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What is a ‘quarter-life crisis’?

Matthew Kay rejects the 'generation snowflake' stereotype in favour of supporting young lawyers' mental health

18 February 2019

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You may have been noticing the phrase ‘quarter-life crisis’, increasingly popping up in careers advice blogs as well as interviews with millennial celebrities.

If you haven’t experienced this or aren’t in this generation you may be confused as to what a ‘quarter-life crisis’ is.

Despite impressions or stereotypes of the so-called mid-life crisis being well-known – the middle-aged man with a newborn appetite for sportscars – awareness is steadily growing around this condition and sadly the definition of a quarter-life crisis is far from the older generations’ experience.

A quarter-life crisis is whereby millennials feel fear and social anxiety over not being where they envisaged they would be in their 20s – in life, relationships and their career. The increased conversation around this is helping destigmatise stereotypes around this experience that some millennials are going through.

Commentators have long been discussing the myriad reasons why millennials in particular are struggling with this cataclysm of self-doubt – these range from not being in a career they enjoy, to feeling financial strain, to the pressure of living a life expected by their social media followers. 

In 2017, a survey by LinkedIn found globally that 75 per cent of 25-33 year olds have gone through a quarter-life crisis. Of course, not all twenty-somethings will experience this, and it is normal to feel concerned and passionate about life and your career.

However, it’s clear this isn’t a fad - many millennials are struggling to navigate life’s complex puzzle and it’s important that their employers support them.

Junior lawyers speaking up

Last year the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) discovered in their resilience and wellbeing survey that 38 per cent of junior lawyers were going through mental health problems.

Worryingly this was an increase of 26 per cent from the previous year’s survey. Also very concerning was the issue that “83 per cent of respondents said that their firm could do more to support stress at work”.

In the 2019 survey they will be asking respondents whether their employers offer initiatives to help employees with stress and if they are doing enough. The message is clear that law firms should be making sure all their lawyers and other staff are supported when it comes to mental health.

Law firms need to be sensitive and compassionate to the different issues each generation in their workplace are experiencing, otherwise they could face losing their younger cohort of talent.

Currently we have a new phenomenon in the workplace, as people work for longer, employers have to deal with five generations – from traditionalists to Generation Z and this diversity means different issues arise. So what can law firms be doing to support the millennial generation? Law firms have been increasingly offering flexible and agile working.

Pinsent Masons offer all UK employees the option to work flexibly. With the rise in technology making it increasingly accessible for employees to work from anywhere they want, law firms are realising the benefits. Despite junior lawyers being at the start of their career it’s important they are allowed the flexibility to suit their workstyle.

More flexibility can lead to greater productivity. Recent research by YouGov revealed employees said that when they were working remotely they were more productive. In 2017 HSBC also found that 89 per cent of employees “consider flexible working to be a key motivator to their productivity levels within the workplace”.

Lawyers are also realising the benefits of working as a contract lawyer, having a choice of when, where and who you want to work for whilst having your own freedom around your work/life balance.

It’s a stereotype that older, more senior lawyers choose this as an option towards the end of their legal career. Many junior lawyers are choosing to work freelance as an alternative route to partnership. Year-on-year, more lawyers from across the generations are choosing to work in this way. 

Rejecting the “generation snowflake” myth

Whether that’s offering mentorships and counselling, to training teams around compassion and sensitivity when it comes to helping employees who are struggling with mental health, law firms should be providing these measures to help support their junior lawyers.

Much criticism has been levelled on social media, in the professions and in the news at “snowflake” millennials – yet this approach doesn’t help junior lawyers who are already feeling overwhelmed.

Law firms could seek specialist employment law advice to ensure they help junior lawyers alleviate pressures where necessary without them feeling as though they are being flung down the career ladder or being judged by their colleagues unfairly.

Nine law firms and three of the UK's biggest banks have joined in an alliance called the Mindful Business Charter to change avoidance working practices that can cause mental health and wellbeing issues for employees, jointly developed by Pinsent Masons, Barclays and Addleshaw Goddard.

The charter establishes a set of principles centred on improved communication, respect for rest periods and considerate delegation of tasks. All lawyers know that working in the profession can often be fast-moving and high-pressured.

Yet despite knowing that taking time out can reap rewards for their legal careers in terms of creativity, problem-solving and productivity it can be difficult to switch off.

Research by ACAS found that employers can face more absences, less productivity and stress when their employees are struggling to maintain a healthy work / life balance. Law firms should be establishing boundaries – encouraging their junior lawyers to take a break for themselves, whether that’s offering flexi-time, to setting up employee benefits to enjoy throughout the working day.

For example, creating relaxing breakout areas in the office to setting up a sports club which trains in the lunch break. This can also boost team-building. Nurture your junior lawyers so they feel freedom to progress in their legal career.

A career in the legal profession has never been more flexible and it’s important law firms understand and are accommodating to the difficulties or the “quarter-life crisis” junior lawyers can face so early on in their career. If law firms do this, they will be more likely to retain their junior talent.

Matthew Kay is director at Vario for Pinsent Masons

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