments in life that are not Instagrammable, and that’s OK,” he says.
For some people, learning how to do that, as well as to manage symptoms of anxiety and depression, may require therapy — something younger generations embrace more readily, Whitbourne finds. The American Psychological Association’s survey concurs: While only 22 percent of baby boomers reported having received help from a mental health professional, 37 percent of Gen Zers and 35 percent of millennials have.
Wright is one of them. “Everybody should go to therapy,” he says. The practice helped him identify and work past self-sabotaging beliefs (like that he didn’t deserve to be more successful than the peers in his small hometown) and take steps to make changes that truly fulfilled him and didn’t just land him behind yet another bar. Today, he runs a business with his wife, a therapist, focused on improving romantic relationships through coaching, a podcast and by providing other resources.
“I feel more comfortable in the decisions I’ve made and in the direction I’m going — there are less, ‘What’s going to happen?’ (worries) than there ever have been,” Wright says. But getting there, he says, takes a willingness to confront those questions, have difficult discussions with people you love and trust, and trust what you learn about yourself enough to take risks — despite what you or older generations had envisioned for your life.
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Clarification 11/09/18: An earlier version of this story included potentially identifying patient details.