DRUMROLL, PLEASE By Gena Valerie Chua
I first heard it three months after graduation, over lunch with college blockmates.
Blockmate 1 (earns twice as much as any of us): I’m depressed. Work sucks. Is there any job that sucks more than mine?
Blockmate 2 (recently quit his job): Mine did. I was bored every day. I’m applying abroad. Do you know how much you can earn there?
Blockmate 3 (confessed bum): Money isn’t worth your unhappiness. You should be dating more, I’ll set you up with a friend.
Blockmate 1: But how can I be happy without money? Great dramatic sigh, I’m having a quarter- life crisis. Who are you setting me up with?
And there it was, the mystifying term that single-handedly captured our 22-year-old chaos. At first it sounded funny, but when the thought sank in, we were all quiet for an uncomfortably long period of time. Did we have it too?
Since then, I’ve heard the phrase thrown around a lot. After graduation get-togethers have been surprisingly frequent. It could be a withdrawal symptom, you’re all desperate to hold on to the certainty you had in school. Now that everything has become so unstructured, we cling on dearly to the people whom we shared such carefree, and sometimes careless days with. We reminisce about how our lives used to be, and how they are now. Many of us are in our third or fourth jobs. More and more are leaving the country to “find greener pastures,” joining that ever-growing diaspora like spores drawn to more fertile ground.
There is a shared sense of “lostness,” not because we have nowhere to be. No, we are all lucky enough to be somewhere, but most want to be somewhere else. Everyone tells us we are meant to be great, or at least achieve a slice of greatness. We are of that generation, the generation that has it all. The generation that never had to work for anything because it’s all instant and automated. The natural expectation to surpass those before us poses an unnerving problem: What happens if we don’t?
Maybe the pressure has been there for centuries, but never like this. The world used to be enormous, a planet of rocks we only see in science books. But now the world is shrinking.
Everything, everyone is within reach. The overwhelming proximity of it all has turned us claustrophobic. Wherever we find ourselves becomes too small a place. We are always looking for that something, the thing that will supposedly match our destined greatness.
Upon writing this article I decided to Google the term. Lo and behold, the omniscient Wikipedia had some interesting answers. Quarter-life crisis is a medical term for the phase following adolescence, usually for ages 21-30. Some “symptoms” include: (1) feeling not good enough about one’s job (2) frustration with relationships (3) insecurity about life goals (4) nostalgia for school (5) a sense that everyone is doing better than you. Furthermore, the stage occurs shortly after young, educated professionals enter the “real world”, when they realize that it is tougher, more competitive and less forgiving than they imagined.
So it’s not a 21st century thing after all. Ah, but Wikipedia doesn’t stop there. It goes on to say that today, “the era when having a professional career meant a life of occupational security has come to an end.” Indeed, it is no longer enough to get a well-paying job and do it for the rest of your life.
The lines used to be clearly drawn: you were a dentist, a doctor, an engineer, a businessman. Today, things are not as black and white. Our “real world” is now literally the entire world. We take our internships in multi-national corporations, study abroad on exchange programs, and attend art seminars in New York. We find worldwide options exceeding the imagination of those before us: techie jobs in Silicon Valley, trading in the Hong Kong stock market, even advertising for Google in hidden GoogleLand. I had a classmate who took up forensics in Maryland, while another one graduated from a famous fashion school in London. We are constantly considering so many options, debating which ones we can qualify for and which ones will ultimately help us define ourselves.
Older folks say this is generation me, me, me. We want it all now, now, now — even when we really have no idea what we want. So we end up wanting it all. They (my parents, friends of my parents, parents of my friends) shake their heads in disapproval at our inability to stay in one job.
They say we can’t stand any ounce of discomfort, any morsel of unhappiness. It’s true. We are impatient, always fleeing from one place to another — because that is what we grew up doing. Change has always been inevitable, but if there was ever a time when each year sees changes that used to span a century, this would have to be it.
As adolescents, none of our music icons had the longevity of The Beatles — every three weeks it was a new genre of sound. One minute we were shrieking fans of the Backstreet Boys, and the next we were cult followers of Matchbox 20. We have no memory of dinosaur computers; to us everything runs at 5Mbps. Our shelves of Britannica have gathered dust; we only have to go to YouTube and streams of video would unravel. We had the networking craze Friendster, but even that didn’t last.
Soon we were creating separate accounts for Multiply, Facebook and self-blogs. We shop on sites of local strangers and order via cellphone banking. Oh yes, don’t even get me started on cellphones. They have rendered everything else useless: watches, cameras, music players, calculators, dictionaries, even mirrors.
Every time the world changes a part of itself, we’ve had to change along with it. I’m not saying we should go back to the era of i’ll-be-waiting-two-weeks-for-your-snail-mail. I cannot leave the house without my phone. Maybe we’ve become little brats of technology, the spawn of an age always trying to outdo itself. If patience is a virtue, then the remarkable deficiency of it has become our unconscious vice. Our adult lives are an extension of our adolescent years, when coolness was attained by downloading mp3s of a newbie rock band before everyone else did. We are always on the move. We are fickle-minded, discontent and extremely volatile — which according to Wikipedia, are natural to those in their 20’s. But to be in your 20s at a time when clients at work are Australians you will never see past email correspondence, then it becomes a world that gives you only two choices: move, or get left behind.
We are expected to march out into the world with iPod in backpocket, one earphone pounding against an eardrum. With our bountiful gifts from mother technology and our cross-cultural media grub, we’re supposed to find a way to make ourselves great. Now more than ever, we have to prove ourselves worthy of the time we were born into. So who can blame us, for wanting to run all the time? The pressure is immense. So much is running after us and worse, there is so much we are trying to keep up with. Like the reluctant monster Incredible Hulk, we are always growing out of proportion, our clothes tearing as we expand. And so we run, gasping for air, looking for a place that can contain us.
I’m grateful for being born in an era that constantly pushes itself forward. But we were raised in a period long past mere survival, where the worst blunder you can commit is not so much failure but mediocrity. And so we make this plea: don’t be so hard on us. It may now be less challenging to defy boundaries, but the world out there is still as tough as ever. Let us have our little crisis; spare us the time that we never seem to have enough of. Give us the chance to find our own corner, where we can dig and shovel and bury ourselves in. Because when the clouds clear up — when we can finally stop twiddling our thumbs and wringing our hands in restlessness — you will see what we have built out of our chaos, and you will be damn proud.