Like most twentysomethings, Rebecca Thorman lives in the spotlight of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Flickr, and as the accomplishments of her peers become more public than ever, there's a heightened sense of competition.
In Washington, she's surrounded by overachievers--some of whom, such as her boyfriend, Ryan Healy, have gotten funding for their companies practically straight out of college--and she doesn't want to be left behind just working at some "normal" job.
Call it the Mark Zuckerberg Effect. At 26, the Facebook cofounder was Time's Person of the Year. And all over the country there are knockoffs of Zuckerberg--young people upping the ante for their peers. AOL ran a story called meet the new young millionaires, about people under age 33. Yahoo ran a feature called how to be a millionaire by 35, filled with real-world examples.
A commenter on a Gen Y blog described the landscape: "I feel like, at 23, I should be starting my own design studio, have tons of clients and work experience, and be at my peak."
No doubt this mentality is the midwife of Thorman's anxiety and self-criticism. Looking around at other people her age--both in real life and on social media--she says, "I feel like everyone has figured it out except for me."
When Levi Strauss, the jeans company, surveyed "millennial" women in five countries--the US, the UK, Japan, France, and Brazil--83 percent said they believed they were expected to be more successful than women in previous generations. As Courtney E. Martin put it in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, "We are the daughters of feminists who said 'You can be anything' and we heard 'You have to be everything.' "
Now we ostensibly have the time to be everything. With the loosening of the marriage timetable, giving young women ten years or more to focus only on their careers, Thorman wants to make the most of this decade and get a serious jump-start on being successful before she settles down.
It would be reasonable to assume that the recession would have tempered the expectations of most twentysomethings about work--making them happy just to have a job. That's not necessarily the case.
"Many decided to move home and wait out the bad economy instead of just taking any job," says Lindsey Pollak, global spokesperson for LinkedIn and author of Getting From College to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World.
Isn't that kind of nuts?
Perhaps. Older siblings, parents, and grandparents look at Gen Y and shake their heads about our high hopes, scolding us for not taking whatever job we're offered--or for leaving seemingly good ones to chase the next opportunity. They may be right, or they may not understand what it's like to be young when there are so many options, when moving home isn't a point of humiliation, and--at least until a certain age--when there's no rush to commit to anything.
Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore who studies choice, found that twentysomethings are more likely to want to make the "best" rather than the "good enough" decision. They want to try five types of cookies, careers, or relationships to find the optimal one. This kind of thinking can lead to disappointment and bad decisions but also to the cure for cancer, the next great American novel, or Google, which was founded by two twentysomethings.