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A Different Way to Think About “Quarterlife”
Who gets written out of our narratives of adulthood?
I have a lot of favorite types of book, but one of them is the book you can sit down with for what you expect to be 20 to 30 minutes, then look up two to three hours later with a crucial component of your life, or how you understood your life, or others’ lives, or just the way society works and what it expects, utterly reframed. Granted, this is a pretty specific and rarified book type; my hypothetical shelf of these books would include Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Katharine May’s Wintering, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and, I dunno, Jessica Simpson’s memoir. But it would also include Satya Doyle Byock’s Quarterlife.
You’ll understand why when you read the interview below, but I should also say that the book is pretty much a perfect length — and a perfect gift, in so much as everyone should read it themselves first, then pass it along to someone who’d also benefit from a different framework of what growing up can or should look like. (To be clear, that’s all of us, this is a gift for all of us).
Satya is a practicing psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. She writes a brand new Substack, The Quarterlifer, that you can find here. She also teaches periodic online courses less related to Quarterlifing — including upcoming ones on Community Dreamwork and Jung’s Red Book. You can find Satya on Instagram here, and buy Quarterlifer here.
(You can also find the rest of the Culture Study “Bookshelf,” filled with books authored by previous interviewees, here. All Bookshop affiliate $$ goes to Culture Study Mutual Aid).
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Here at Culture Study, we love to talk about all the different jobs and career paths out there that are sometimes invisible or opaque unless someone in your family or close network has followed them. So what was your path to doing what you do, and focusing on what you focus on?
This question really resonates with me, because I know that I have been able to imagine pathways in my work through observing my parents over the years. My career borrows components from both of them, whether it’s an intense interest in Jungian psychology and the very private work of psychotherapy (my mother), or the public advocacy and writing to improve the quality of life for a particular age group (my father). But none of this was conscious.
I had no real sense of what I was doing after college. I had a degree in History; I had always been involved in activism and organizing in some way, and explored going into global humanitarian work as a career. I interned at Mercy Corps and worked abroad a couple of times, which I’d loved. Then after the South Asian tsunami, I traveled to Sri Lanka to support in disaster relief and rebuilding. It’s a very long story (another book entirely), but suffice to say, I returned from that trip so exhausted and disillusioned that I could no longer imagine this kind of future for myself.
There were a number of next steps after that — and a lot of burnout and existential malaise. I write in my book about the turning point, which occurred amidst another crisis in my early 20s while I was working at a high paying but intolerable tech job. I felt profoundly lost when my mother suggested I read Carl Jung’s memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. I read it as if by injecting it into my veins.
Jung’s work turned out to be a Holy Grail for me, a magical matrix in which I could see a hundred disparate parts of my own interests, griefs, and longings all gathered together in one place. I found tremendous orientation in Jung’s writings and from there, the move to graduate school to study his psychology and become a therapist was a pretty intuitive step. At the same time, I knew that I wanted to focus on Quarterlife (though I didn’t call it that then). Jung’s work has primarily emphasized the crisis of meaning that happens in modern culture in midlife—or what he called “the second half of life.” I knew that the first half of adulthood was in desperate need of a more soulful psychology than what most of us were being offered if we found our way to a therapist or psychiatrist.
Can we start very basic, and define the period of “quarterlife”? What challenges will people already past their “quarterlife” recognize from their own experiences, and what challenges are different and/or changing?
I define Quarterlife as the stage of life between adolescence and midlife. It is the first stage of adulthood, and occurs between the ages of twenty and forty, give or take. I began to use the term “Quarterlife” to refer to these years because I’d struggled with every other phrase we have available. The other terms are all pejorative and misleading in some way (young adulthood, extended adolescence, etc.) and they exist as modifiers to another stage rather than allowing this stage to exist all on its own. Similarly, the generational labels (Gen-Z, Boomers, etc..) are frequently used pejoratively, and refer to a distinct period of time, versus a universal stage of life.
The experience of Quarterlifers in any given era can be a very interesting topic — you wrote an extraordinary book on this, for instance! But too often the two are viewed as indistinguishable, and they’re not. Children have some pretty consistent developmental traits, regardless of century or country. But we’ve come to think of the traits of Quarterlifers as being somehow entirely bound up with the era in which they live. It’s quite illuminating to detox from that perspective and see how universal this stage of life actually is.
Meanwhile, the narrative that it’s a stage of life all about constant growth is tied-up much more with capitalism and heteronormative white supremacist patriarchy than with the reality of human life. Of course, this ends up having very real effects on people’s mental health, as well as on on public policy. We’ve been hardwired to want to celebrate people in Quarterlife through graduations, new jobs, weddings, and baby showers, or because they’re our NBA athletes and our pop-stars. We’re constantly cheering them on and worshiping them in some way. But that also becomes something of a prison of expectation and performance for people in these years. The truth about human development and our natural goals in Quarterlife is far more complicated, and much more interesting! Ultimately, these years really are meant to be more meandering than about perpetual, unreflective upward growth.
As for its applicability to people beyond Quarterlife, I’ve been delighted to hear from a number of people who thought they were picking up my book for their children or grandchildren and ended-up reading it for themselves in a single sitting. I lay out a framework in the book for understanding the psychological work of these years, beyond the economic and social expectations. The older people who have written me express how helpful it’s been for them to reflect back on their life path and choices, as well as to feel compassion for their Quarterlife selves.
So the big revelation for me with your book was this differentiation between Stability Types and Meaning Types — can you break down the differences, and how developmental psychology missed them?
I talk a lot about the search for wholeness in Quarterlife and how, in broad terms, that means a pursuit of both stability and meaning. As I’ve expressed, we’ve been quite trained to think that Quarterlife is all about maintaining upward growth and securing stability in work and relationships. The field of developmental psychology has contributed to this belief by allowing imposed heteronormative gender roles and capitalism to utterly obscure an understanding of natural psychological stages. As a result, the people who can’t quite seem to “get stable” in adulthood — for a large variety of reasons — are kind of just written out of the picture of adulthood itself.
If we tease apart the social expectations from the natural drives of this time of life, there’s a very basic and, again, broad typology that emerges: those people who are more or less comfortable pursuing the social expectations for them, and those who are questioning too much or suffering too much to do so. The first group I call Stability Types, and the second group I call Meaning Types.
Historically, Meaning Types have been seen as failures (or sometimes geniuses) in Quarterlife. Stability Types have been viewed as successes, but were often just building towards a crisis of meaning themselves, which we’ve come to call the midlife crisis — having oriented themselves towards the outer world for so long, they have to finally reckon with their own true longing later in life. This often requires deconstructing a lot of the stability they’d spent years building.
What I try to emphasize is that Quarterlife is not actually about the pursuit of stability in the absence of meaning, or a pursuit of the outer expectations in the absence of the inner desires. If we validate the need for both stability and meaning in Quarterlife, I think we’ll see less suffering and less disorientation all around. I go into this in much greater detail in my book, of course.
Finally, I should say that despite all of what I’ve written above, I do not believe in strict binaries. The whole point is the search for wholeness, not the pursuit of one side of the spectrum over the other. I try to emphasize that these two “types” exist entirely for support in self-orientation, not for the sake of labeling, and that everyone will appear more like one type or another depending on their situation and those around them.
The second half of the book follows the stories of four of your patients navigating quarterlife, and the writer in me immediately thought: how did you decide which patients to pick, how did you figure out how to document these stories, and how did you talk with your patients about using their stories? Why did it feel important to include specific narratives, instead of, say, talking about themes and then picking and choosing anecdotes from different patient experiences? I want to know everything.
The answers to all of your questions begin with the fact that I was so uncomfortable with the idea of using my clients’ stories in my book that I resisted it for a long time. I wrote nearly a whole book as an epistolary “Letter to a Quarterlifer” and then another one just packed with quotes and research. Of course, neither worked.
When I read books by therapists, I too often find myself cringing at what feels like very confusing boundaries around once confidential stories. These books can read to me as thinly veiled voyeurism — or, even worse, a writer who became a therapist in order to gain access to good stories. People love a lot of these books, don’t get me wrong, but I struggled to find a model for my own book that didn’t make me twitchy.
At the same time, I really did want this book to be interesting to people in Quarterlife. I didn’t want it to be too academic or clinical, or filled with research and then maybe interesting to a worried parent but not to a Quarterlifer on a free weekend. So this fear of treating my clients’ stories unethically was a huge stumbling block, because I do think we learn through story-telling and the book needed stories.
My conclusion was to craft composite stories that are drawn entirely from my clinical work but do not resemble any one client. I think this strategy worked well and, for the most part, I was able to attend to my alarm bells without creating flat characters (I hope!). There are four characters in the book, as you say; two are Stability Types and two are Meaning Types.
I feel like I’m not answering your question exactly because my writing process began with resistance rather than methodical planning! The result was a lot of trial and error and a lot of, shall we say, nudging from my editor. But I’ll say this, my strategy definitely had its problems. Including the fact that, on two occasions, I began to work with new clients in the process of writing the book who had uncanny similarities to two characters I’d created. That felt like a pretty funny nod from the cosmos to my rather obsessive need to protect confidentiality: the best laid plans…
Apart from reading your book — do you have suggestions for how someone can go about finding a therapist that’s a good quarterlife fit?
Yes, I have so many suggestions, and they’re all in the paperback due out this summer! I wrote ten pages or so with all of the advice I could think of on how to find a therapist who feels like a good fit for you, including a little insight into how to pay for therapy and what to expect from your therapist. For now, I’ll say that we heal with and through our therapists largely unconsciously. In other words, you want to find a therapist who is also a human whom you like and respect. I certainly have my preferences in terms of theoretical orientations, but I’ve found that most of that doesn’t matter a lot in the end.They should be skilled and ethical, certainly. But regardless of their area of focus or training, the most important thing is the relationship you have with them.