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

In some ways, Lauren's work does fulfill her. "It's intellectually satisfying," she says. "I feel challenged on a daily basis. I work with smart people." Shouldn't that be enough?

For one thing, her job--like those at many large law firms--is isolated. She sits at a computer and considers it a "social day" if she has a single face-to-face conversation that lasts longer than ten minutes and isn't part of her lunch break. "I like being around people, and if I didn't get that outside of my job, I'd be miserable," she says. In the long term, Lauren doesn't want to search outside work for social interaction: "I want to get it at work."

Tammy Erickson, a Boston-based inter-generational-workplace expert and author of Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work, believes that young lawyers such as Lauren are ubiquitous. "Who wants to spend ten years doing crappy, boring work just for this carrot that she may or may not get?" Erickson says. "This generation doesn't want to work for 60 years and then enjoy life. They aren't into deferring gratification."

That matches Erickson's other observation: "This is the most fulfillment-driven generation in the workplace."

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But what does that mean? Doesn't everyone want a fulfilling and satisfying job? While many say it's something they value when asked about it in the abstract, it's the twentysomethings such as Lauren who are singularly focused on finding a job they like. And today there are more single, childless twentysomethings than ever--meaning there are more young people than ever who are unencumbered by kids and a mortgage, which often require people to rethink their priorities and take a job for the money.

Doesn't Lauren feel lucky to have a job when, just three years ago in 2008, the number of laid-off lawyers hit a ten-year high?

Yes, but she isn't motivated enough by money to stick with her job, even though she has law-school loans to pay off. Her plan is to stay at the firm two years, pay off her debt, and then take a much lower-paying job working for the government on food policy. With no boyfriend and with kids a long way off, she can afford to make decisions that often translate to employers and parents as foolhardy, walking away from a seemingly "good job."

What Lauren is chasing, and not finding as a first-year associate, is the satisfaction that comes from what retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor said was the key to a happy life: "Work worth doing," as she told Gretchen Rubin, one of her former law clerks and the author of The Happiness Project.

Lauren is a prime example of a phenomenon Barbara and Shannon Kelley, authors of Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career--and Life--That's Right for You, call "the spiritualization of the career world." Touchy-feely career guides call it finding your passion, and the more down-to-earth call it finding what makes you tick. I'm pretty sure our grandparents called it work.

Lauren wrestles with the balance between wanting a lot from her job and the reality that she has bills and debt. Her parents and grandparents didn't have the kinds of expectations for work that she has: "My mom never even thought about a career. She was supposed to marry her high-school boyfriend and become a housewife."

Lauren wants to do something meaningful, putting her in step with what countless surveys find: Twentysomethings want careers that have an impact beyond their bank account.

"I feel the need to contribute to society," she says. "It comes from the fact that I feel so incredibly fortunate that I was able to go to college, live in a wonderful city, and go to an incredible law school. I definitely feel like I have more privilege than my parents.

"One thing I wonder is if you can ever love a job. That would be so amazing if you found something you felt passionately about and every morning you woke up and were excited to go to work."

"Do you know people like that?" I ask.

"Yeah," she says. "They are entrepreneurs."

The original version of this story stated the federal government employs 2 million people. The story was corrected to read the government employs 2 million civilian employees.

Hannah Seligson is working on a book about twentysomethings called Mission: Adulthood, which will be published by St. Martin's Press in September 2012. More information about her work is at her Web site.

This article appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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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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