I felt lost in early adulthood, so coined the term ‘quarterlife’ as a focus for study
Adrift after leaving university, Satya Doyle Byock turned to psychology to bridge the journey to adulthood
When Satya Doyle Byock finished her studies after nearly 20 years, she felt like she was stepping off a cliff. Adulthood seemed perilously unclear. “I was in my 20s and in crisis, looking around myself at friends in crisis,” says Byock, now 40. Only a few of her fellow graduates seemed clear-eyed about the future, with jobs or further study lined up. The rest had “absolutely no idea”.
After graduating, Byock volunteered abroad, at a prison in Colombia, in tsunami relief in Sri Lanka, before landing a job as a project manager at a software startup in Portland. It was a “good job”, in a buzzy sector, with a decent salary. But Byock’s disorientation persisted. In her journals she wondered if she was on the right path and why she didn’t feel satisfied.
Byock was “existentially floundering”, she says now. “I’d climbed that ladder, I’d finished university, but this didn’t seem like the point of existence. I asked myself: ‘What are we doing now?’’ The path ahead, of working until retirement, seemed soul-crushing.
One evening, Byock was telling her housemates about her desire to quit, when she broke down sobbing.
Everyone was telling her to stick with it, that it was normal to feel lost in your 20s. But when, Byock wanted to know – and how – did it start to get better?
That question has shaped her life in more ways than one. Soon afterwards, she quit the startup and enrolled in graduate school to study Jungian psychology, intending to focus on the turbulent years of post-adolescence. Today, Byock is the director of the Portland-based Salomé Institute of Jungian Studies and a practising psychotherapist and author.
In her latest book, Byock makes her case – informed by her own experience and those of her patients (mostly Millennials and Gen Z), as well as cross-disciplinary study – for the period between the ages of 20 and 40 to have its own developmental stage. During these decades, Byock argues, individuals are not only discovering who they are but are making decisions, personal and professional, that will shape the rest of their lives.
“So much life happens in these years, yet in the literature, there’s a black hole around them. We talk about adulthood as ‘You’ll figure it out,’ but the fact is, it’s the ground floor of the rest of your independent life.”
Your 20s and 30s are “a powerful and potent time,” Byock says. “If we set ourselves up in ways that feel satisfying, meaningful and secure, we’re less likely to have a major, life-interrupting crisis later on.” As it is, if these years are discussed at all, they are often minimised, such as the widespread eye-rolling about millennials’ “quarterlife crises” and difficulties “adulting”.
“There’s so much derision and looking down on this stage of life,” says Byock. “Something cute, for privileged kids… That’s so frequently how it’s spoken about.”
Byock herself is an elder millennial (those born between 1981 and 1996), but even when she was a student, the generational lens – flagging her peers as uniquely flailing – struck her as narrow. “It was as if it was a new phenomenon. That didn’t seem true to me.”
After all, historically, the transition from adolescence to adulthood has always been validated with coming-of-age rituals. That psychological journey of maturation underpins enduring narratives, from fairy tales to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games – proof of its universal relevance.
At graduate school, studying Jung, Byock sought to understand the common hallmarks, across cultures and through history.
“That became my real interest, rather than the focus on ‘What’s wrong with kids these days?’” she says. “What I discovered that there isn’t a focus on that stage of life – it doesn’t even have a name.” She dubbed it “quarterlife”.
In her book, Byock identifies four “pillars of growth” for emerging adults: Separate (distinguishing our values and desires from those of our parents or social norms); Listen (learning to trust ourselves and meet our own needs); Build (creating a life that’s satisfying and meaningful to us) and Integrate (making it routine, and reaping rewards).
These are not sequential stages or tasks, Byock says, but areas for introspection and “psychological work” by which young adults may find peace. It’s a new framework for thinking about adulthood – crucially, one less dependent on external milestones.
Home ownership among young adults has plummeted in recent decades, with repercussions for financial security, relationships and family planning. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of adults living with their parents in the UK increased by nearly 15%.
“Certainly, the economics of adulthood are much worse than they used to be,” says Byock. Many graduates enter the “real world” already burdened by debt. But older generations often fail to grasp the material difference between the opportunities they enjoyed, versus the dearth for young people today.
A survey last year found that nearly half of the UK public agreed that frivolous spending was behind young people’s inability to buy property, despite the huge increase in prices and stagnating wages.
“There’s a lot of talk about the loss of values in young people these days, their laziness and things like that – and a profound disrespect and misunderstanding of how economically difficult it is,” she says. The contrast, and unsteady feeling of many quarterlifers, is encapsulated in a popular meme comparing “My parents in their 20s” (having a baby, buying a house) versus their children today (ordering food delivery for the nth time; setting their lives “on fire”).
It’s not just economic decline that they’re grappling with, Byock says. “Gender roles are completely different – in those ‘My parents at 27’ memes, Mom was going to stay home and raise the kids… The expectation of what we do in adulthood is completely different from what it was.”
Young men, meanwhile, are “more lost than they were before”, suggests Byock, with figures such as Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate weaponising their disillusionment. “We need better ways to speak to what has shifted in terms of gender roles, for everyone – because culture has not kept up.”
The demographic shifts underway are akin to the 1950s, says Byock, when feminists began to publicly fight the expectation for women to be content as wives and mothers. “There were again those questions of a satisfying life: ‘Shouldn’t you be happy? You’ve checked all the boxes as a woman’.
“I think it’s a very similar phenomenon that we’re experiencing now, but beyond gender lines: it has more to do with deficits in culture, a very frequently apocalyptic world, and economic disadvantages or difficulties across the board.”
Quarterlifers’ struggle to adapt and mature is exacerbated by the absence of support, or even validation. “Very few people are speaking meaningfully to this time of life, versus saying, ‘Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps’,” says Byock. “We have done a poor job, in modernity, to shift people out of dependency and childhood and into psychological independence.”
Many begin adult life unschooled in the basic building-blocks, such as how to cook and manage their finances, she points out. “I don’t think it should be seen as a silly thing, that people have to learn how to ‘adult’.” Yet so often these 20-something struggles are played for laughs (as in Lena Dunham’s Girls), and discussed as a uniformly privileged group of “unsatisfied graduates”. But all young adults may be grappling with the questions of how to build a rewarding life.
Many of her patients are refugees or immigrants “wrestling with a distinctly different journey of stability and meaning than their parents,” Byock says. Even those individuals who are outwardly successful may find themselves unsatisfied, as Byock did in her job at the startup. She describes two “types” of people: those who prize stability and those who pursue meaning. The latter tend to flounder more obviously; the former might “look like they have it together” before breaking down.
The path Byock proposes for each is to learn from the other. “Meaning” types benefit from embracing structure and routine, while “Stability” types must find something to nourish them beyond the checking of society’s boxes. “The path to wholeness – which ultimately I think all adults are seeking, not just quarterlifers – is creating a fulfilling life that feels structured, organised and safe, but also full of meaning, intimacy and connection.”
A developmental lens, Byock argues, would help to lessen division between generations. Younger people are often cast as “cultural scapegoats”, she says, but as millennials start to come into power, it’s to society’s benefit that they feel empowered and inspired.
“We are missing massive potential from what I’d argue is the most generative stage of life in terms of creativity, new ideas, certainly children, and parenting.”
For now, she hopes to foster compassion for the challenges specific to early adulthood and reassure those in the throes. The journey to becoming an adult, says Byock, is not marked by partners, property or promotions, it’s about bridging the gap from looking to authority figures for direction and answers, to learning to trust our own.
“It has nothing to do with privilege. It’s across the board this very basic human question that underlies all religion and philosophy: ‘What are we doing here? And, in this finite life, what am I going to do with it?’”
Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood by Satya Doyle Byock is published by Penguin for £10.99. Buy it for £9.34 at guardianbookshop.com