Early life transitions

Existential crises aren’t confined to the popular marker of ‘mid-life’ – they happen either side of this and not just once. What these crises seem to have in common, whatever life-stage is involved, is a struggle to re-define oneself or to discover identity. A classic example is when we leave full time education to try and find work. As an adolescent many, many years ago I remember being told that the line of work you choose after school would be one of the most important decisions you ever make. The reasoning was that you would probably be doing that job for at least forty years.

How times have changed. And yet, according to journalist Alexandra Robbins and author Abbey Wilner in 2001, ‘Many twenty-somethings find that the easiest way to attempt to pinpoint their identity after graduation is to define who they are by what they do’.[1] This sounds like even more pressure to ‘get it right’ at an important transitional stage of life.

Getting on for nearly twenty years later, many young adults still wrestle anxiously with the pressure to make the right decision about what direction their lives should take. I also see parents who feel a misplaced sense of failure because their adult children still haven’t made the sort of ‘progress’ they were encouraged to make themselves a generation ago.

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s seminal work Childhood and Society in 1965 identifies no less than eight critical life stages where key conflicts have to be confronted. Roughly speaking, the late teens and early twenties (but often later as well) is the time for establishing who you are and where you are going. Ideally, over this time a fairly stable sense of identity emerges out of the ‘role confusion’ that precedes it. In short, life transitions such as this, inevitable though they are, are always likely to be difficult.

So is enough support available for the difficult life transitions that young people are faced with at this stage of life? Perhaps the whole subject of transitions is too often downplayed because change is seen as something that ‘we all have to get on with’. True, we do need to be able to adapt ourselves and our lives to new challenges, conflicts and dilemmas on a more or less ongoing basis. Our personal growth and development will always require this. But different people deal with different types of change in uniquely different ways and so, for many, young adulthood can still be extremely challenging.

Robbins and Wilner’s research found that the most positive attitudes were held by those believing their doubts to be normal. As one twenty-four year old in their survey responded, ‘You don’t get lectures about what life is like after college. You don’t have a textbook that tells you what you need to do to find success’.

So maybe a positive response to the challenges of life transitions is not just about resolving doubts, it is also about accepting that having doubts is a natural part of existing in the adult world.





[1] Robbins & Wilner, 2001, Quarter-life Crisis – how to get your head round life in your twenties