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Millennials face life after college, finding a 'quarter-life crisis' instead of dream jobs

Linda Ha, special to CNBC.com
Key Points
  • Some freshly minted graduates feel sad, helpless and isolated because of constant change and too many choices.
  • The idea of a "quarter-life crisis" has led some millennials to struggle in their search for post-graduate meaning.
  • "I consistently tried to avoid people, and I would ignore messages on my phone," one grad tells CNBC.
Raphael Natividad, a UC Irvine graduate.
Source: Raphael Natividad

Raphael Natividad is guilty of something most millennials don't usually do: ignoring his phone.

Natividad, who recently graduated from the University of California, Irvine, with a degree in heath policy, has a legitimate reason, one that speaks to an existential crisis that has befallen a growing number recent graduates.

"I was ashamed that I didn't have a full-time job right after college, and that shame made me hesitant to spend time with underclassmen or with peers who I thought had brighter futures," Natividad told CNBC in a recent interview.

"I consistently tried to avoid people, and I would ignore messages on my phone or on group chats to avoid any conversation about the future."

Although not an official designation by the American Psychiatric Association, a few therapists are using the term "post-graduation depression." According to mental health professionals — and recent graduates feeling its effects — the condition is characterized by a period of severe sadness, loss of motivation, helplessness and isolation due to constant change and an overabundance of choices.

From kindergarten through college, school becomes the primary structure giving students a sense of certainty, while providing them with a social network for learning and support.

Yet after graduation, that structure crumbles, and with no set timetables or mandatory classes to study for, anxiety, depression and a sense of loss about what to do next become all too common.

"This is a real issue unique to this generation called 'a quarter-life crisis,'" said Cyrus Williams, a licensed professional counselor and an associate professor at Regent University in Virginia. Millennials are "struggling in terms of milestones, getting jobs, parenting, finding jobs, having too many choices, and having debt coming right out of college."

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'So many paths I can follow'

Satya Byock, a psychotherapist based in Portland, Oregon, who primarily treats millennials, said it's inevitable that this age group will experience a long period of confusion and uncertainty. She told CNBC that each individual establishes what life looks like for them, but in a way that was never required before.

"College is explicitly about scholarships, academia, left-brain learning, and in large [part] it has nothing to do with life preparation, mental health, physical health, nutrition, or basic life skills," said Byock. In her opinion, she added, "the notion that people wouldn't struggle after college is kind of silly."

Natividad, who graduated in June, is among those grappling with his life choices. He's currently working a part-time job doing research at his alma mater.

"There are so many paths I can follow," he said, but added he's "struggling to decide if I should apply for graduate school this year or next year, or if I should even apply at all."

People assume that just because you have a degree, you're set and you're going to get a job right after college.
Decerry Donato
recent graduate

A big reminder of the need to make decisive life choices is the intractable problem of student debt, currently sitting at all-time highs.

According to Federal Reserve data, the average monthly payment for a borrower in their 20s is $351 a month, while the average balance carried by that age group is about $22,135.

With only six months to devise a financial plan to pay off this debt, some graduates find themselves pushed to make career decisions based on their financial needs — while the search for a so-called dream job takes a back seat.

Decerry Donato, a recent UC Irvine graduate.
Source: Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato, earned a bachelor's degree in literary journalism and was unemployed for five months. Since then, she has worked as a retail sales associate, freelance writer and photographer, and is currently a receptionist at a genetics lab.

"People assume that just because you have a degree, you're set and you're going to get a job right after college," said Donato.

She said graduates often feel pressured by relatives to secure a job, particularly parents, even if it doesn't help them gain experience in their desired career field.

"I sent 20 applications a day, and was happy to even get a rejection email back from an employer because you could send hundreds of applications and never get a reply back," Donato told CNBC.

In that context, more than 4 in 5 adults in the U.S. report that they constantly check their email, texts and social media accounts, according to a recent American Psychiatric Association report. That attachment to electronic devices is associated with higher stress levels for millennials, the study found.

littlehenrabi | Getty Images

The APA reports that on average, millennials experience the highest level of stress than any other generation, suggesting a need for more conversation surrounding mental health and the pressures facing recent graduates.

The situation also creates room for unhealthy comparisons to other recent graduates, many of whom post seemingly high-achieving photos of their lives on Facebook and Instagram. Recent studies suggest social media feeds feelings of envy and anxiety.

"Having external validation as our only validation is damaging. So I think it's really critical for all individuals, in particular, young adults to have time for introspection and self-love and self-knowledge," said Byock.

The therapist said everyone posting on social media is 'projecting okayness' which may lead to problems asking others for help. "But, pretty much everyone else is also struggling," she added.