The Quarter-life crisis
This afternoon I spent twenty minutes choosing a bag of chips. Not only because my dear Sabritas are called Walkers in England — and do not include in their repertoire of flavors ‘Flamin’ Hot’ — but because of the number of flavors and textures that the brand carries. Among my options were: original, onion and cheese, salt and vinegar, BBQ sauce, sweet chili, balsamic vinaigrette, red curry, cilantro-lime, vintage cheese, onion chutney, mozzarella and herbs, and tikka masala chicken.
All these options were only from one confectionary of chips. Along the same hall, my options widened as I found more alternatives like jalapeño, ranch, sour cream, salt and pepper, dill pickles and even Sriracha. And within those flavors, my chips could be crinkle-cut, thick-cut, or square-cut; they could be fried, oven-baked, or reduced in fat, and they all came in individual packages, and family size.
Just one generation ago, many of these options were not even available to the public. Today, our coffee comes in: tall, grande, venti, skinny, soy, with chocolate, caramel, mint, and extra shots of espresso. And our jeans can be skinny, boot-cut, with a low or high rise, dark wash, light wash, vintage, torn and even with a fold around the ankles. The possibilities of choice that we have as consumers seduce us wherever we go. If we expand our vision of the decisions we make, we realize that this model of ‘more is better’ has been engrained into every aspect of our lives.
Free choice is the basis of modern markets. It is the force that pushes for innovations, the generation of ideas and the economic development of countries, however, what happens when we suffer an excess of possibilities?
The fall of communism in the 20th century motivated the idea that the expansion of choice would bring greater comfort and wellness. Yet, as the years have passed we have come to realize that an excess of possibilities has made us less happy than we originally thought.
In a recognized experiment conducted in a supermarket in California, behavioral researchers attempted to understand the basic forces that dictate how we take decisions. In it, they displayed a table of jams to taste-test. In the first experiment, they offered 24 different varieties of jam and in the second one, only six. After the test, all participants were rewarded with a coupon to purchase any jam of their choice.
The results of this experiment showed very interesting outcomes. More clients would stop to participate in the test when this included 24 jams. However, when it was time to shop, 30 per cent of clients that stopped at the table with only six jams bought a jar — this compared with only three percent in the other experiment.
This experiment has been repeated multiple times: with students, chocolates and essay topics, all of them converging to the same results. Having multiple options has a reassuring effect at first sight, but having too many choices creates discouraging anxiety when it’s time to make a decision.
As a 21 year-old — with half a university degree, a master’s dissertation topic that still needs to occur and a knowledge of economics that includes “everything and nothing” at the same time, I think my quarter-life crisis is part of a feeling of a generation that grew up in a world with infinite choices and consequences.
Living under the slogan of ‘you can be whoever you want to be’ sounds motivational as a promise to our individual potential. The problem emerges when we ask ourselves, “well, but, who do I want to be?”
We find that having too many options is problematic because at every moment we play with the risk of having a misconstrued perception of the situation, of not understanding all the alternatives and our own tastes, and eventually regretting our own choice.
A study done by the University of Bristol in 2010 found that 47 percent of responders think that modern life is more confusing than ten years ago and 42 percent report frequently lying awake at night trying to solve dilemmas.
We have grown with a lot more power of choice than our parents and grandparents. Choices about where to live, where to work, when to marry and when to have children, were not as widespread as today. The millennial anxiety, as Philosopher Renata Salecl argues, stems from worrying about taking the wrong decision in a world where the expectations of whom we could be have been inflated to the point of believing there is such a thing as our ‘ideal self;’ that our life choices don’t intrinsically involve an opportunity cost and that we have a complete control over the secondary results of our actions.
The reality is that it may not matter so much what we choose to do with our lives. By nature the future is uncertain and making choices means accepting this implicit risk. It means accepting that we might have to take steps without knowing the next one.
In this sense, I think our well-being — in a context where our possibilities only grow exponentially, doesn’t depend so much on the object of our choice, but rather in our ability to make one and stick to it. It remains in adhering to the consequences of our actions and accepting the unpredictability of life.
And just in case you were wondering, after 20 minutes and much deliberation, I ended choosing the BBQ flavored chips. They tasted like Knorr Swiss, but oh well, I had already bought them.