The Quarterlife Roam.

By: Jen Shoop

There is an interesting concept that I read about earlier this week called “the quarterlife,” which pyschotherapist Satya Doyle Byock explains as follows: “Quarterlife is 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.” Byock’s interview with culture commentator Anne Helen Peterson is well worth a read for an introduction to this postulation, though I’ve now gone a layer deeper and subscribed to Byock’s substack on the subject, because reading about this gave me the kind of satisfaction I experience when tidily arranging a row of book spines in the correct direction on a shelf. That is, she was “putting right” something I’ve hazily observed in slouching disorder for years now. She was giving a name to something that’s lain inarticulate on my tongue for years now.

I write a lot about forward momentum on Magpie. “Onward!” is our rallying cry. Perhaps this is in part because I’ve needed the foothold to propel me through some trying times, and it makes me feel vaguely hygienic, proper when I’ve felt askew, but I have also considered it a willed frame of mind, a conscious way of being. Keep moving. There is always tomorrow. The only mile that matters is the one you’re running right now. Onward!

One thing that Byock suggests is that individuals in their “quarterlife” have been absorbed by “the narrative that it’s a stage of life all about constant growth.” She goes on to explain that “these years really are meant to be more meandering than about perpetual, unreflective upward growth,” and that the false narrative of continuous improvement “becomes something of a prison of expectation and performance for people in these years.”

I thought immediately of a few loyal Magpie commenters who have shared, through movingly candid comments, that they feel “out of the norm” because they do not have a partner, they have not “figured out their career paths,” they do not have children, they do not own a house, etc. I have certainly related to all of these sentiments at one time or another, and occasionally for strings of years, in my “quarterlife.” The 20s were particularly challenging for me, as I compared myself to my friends, who were themselves all over the map — some with well-paying finance jobs, others eating ramen while in graduate school, some married with children by 25, others living the single life until recently.

Byock insists that meandering is the status quo in the quarterlife period, which, it should be noted, does not “end” until the 40s, and even then, I suspect is a moving target.

I am strumming too many strings at once here, so let me pluck on this:

The quarterlife is for wool gathering. It is for wandering. If you are feeling alone in your roam, wheels churning up mud in your eremitic offroading, while it seems that everyone else in your life is driving in a straight, orderly queue on well-paved territory,

You are not.

The quarterlife does not need to mean a ceaseless, upward spiral of growth and improvement. (Perhaps this is why I found James Clear’s Habits book so discordant, so irritating? I bristle at the optimization subtext, as though we are one hack away from perfection.) Though I have been writing for a long time around this message, and perhaps feeling a bit solitary in my musings on this subject (I self-indulgently considered my strange, squiggly career path as a key differentiator between myself and many of my peers, but perhaps the truth is that we all feel like rolling stones during this phase of life), I guess I needed Byock’s permission to sanction it, and her nudge to revisit our phrase “onward.” Permit me to apply some new spin. Onward need not be synonymous with straight-line motion. The quarterlife can and, in my experience, does, invite anfractuous movement. It can mean serpentine, then chelonian, maneuvers. Onward through it, onward in it: no feeling is final (Rilke), no perch is permanent, no pace perpetual.


+On pursuing English as a career.

+The sandpiper.

+What does your job say about you?

Shopping Break.

+These striped boxer-style shorts are bestsellers, and I’ve seen them styled chicly for daytime wear, but I’d probably throw on over a swimsuit. The look was popularized by brand Frankies Shop (see styling examples here, here, here), and you can get their shorts on sale here and here. However, I think the Madewell pair is more wearable — less overwhelming on the frame!

+Pretty Easter dress option. Imagine with a sweet pastel cardi! (Cardi look for less with this or this.)

+Love a joverall moment, and the fit of this pair from Doen has me salivating. Love to style them with feminine blouses like this, this, this.

+A perfect nursery glider at a good price. I regret not having one for my son. His “room” in our NYC apartment was too small to permit one — we could barely fit a changing table, a crib, a tiny bench, and a few toy bins in there — and by the time we moved to D.C., he was well outside the rock-to-sleep phase. Still, I wish we had that for him.

+Salivating over this perfect dress.

+Love these boots.

+Ordered this French pharmacy brand body lotion and also this more targeted balm by the same brand to use on extra dry skin — as recommended by tons of Magpies! (Thanks for the intel!)

+Ordered this $35 tote in a feverish haze of excitement. It reminds me so much of the styles from Rue De Verneuil!

+Proper Table acrylic placemats, on sale! You know I LOVE these. We use them daily for dining with the children.

+Cute, well-priced rain jacket recommended by LOTS of positive reviews.

+Do not sleep on this teddy fleece sweatshirt, on sale. I live in it!

+ICYMI, Gap just dropped some interesting ponte black pants that could be exceptional for your work life: love this silhouette or the classic.

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4 thoughts on “The Quarterlife Roam.

  1. This reminds me of something I tell friends about when they are bemoaning feeling less advanced than they “should” be by point X (classics major alert): For the Romans, the term “iuvenis” was applied to men up to their early forties, even though it’s usually translated “young man” in Latin curricula. (Related: the sequence of political offices known as the cursus honorum could not legally be entered on before 30.) I think this is fascinating because it cuts the feet out from under a certain complaint that it’s only in modernity that we’ve begun to delay adulthood/extend adolescence/etc. — when in fact there was a category for a pre-40s adult as long ago as Cicero – there was a socially expected difference between an adult in those different stages of life which was NOT equivalent to just continuing as a child or failing to mature.

    While there are those who are irresponsibly extending adolescence, I am frustrated by a simplistic assertion that this is a uniquely modern problem, or a universal modern problem, or that [fill in the blank] is necessarily a symptom of the problem. There’s room for more flexibility and nuance than that!

    1. Oo thank you so much for this context and education! Thoroughly enjoyed this. I wonder why the concept of (and word for) “iuvenis” fell out of favor over time? I wonder why that’s not always been a category in the common patois. Interesting to think about.


  2. It’s interesting to consider the quarter life as something that extends so far into what I’d consider almost midlife. Although, as a 40something, I don’t *feel* middle-aged, so quarter-aged it is! I had a similar feeling of “putting right” when I first heard the term Xennial. I never felt like I was a gen-Xer OR a millennial, so it was an aha moment to hear there is a micro generation in between.

    I also agree with the sentiment above about the prison of continuous improvement! I’m thinking specifically about my time working in corporate purchasing, during which all of us were expected to continue saving x% every year, which is just not realistic. At a certain point, you cannot expand to find cheaper raw materials and expect your product to maintain the same quality. So glad that I have “retired” from that career. I will take bickering children and constant dishes/laundry over saving projects any day! 🙂

    1. I need to read more about the “xennial,” because I think I relate to that category, too. I feel for some reason like people who lived before there was internet, who remember the early dial-up days, etc…it’s just a different ballgame.

      Thanks for sharing this!


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