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Are Twentysomethings Expecting Too Much?
They were raised to believe they could do anything, and now they’re demanding more from work than previous generations ever did. Will they change the world or have to lower their sights? By Hannah Seligson
Comments () | Published October 24, 2011
Illustrations by Jesse Lenz

When my grandmother was 18, she dropped out of college to get married. A career wasn't a priority for her; matrimony was. This fall I'll tie the knot at age 29, slightly younger than average for a bride in Washington, where the median age for a woman's first marriage is 30.

My grandmother, who lived in Connecticut, had her first child when she was 18 and another at 20. With childbearing out of the way and a full-time nanny, she went on to launch a career in politics and at age 28 became a state senator.

As a friend recently mused, "I wish I could have had my kids at 22 when I was nothing in my career. Of course, I wasn't married or financially secure then." Now she's 31 and married, and she recently got a big promotion. "It's just a really inconvenient time to have kids."

There are obvious downsides to getting married and having children young--for many women, it short-circuits their careers entirely--and women have made huge gains in the workplace since my grandmother's time. But the cruel joke of modern womanhood is that my career will probably peak just as it's time to start a family. This raises more questions: How long should my fiancé, Andrew, and I wait? Should we risk running out my biological clock and needing fertility treatments? If we can afford them, that is.

Speaking of money, how would we afford children if we stay in DC, one of the most expensive cities in the country? Andrew and I have both chosen careers motivated more by our interests than by our paychecks--I'm a journalist, and he works on international climate-change policy at the State Department.

Even without student loans to pay off, we find it hard to save as much as financial planners say people our age should. I'm often reminded of the acronym DINK--dual income, no kids--which should probably be changed to DINA: dual income, need another. Sure, we could move to a less expensive area of Washington or take a job for the salary, but we're young and not ready to settle. We want to see if we can make life work on our terms.

We're like lots of others in our generation who--since their parents first turned the television to Sesame Street or sang along to "Free to Be . . . You and Me" in the car--have believed we can achieve anything we set our minds to.

Are we expecting too much?

For the twentysomethings who move here to launch their careers, it's a time of life when the pressure is intense and the stakes feel high. Many of them are focused solely on work, as they're unmoored--without a spouse or children--and will remain that way into their early thirties.

They're trying to make good use of their expensive college degrees, and along the way they're asking themselves: Is this all I can expect from my diploma? Shouldn't work be fulfilling? How do I make it in a world where career paths are no longer linear, with so many options and so little job security?

Their concerns may seem trifling at a time when unemployment for people between ages 16 and 24 is in the double digits. But far from feeling lucky simply to have a job, many of today's highly educated, tech-savvy Gen Yers are asking more from work than previous generations ever did.

They're in the throes of "emerging adulthood," a term coined by Clark University psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett to describe a life stage that doesn't quite have all the contours of traditional adulthood--marked by a marriage license, a mortgage, and a steady job. The concept of this new stage was explored last August in a New York Times Magazine article that asked: "Why are so many people in their twenties taking so long to grow up?"

But perhaps it's not as much that twentysomethings are taking longer to grow up as it is that they're defining adulthood in new ways, with different goals. Instead of a steady job, they want a meaningful one that serves a larger purpose or fulfills a personal passion. And instead of settling down with a spouse and mortgage, they want more years of freedom to chase career dreams and explore different paths before they have to make tradeoffs.

"Adulthood is a taller order these days," Brent Donnellan, a professor at Michigan State University who studies the transition to adulthood, tells me. "When we look at surveys at what this generation values, they want a lot."

As a result, people born between, say, 1980 and 1995 are reconsidering some of the once-sacred aspects of the American workplace. Things such as the 9-to-5 schedule, company loyalty, dues-paying, and hierarchy are being discarded at a fast clip. And we're becoming evangelicals for the notion that work should be personally satisfying, even in a tough job market.

So what does that mean for someone living through it?


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  • Cib

    I think it is interesting that my generation looks for fulfillment in their job. I think one is far more likely to find fulfillment in working towards lasting relationships. Far be it from me to tell other people in what manner they are to find happiness, but my job isn't what fills my life, my family is. It's an old idea, and a sentimental one, but that doesn't make it incorrect.

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Posted at 01:07 PM/ET, 10/24/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles