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Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

  • June 25, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT
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It is tempting—too tempting—to dismiss Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties as a new low in our victim-loving, support group-happy culture. There is something unseemly, even pathetic, about those who have almost everything our society values most—health, energy, wrinkle-free faces, slim waistlines—whining that youth has become a kind of social disease. Can anyone over 35 read this book without hoping its earnest authors—Alexandra Robbins, 24, and Abby Wilner, 25—live long enough to be embarrassed by it?

In the meantime, though, they've got a hot little product on their hands. Last time I checked, the Tarcher/Putnam book, which documents the trials and tribulations of today's twentysomethings, ranked 37th on the Amazon.com sales list (who says young people don't read?) and is on back order, having sold out its first two printings in a matter of weeks.

Besides, the authors, their subjects and the all-twenty something team that's marketing the book don't really care what their elders think. The elders are the ones who keep insisting that being young is so great in the first place. Quarterlife Crisis is meant to reassure twenty some things that they are not alone in thinking otherwise. It reads like an Internet message board where coming-of-agers who are, like, totally depressed by the rigors of adulthood, testify to the unacknowledged "dark side" of being young.

Readers of QC who came of age in the '70s—the era of feminist revolt, sexual anomie, economic doldrums and post-hippie malaise—will be a little disoriented to discover that, as their children see it, those were the simple days of straightforward life style choices and well-trod career paths. And marketing and media professionals who've spent much of their careers, and zillions of dollars, wooing the 18-29 demographic may be thrown into a crisis of their own upon learning from "Phil" that the media "don't target anything toward us. On TV, on the news, and in the papers, nothing caters to us."

Whatever. The authors' point is that while the transition to adulthood has always been tough and every life stage has its challenges, being young has never been quite so awful in quite this way.

Haunted by the spectre of baby achievers like Tiger Woods, dazzled and disappointed by the dot-coms, torn by a surfeit of choices and tortured by expectations of total self-fulfillment, they confront adulthood with an angst unprecedented in human history. Attention must be paid!

They do have a point, of course. Each generation's experience is by definition unique. Adulthood must indeed seem daunting to quarter lifers whose march to meaningful and lucrative jobs began with the competition for kindergarten and who were instructed to start planning their retirements at 15. Reading about the paralysis of young adults who believe their entire lives ride on decisions they make at 24, one understands why God intended youth to be oblivious to consequences.

There's probably nothing so intractable about such woes that a good war, violent social upheaval or economic depression couldn't cure. Failing those, perhaps we should consider abolishing college, the common coming-of-age ritual that seems to be the source of so much twenty something dysfunction.

As George W. Bush can attest, the transition from college to the "real world" has always been tricky. The difference is that in W.'s era, it was a minority experience: In 1960, only 45 percent of high-school grads went on to college. Today, 63 percent do, and mass misery appears to be the result.

On the one hand, college represents an Eden from which graduates have been exiled—their paradise of structure, self-indulgence and social ease lost. Adult life sucks in comparison. On the other hand, young people are shocked and outraged that college has prepared them for nothing in the real world, filling them with useless knowledge that only sharpens the sting of their entry-level jobs. What's more, the pursuit of necessary yet essentially worthless degrees saddles untold thousands with five-figure debts that take a lot of the fun out of being young.

If we did just ditch the institution, young people would still be stuck in menial, badly paying jobs. But maybe they wouldn't feel as bad about it.

In the book's final note, the authors suggest that recent graduates form "support groups," which sound a lot like the dorm-room bull sessions they seem to miss so keenly. Yet even for those who muddle through on their own, the prognosis remains good. Youth is one disease its sufferers are sure to outgrow.