Why we experience a quarter-life crisis

Fear. This is doubtlessly one of the most pervading feelings among some Oxford students. Unconsciously, it drives us to do more, make things better and try harder.

A friend of mine in Brasenose was rejected from fifteen Milkround companies. He applied because he wants to earn thousands on the trading floor and escape the lifestyle of his parents, Oxford academics. “You have to provide for your family and stuff and my parents just don’t have that kind of money,” I always would hear him complain.

Estelle, one of my hardest-working girlfriends was fretting over coffee, “I don’t know. I’m studying for an Oxford degree but that’s still no guarantee of success in life.” Blues tennis, distinctions in academic results and incredible social skills and she’s still stressing out.

There are more examples. One of my fellow PPEists decided to help out in the organisation of the Oxford Investment Banking Conference because she felt “like she needed something for the CV”. Whenever I meet up with my friend Masha who is studying at the London School of Economics, we always end up talking about how we might not provide our parents with the lifestyle that they provided us. Ask any Oxford undergraduate what they want to do in their life and the answer in the majority of cases will be, “er…I don’t know.”

“My parents fought communism and my grandparents fought their farmer plight so that I can do what I want with my life”

We are the generation that was supposed to have it all – Oxford’s bright young things, comfortable with technology, growing up when Labour’s investment in public services pushes through social mobility barriers and the city of London lures us with drinks and lavish dinners (this year’s Accenture dinner anyone?). We’ve had the education, the social provisions and the freedom to do something great. My parents fought communism and my grandparents fought their farmer plight so that I can do what I want with my life.

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Yet, we’re left confused and scared as we consider the vast majority of options offered. Should we be deceived by corporate offerings, losing our souls to banks but leading an economically comfortable lifestyle? Or maybe go onto the political treadmill, join a think-tank and become hotshot MPs? Work for NGOs and charities for peanuts, a profile that fits with the desire of ‘giving something back’? Or try to make it in the ruthless world of media?

“We want to at least maintain the economic standards our parents gave us and some of us will support the rest of the family as well”

Another reason for this fear is both the parental pressure and the pressure we put on ourselves to be someone and to provide economically for the future. Many of my school friends suffered a silent crisis when they learnt they didn’t get into Oxbridge – for in their families this was a tradition and parents expected them to get in too. We ourselves want to be successful people: we research career options, checking up the paths of people we’re impressed by in Wikipedia and wondering what should be our next step. We want to at least maintain the economic standards our parents gave us, and some of us will support the rest of the family as well. Media’s laments of a lost generation only intensifies our panic.
 
Most of us Oxford undergraduates postpone the big decision until later, taking a Masters or a gap year before committing ourselves to a clear path. Yet, the internal anxiety stays for a while, becoming as the popular American catch-phrase says, a quarter-life crisis in itself.