It’s a sunny Saturday night in a pub in East London. I'm sweating it out alongside the other punters when an empty tip jar catches my eye. Its sign reads: “Please tip us. The staff are all graphic designers, musicians and artists, which in the real world means we are simply bartenders. We have no inheritance and slim chance of ever owning a property … Our lives are sh*t.”
To the twentysomething-aged bar staff: Firstly, way to make the clientele feel guilty. Secondly, it sounds like you’re in the middle of a quarter-life crisis. Welcome to the real world: the chances are, your customers are having a ‘QLC’ too.
A recent UK study reveals in fact that 86pc of some 1,100 twentysomethings suffer from serious anxiety and stress: a fear that they're not doing enough with their life, a fear of missing out.
As I stood there trying to enjoy my Saturday night (at least I was actually out in a bar, not at home vegging out – that's got to prove that I'm living life to the full, right?) that simple tip jar confirmed to me a long-harboured suspicion that increasingly, people my age (twentysomething) are waking up with an existential crisis on their hands.
Take Nikki, 27, who's lived and worked in London for five years and readily admits she's suffered from – and thankfully been through – a QLC . “I would describe what I went through as a prolonged identity crisis," she says. "Having been defined by education up until 22, it was very difficult to find my place in the real world; aspects of my life suddenly didn’t count in the same way.” She's in PR now, in a job she enjoys, having "escaped" from the charity sector.
Elsewhere, Phoebe, who’s 25 and currently in a "dead-end job" in retail, confesses she’s panicking: “I recently wrote down goals I want to achieve by the time I’m 30 and it’s terrifying how little time I have left.”
Damian Barr, author of Get It Together: A Guide To Surviving your Quarter-Life Crisis and faculty member of The School of Life, describes these feelings perfectly. “You may be 25 but feel 45. You expected to be having the time of your life but all you do is stress about career prospects, scary debts and a rocky relationship.”
Does anybody agree that it would have really been appreciated if someone had told us that before we left uni? Perhaps even as bluntly as Barr puts it: “If your life was a movie it would go straight to Netflix, but nobody would rent it. Not even you.” Harsh. Admittedly, there could have been a lot of red eyes at graduation, but maybe it would have managed our expectations? I'm 23 and a budding journalist (hint, hint), but am working in a largely unrelated field having just left university.
Over-qualified and under-prepared
No one prepares us for the decades’ worth of post-education revelations such as "dream jobs" are pretty hard to come by (but by the way,unemployment isn’t), having a real job is not like an episode of Mad Men and finding "the one" is virtually impossible. One of the most difficult home truths to come to terms with however, is realising that we are not, and probably never will be, millionaires. Just as we face up to this unfortunate reality, we also calculate that £1m is exactly the amount we need to buy a decent property with a garden and a few bedrooms in a nice area of London. And yet the practicality of getting a mortgage worth even a quarter of that is all but impractical when you're out of work or in low-paid jobs. And it suddenly dawns on us that, aside from that cool little blog we genuinely believed was going to take off and earn us the big bucks, we actually have no strategy in place to make any money.
While it’s assuring that our peers are also wondering "is this it?" and experiencing all the other lovely hallmarks of a midlife crisis, it's sad that, as Barr notes, these crises are happening earlier. “To an extent the younger generation expects more than their parents did, but it’s also harder for young people today than it was for their parents. Their parents didn’t have to fight for their first job in a depressed global economy and banks offered mortgages without asking for a lottery-win sized deposit.”
Alice, a graduate working in her local cinema picking up empty popcorn boxes, mirrors this sentiment exactly: “I’m 24, I have a degree but after countless interviews I still have no luck. So, I work at the Odeon, swim in my overdraft and live with my parents, who at my age were married with a house and kids.”
The new norm of not settling down
Our parents had to deal with having babies younger which was arguably the bum deal (considering I’ve been known to cry in the work toilets because it all got “too much”, I don’t much fancy my chances at looking after another human being just yet.) Then again, my parents also bought a house and, the minute they did, property prices shot up. At 27, they nested in their goldmines with real-life things like marriage, jobs and babies. Fast-forward to today, at the same age, we are paying through the nose to simply exist in London and would jump at the chance of owning a downstairs toilet.
Yet, has the new norm of settling down later also encouraged a belief that we can put off important decisions? Thirties are apparently the new twenties, right? This decade doesn’t count, right? Wrong, says Barr, “denying the QLC is the worst way to deal with it”.
Nikki admits that it took her a long time to 'get to grips' with her crisis. “Every time I planned to confront my anxiety, I got distracted by nights out, and the hangovers only added to the impending sense of doom.” All the ‘fun’ going on around us posted on Facebook contributes another feature to the QLC: worrying we are not having enough fun by comparing ourselves to those who have bothered to put up Facebook photos. Remember though, “no one posts snaps of the growing number of nights in under a slanket with a takeaway.”
Facing so many uncertainties, twentysomethings are at constant odds with themselves being incredibly ambitious but painfully indecisive. As Nat, a 24-year old medical student, says: “I frequently question what I’m doing and feel trapped knowing that my career is set out for me.” It's as if everyone’s feeling the exact same way, even those who seem to have it all worked out, like Alasdair Snow, 24 and a founding director of popular app TripTease. “Everyday I’m faced with a million and one reasons why I’m likely to fail," he admits. "In starting my own company I have made my own crisis and have set myself on a long and uncertain road, prolonging the feeling of gut-wrenching fragility.”
Whatever course we are on, it seems we are all fa-reaking out right now. And so, East London bar staff: that is the reason why your tip jar shall remain empty – sorry.