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The dilemmas of thirty-somethings: What on earth are you supposed to do?

Your own food truck, working from the comforts of a tropical beach in Bali, or a permanent job? Children, living together, getting married, a registered partnership? Thirty-somethings have a lot to think about. On Monday 16 April, Psychologist Nienke Wijnants gave a popular lecture to 120 young alumni on the ‘quarterlife crisis’.

‘How dared I be so picky?’ Nienke Wijnants’ (43) parents didn’t in the least understand why their daughter kept searching for that perfect job after having studied six years of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam. ‘I explained it to them by means of an ice cream metaphor,’ she says. ‘When I was little and we’d go to the beach, I could choose between an ice lolly, a Cornetto and, if I was very lucky, a beaker of cream ice.’ Nowadays, even the local petrol station offers a selection of twenty different types of ice cream. ‘Which is easier? Choosing from three, or from twenty different flavours?’

Nienke Wijnants explains the quarterlife crisis using ice creams: ‘Which is easier, choosing from three or twenty different flavours?’
Nienke Wijnants explains the quarterlife crisis using ice creams: ‘Which is easier, choosing from three or twenty different flavours?’

Choices, choices, choices

The penny started to drop for Wijnants’ parents: the more options you have, the harder it becomes to choose. Tasting all the different flavours isn’t an option, so we suffer from the stress of making a choice, or as Wijnants calls it, ‘anticipated regret,’ to the amusement of the alumni in the Great Auditorium. ‘Because, what would become of the world if you chose the wrong ice cream!’

In the end, Wijnants, then 26 years old, started working for a careers advice agency. The floodgates opened. She spoke with young people who seemed to have really made it. ‘But no one was happy. They wondered: Is this it?’

The young alumni talked about their own dilemmas.
The young alumni talked about their own dilemmas.

Existential questions

Anna van Gaans (25) can identify with this feeling. She has recently graduated from the Civil Law Master’s Programme and works as a company lawyer for a travel agency. ‘It’s all going really well but I’m still wondering how I want to spend the rest of my life. Should I be more ambitious, or can I settle for less and just be happy? I’m afraid my life will just muddle on until I reach the age of fifty and then I'll realise there’s no turning back.’

These are classic examples of quarterlife crises. Wijnants decided to conduct academic research on the phenomenon. Her research showed that doubters and perfectionists have a higher risk of ending up in a quarterlife crisis.

'Whether you are in  a relationship (single versus married) also plays a role. And it may be comforting to know,’ Wijnants told her audience, ‘that as soon as those important choices have been made, the quarterlife crisis will dissolve on its own.’

Spoilt for choice

‘People are asking themselves existential questions at younger ages. Who am I and what do I want to do with my life?’ In other words, an early midlife crisis boosted by social comparisons on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. Wijnants: ‘Besides, our choices used to be determined mainly by our religious beliefs. The freedom of choice seems liberating, but it also adds pressure.’ As a result, people suffer from burnouts at increasingly younger ages. ‘And this doesn’t necessarily have to do with a demanding job; rather with a demanding existence.’

‘When you think about it, it really is a luxury problem,’ says Rennie Roos (28). After a Master’s in Asian Studies, he now works as a strategic consultant in Indonesia. ‘In some countries you should consider yourself lucky if you even reach the age of 30.’ Roos himself suffered from a burnout in 2015. ‘I was overworked and neglected my social life and sports. It got me thinking: What do I value in my life?’ This is exactly what Wijnants advises the alumni. ‘Don’t look at the outside; look on what's going on inside. What motivates you and what makes you happy? And don’t worry too much; take a leap. Eventually, all dilemmas are resolved.’

People are asking themselves existential questions younger and younger. It’s an early midlife crisis, according to Nienke Wijnants.
People are asking themselves existential questions younger and younger. It’s an early midlife crisis, according to Nienke Wijnants.

Tips and tricks to handle the quarterlife crisis

Psychologist Nienke Wijnants' advice:

  • Resist social comparison
  • Dare to choose
  • Become a satisfier (striving for good enough) rather than a maximiser (striving for the best)
  • Pursue a conscious attitude to life
  • Recognise and acknowledge existential doubts, such as the question: ‘Why am I on this planet?’
  • Make use of the crisis and learn from it

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