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20 Is the New 40: The Quarter Life Crisis in the Egyptian Context

February 10, 2023
(Source: iStock)

The term ‘quarter life crisis’ has recently gained traction in pop psychology. If you are a social media user in your mid-twenties, chances are that the algorithm has brought the phrase to your attention, with whole pages now dedicated to creating content for those struggling through this life stage.

Quarter life is broadly defined as the period between your mid twenties and early thirties. This time in a person’s life is often celebrated as a decade of free-spirited exploration. With fewer responsibilities than their middle aged peers, people in this age range can more freely take risks in their careers, romantic partnerships, and enjoy more active social lives.

Psychologically, however, scientists have found that the twenties can often be the most difficult years of a person’s life, bringing feelings of deep loneliness and confusion as one tries to find their place in the world. For this reason, professionals have dubbed the flood of negative emotions that arise during this time ‘the quarter life crisis.’

Social context is an important factor in how we experience early adulthood. The internet abounds with informational articles and videos about the quarter life crisis – but little seems to have been written about this psychological phenomenon in the Egyptian context, which brings its own set of challenges. 

What causes the quarter life crisis?

According to various studies, the first reason for the tumult of emotions that arise during early adulthood is biological. The human brain reaches its full size around the age of thirteen, but the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brains responsible for executive decision-making – continues to develop for much longer. While it is widely thought to reach maturity at 25, evidence suggests this actually occurs later in our twenties.

On a sociological level, the twenties and early thirties mark the period during which most people make potentially life-altering decisions, like choosing a career or life partner. Beside their obvious gravity, another reason why navigating these decisions feel so heavy is because, neurologically, our capacity for emotional self-regulation and risk assessment does not peak until about a decade later.

A Harvard university study provided an overview of variations in stress levels between people in different life stages, revealing that those in their twenties and early thirties experience a sharp spike in anxiety during that decade. This is because our uncertainties about the difficult decisions made during this period are exacerbated by a limited ability for long-term planning.

On a psychological level, the study divides the quarter life crisis into four broad stages.

The first phase is feeling locked into a commitment: a dead-end job, long term relationship, or an unsatisfying home life. The second phase starts when a person takes steps to break away from this feeling of entrapment – quitting the job, breaking up with the partner, or moving away.

The act of separating oneself from a long-term commitment tends to trigger feelings of alienation, even if the initial situation was unsatisfying. This is where the third stage begins: a period of self-reflection and isolation, during which people reassess their relationships and careers.

The fourth stage is the point where a person emerges from the crisis. They will often have found new interests, formed new relationships, or entered a job or career where they feel more fulfilled. The process, however, is not linear: a person can oscillate back and forth between stages, or repeat the cycle more than once.

In navigating the quarter life crisis, experts broadly advise seeking the help of a therapist to guide the process of self-exploration. Other advice includes making use of the relative freedom afforded by this life stage to explore different career aspirations, romantic relationships, and living arrangements.

Much of this advice, however, does not easily translate in the Egyptian context.

Why social context matters

In Western countries, where most research on the quarter life crisis originates, the twenties are a period during which young people attain relative independence. Though global economic tides are eroding this norm, the transition to adulthood in the Western world frequently entails moving out of the family home and enjoying greater personal freedom as a result.

In Egypt, it is largely the case that young people do not leave home before marriage unless pushed to do so out of necessity. For this reason, the most prevalent marker of transition to adulthood is marriage and family formation.

Besides constituting a source of alienation for those who do not desire marriage, this social construction of adulthood is more financially demanding than moving out as a single person, and has been made more so in recent decades.

In the 1950s, higher education was made free for all Egyptians. Public sector employment was guaranteed to university graduates, providing a largely uniform path to adulthood. The latter policy, however, was abandoned in the 1980s.

As a result, education-employment mismatch – situations where people’s jobs do not match their qualifications – increased. Since they were not guaranteed public sector work in their field of study, more graduates found themselves in unfulfilling careers, a phenomenon which persists today.

Others, meanwhile, entered the workforce through informal employment, where work arrangements are precarious and provide little to no security, delaying the possibility of independence, marriage, and by extension, social maturity.

Consequently, in the past decades, increasingly more young Egyptians have found themselves trapped in prolonged ‘waithood’ – a period of delayed transition to full adulthood as they struggle to meet the financial requirements of forming a family, or find satisfying career paths.

This period largely corresponds to the first stage of the quarter life crisis outlined in the Harvard study, with many struggling to progress to the second stage, namely stepping away from an unsatisfying work or home life.

Today, this ‘waithood’ is exacerbated by rising inflation, which makes financial independence and prosperity seem unattainable even to single young people who hold a degree and benefit from formal employment. Those who do reach the fourth and final stage outlined in the study – emerging from the crisis with greater certainty – find themselves constantly at risk of repeating the cycle.

While these material consequences have been extensively studied and dissected, very little research exists about their impact on the mental health of young adults in Egypt, meaning that available resources on how to navigate this phenomenon are not necessarily relevant to their circumstances.

Prevalent advice about leaving behind an unfulfilling career is made largely inaccessible, as most young Egyptians cannot afford to take financial risks. Economic hardship coupled with cultural norms complicates the possibility of exploring romantic relationships, distancing oneself from an unsatisfying home life, or setting boundaries with family members.

The quarter life crisis is a universal phenomenon, impacting almost everyone in their mid twenties and early thirties. In Egypt, however, this difficult stage is made more challenging by social markers of adulthood and the structural circumstances that make it hard for many young people to meet them.

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