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Are Twentysomethings Expecting Too Much?
Comments () | Published October 24, 2011

Even if lamenting about "kids these days" is an American pastime that dates back centuries, there might be an added edge today: jealousy.

"Who doesn't want to love their work? Who doesn't want to choose their career path? I want that stuff," says Lindsey Pollak.

However, it's not everyone's to have--ballooning student debt means there's a schism in this generation between those who are drowning in debt and those who aren't. And young people lucky enough to have parents willing and able to provide a financial safety net have a huge advantage--it's a lot easier to take risks if you know Mom and Dad will never let you go broke.

In June, Rebecca Thorman shut down Kontrary. "I wasn't getting the kind of exposure I was hoping for," she tells me. She's now trying to reengineer her position at Alice.com to be director of the company's media arm. Either way, she isn't worried.

After spending the last few years building expertise in grassroots marketing, starting blogs, and running social-media campaigns, Thorman believes she has skills that are sought after. She has tapped into that Gen Y gold mine: figuring out how to get people to pay attention to you online. "I'd have a job tomorrow if I left Alice.com," she says.

Thorman wants a career that challenges her and aligns with her values and interests--something she'd hoped Kontrary.com would be. Now she'll either figure something else out or she'll end up like the legions of young people who are disappointed with their work. A 2010 study by the Conference Board found that job satisfaction for workers under age 25 is at a record low, with fewer than 40 percent reporting that they're satisfied with their current jobs--the lowest percentage among all age groups surveyed.

Those figures come as no surprise to Barry Schwartz. "Expectations in this generation have gone through the roof," he says. "The secret to happiness is modest expectations."

"Recently, I've thought that I'm just an inherently lazy person."      

"Recently, I've thought that I'm just an inherently lazy person," says Lauren (not her real name), a 29-year-old attorney. Lauren isn't lazy--she's an Ivy League graduate who worked for a high-ranking Democratic senator on health policy, went to a top law school, and is now a first-year associate at a well-known DC firm.

"There is a drive to the more senior people in my law firm that I just don't have," Lauren tells me over drinks at a trendy bar in downtown DC. "Sometimes," she goes on, her voice lowering to let me know she's about to make a confession, "I turn down work."

In the universe of first-year associates, that's career suicide. In most firms, if a superior says, "Jump," first-years ask, "How high?" Lauren says she knows this: "But sometimes I just want to have a life."

When I ask if she has ever missed a deadline, botched an assignment because she got distracted g-chatting, or overslept because she'd been out late the night before, her answer is "God, no."

Lauren's worst transgression occurred when a partner asked her to read 500 pages from the Federal Register over a weekend and she said she'd need a week to get through it.

Lauren says she's willing to work hard, but she isn't going to kill herself at a job where she's not vying for the gold medal: partnership. Like other young lawyers, she asks, "Why sacrifice my life for something I don't even want that much?"

Unlike lawyers in previous generations, Lauren doesn't see just one career path--she sees options that could land her anywhere from a think tank to a start-up: "No one goes to law school anymore to become a partner at a firm."

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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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