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It’s Time to Shift Our Focus From “Old Age.” Satya Doyle Byock Says We Should Instead Put Our Attention On the ‘Quarterlifers’

It’s Time to Shift Our Focus From “Old Age.” Satya Doyle Byock Says We Should Instead Put Our Attention On the ‘Quarterlifers’

By Stacey Lindsay
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“Quarterlife is a distinct period of human development in need of its own road map and soulful guidance,” writes psychotherapist Satya Doyle Byock in her book Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood. That sentence has been rattling in my mind since I first read it when I was 40. The bald truth of it offered me relief when I was struggling to grapple with my newfound label of midlife and understand the hurricane of self-doubt that punctuated my previous fifteen or so years. Where was the societal respect and guidance? I often wondered. Byock’s spotlight on this time was a salve.

Society deliberately does not put much thought toward those in Quarterlife, which roughly encompasses people between the ages of 20 and 40. This period of life is wildly overlooked and misunderstood, believes Byock. There is the idea that ‘Quarterlifers’ are merely privileged twenty-somethings who need to get their acts together (cringe). Yet the truth is that this is a life stage filled with change and uncertainty, challenge and yearning, and so much more. As Byock writes, “Quarterlife is not a sterile journey. It demands the gathering of experiences—messy, embodied, uncharted experiences.”

Quarterlife is Byock’s incandescent attempt to harness a reverence and understanding for this life stage and those in it. It’s also a rallying cry, as her insights in our conversation prove, to never—ever—overlook anyone’s journey and wisdom, no matter their age.

A CONVERSATION WITH SATYA DOYLE BYOCK

When it comes to Quarterlifers, what notions are you aiming to disabuse people of and what truths are you hoping to shed light on?

There is a remarkable misconception about this stage of life. First, there is the notion that this is a stage made up of only privileged college grads who have nothing real to complain about and need to pull it together and get a job. Complicating things further, most people don’t consider it a stage of life. It's seen as two or three years of confusion after college instead of a genuine developmental journey like every other stage of human life, where people are sorting out big questions around identity and who they want to be, as well as existential questions of what they're up to on this planet, all while wrestling with the overlapping societal issues that everyone is grappling with while trying to support ourselves.

So, the primary thing to establish is that Quarterlife is the first stage of adulthood between adolescence and midlife. The hallmarks of this stage of life are that people are really in search of two things simultaneously: stability and meaning. Some people are more aligned with one of those goals than the other. If we can take seriously that every adult is ultimately seeking both a sense of stability and a sense of meaning, we can get a fuller picture of what different folks are up to in adulthood and what their priorities are. If we broaden the aperture of what's really going on in these two decades or so of adulthood, things become a lot clearer very quickly.

Walk us through your thesis on Stability Types and Meaning Types. 

The idea is to expand the understanding of what it is to be an adult— which, at its core, is something we've been trying to sort through in psychology for decades. [Psychoanalyst] Erik Erickson focused on trying to make sense of the question, What is it to be an adult? As I tackled this question, I kept coming up against the sense that the primary focus was to emphasize one’s own financial stability and security above all else. Some people are very comfortable with these expectations, but many others aren’t. Historically, people who didn’t fit into this narrow definition of adulthood have been kind of written out of developmental psychology. They might have been very philosophical or creative, but they were seen as failures because they couldn’t quite “adult.” I wanted to include them and make sense of this broader spectrum of goals in adulthood.

In my typology of Quarterlife, there are people I call Stability Types, who more or less feel comfortable with the social script and social expectations and don't seem to have a lot of existential chatter going on—and if they do, they're able to mask it and “act as if”; they can participate in society with confidence. Stability Types identify with the ideas of checking the boxes and climbing the hierarchies as the goals of adulthood. Their shadow is Meaning. In other words, they can look down on people who can't quite get it together and don't appear to be as solid in adulthood.

So the other side of the spectrum —and it is a spectrum—are Meaning Types, who are more likely to be emotional and philosophical, artistic, and a bit more on the fringe in some way. Meaning Types are more likely to be critical of society, question social goals and expectations, and be existential and spiritual. Stability and conformity is their shadow. They tend to look down on Stability Types for being “normal.” There may also be some envy and confusion from Meaning Types about how Stability Types seem to know how to “adult” with relative ease.

As shadows of one another, each ultimately needs to learn what the other knows. Stability Types will at some point begin to crave a deeper sense of meaning, and Meaning Types will long wonder how to feel more secure and stable in their lives. 

I am 42, and your book has provided invaluable insight into my life journey over the last few years. When we "broaden the aperture," as you say, to better see Quarterlifers, how can this help people of different ages and life stages?

I appreciate you saying that. I've heard from a lot of older adults who pick up the book thinking they're going to hand it to their 20-something child or grandchild, and they end up reading it quickly and start having flashes from their own beginnings in adulthood. They tell me that they feel clearer about the trajectory of their life and what unfolded in those years after reading the book. I've heard over and over, 'I wish I had this book when I was in my twenties, but it has helped me so much now to understand who I am and what my life was about.' It means so much to hear that. 

My intention has been to offer something to a population that has been overlooked or spoken to in a way that emphasizes the singular focus on stability. Everyone is trying to make sense of their lives and who they are as people and as members of society in this stage of life.  

Ultimately, this is about the adult journey. It's about conscious life. So many of the works that have informed me have helped me to make meaning of a world that doesn't seem to have a soulful or spiritual center or a center of values beyond consumerism and divisive politics. Finding a psychology rooted in self and soul versus one exclusively focused on diagnoses and pathologies was incredibly important to me. So, I'm always so grateful to know from older adults that it's been meaningful to them too. 

What muscles do you hope Quarterlifers—and people of all life stages—can build from your book? 

I hope to offer Quarterlifers a more interesting value proposition for adulthood and a calming one. Whether you're a Meaning Type who can't fathom the idea of ever having a 401k and a home or you're a Stability Type who at some point has a robust 401k but can't figure out why they're feeling empty and lost, I'd love for everyone to be able to see a more holistic picture of what it means to be alive. 

I also want Quarterlifers to take away that they're not crazy and they're not alone.There are many ways culture, government, and social systems could support a less painful, difficult, and stressful transition out of childhood and adolescence and into an independent, secure, and meaningful life. I’d love to see more thoughtful social services to meet the specific needs of this stage of life—and all stages of life—in the future. It would be a benefit to everyone. Quarterlifers, certainly, but also their parents, grandparents, and anyone who wants to see this hugely creative and productive period of life better supported.

How can we better support Quarterlifers?

Like with any relationship, we can always work to start from a place of respect and curiosity. Quarterlife, and this certainly depends on the person, is the most unstable stage of life. People are moving more than in any other stage of life; they're dating more than they typically will later on, and they're changing jobs frequently. So it's also valuable to start with an understanding that Quarterlifers are often feeling unstable as a result of experiencing lots of rapid change, and to come from a place of compassion and respect if their behavior seems surprising or “off” in some way. Then, at that point, we can ask them directly, ‘What do you need? Who are you? I want to get to know you.’ The goal should always be one of genuine relationship-building versus anything hierarchical or exclusively advice-giving. Often, just a little bit of true listening or mirroring, or just a little bit of tangible support can go a very long way. Best to ask them what they need.

For someone who is, let’s say, 49 or 58 or 75, what can they learn from Quarterlifers?

We don't have spaces for intergenerational gatherings often in our culture. I'm always astounded when I'm teaching and hosting gatherings by the way that people of different generations start interacting with each other. I just watched a beautiful interaction of a Quarterlifer in an event I hosted, sharing how difficult it has been to communicate her needs to her parents and to have them genuinely hear her. As she shared, I watched a woman with Quarterlife children tear up and then share how valuable it had been to hear from somebody who wasn't her own child, about the struggle to communicate her genuine needs as a human across generations. The learning is endless. Age is a frequent discriminatory bias. We speak about it when we speak about discrimination against elders and the inability to see our elders as still of tremendous value. And yet, the derisive, condescending chatter about Quarterlifers is an enduring area of cruelty and dismissiveness that doesn't get called out often, and it's shockingly entrenched.

This really goes hand in hand with where we began about the way we tend to write off this stage as being privileged whiners. It’s just not the case. There's so much we could learn from Quarterlifers. Primarily, if we understand what they're up against in terms of the changes in standards of living, growth of wages over time, the literal experiences of the inability to buy a house in the same way people 40 years ago could, to an understanding of political changes, and an understanding of what's happening with gender for older people… well, I could go on and on. To be honest, I feel this way about five-year-olds and ten-year-olds, and eighty-year-olds too. We could all be learning from each other more across generations if we genuinely listen and are not operating from a place of condescension. We’ll find there's incredible heart and insight in beings of every age and that they all have something to teach. It can be profound.

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Satya Doyle Byock is the author of Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood. She is a practicing psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon, and the director of The Salome Institute of Jungian Studies, where she teaches online. You can learn more at satyabyock.com and subscribe to her newsletter, Self & Societyhere.

 

Stacey Lindsay

Stacey Lindsay is a journalist and Senior Editor at The Sunday Paper. A former news anchor and reporter, Stacey is passionate about covering women's issues. Learn more: staceyannlindsay.com.

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