Quarterlife crises’ plague generations X, Y

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – He thought he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

So Jamie Deitchman spent nearly four years and $30,000 to get a bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering.

After school, he was hired to do tech support and congratulated himself on becoming an adult. There was just one problem.

“I hated waking up in the morning,” said Jamie, 28, of Coconut Creek, Fla. “In tech support, anyone who calls you has a problem and it’s your fault. You spent the whole day talking to people having a bad day, and so you start having a bad day. I was miserable.”

His sister, Heather Deitchman, of Royal Palm Beach, Fla., was having her own career meltdown. She graduated college with good grades and a bachelor’s degree in marketing but couldn’t find an opening in her field and had to take a retail job at the mall.

“I had to move back in with my parents,” Heather, now 25, recalled. “I was making $14,000 a year with a degree from a private university. I felt like I’d done all that work for nothing.”

Neither imagined finding the right career would be such a problem. But career confusion and frustration are growing sentiments among 20-somethings – so much so that an entire crop of “Quarterlife Crisis” books have appeared in bookstores, offering life and job advice.

A recent study on aging and job satisfaction shows that young workers, ages 18 to 34, are more “extremely dissatisfied” with their jobs than any other age group, with nearly half feeling burned out and one in four seeking an entirely new career.

Robert Morison, co-author of the 7,700-person survey and executive vice president of the Texas-based business management Concours Group, says today’s 20-somethings have unusually high expectations because of the way they grew up: during a time of economic prosperity, seeing young adults making easy fortunes during the tech bubble of the 1990s.

Since then, the bubble has burst, job and salary growth has slowed and positions have moved overseas.

Yet young workers still want high salaries, quick promotions and moderate work hours. And for good reason, he added: They have big student debts, face soaring housing costs and are suspicious of big corporations, which they associate with corruption and downsizing as much as their parents equated them with job security and good benefits.

The result, Morison said, is often a grumbling young worker and an equally annoyed Baby Boomer boss.

The upside of this phenomenon: What makes this generation spoiled also makes them smart. Morison said these high expectations, when combined with a bit of patience, could eventually make today’s young workers happier and healthier than generations before.

“They insist that the workplace be friendly and entertaining. They insist on learning and growing,” he said. “I wish I’d been more insistent early on in my career for more learning opportunities.”

Megan Garber, assistant director of career development and outreach at the University of Miami, said the problem of choosing the right career starts early on for many young adults.

The majority of middle-class students now attend college as an automatic step on the path to adulthood, she said, but have little idea what they want to study when they get there. Or worse, they graduate with the wrong degree, along with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

This generation has so many opportunities, Garber said, that they are increasingly indecisive and slower to take on adult responsibilities. Mom and Dad can share some of the blame for that.

“Their parents are a lot more involved, and for [students] to get out there and become independent and choose their careers, it takes more time,” she said. “We call it ’emerging adulthood.’ Development is taking longer.”

Generation X and Y want it all.

They’d like to make big bucks. But after watching their parents work long hours, forgo vacations and, in the end, face large cuts in benefits and Enron-like scandals, experts say today’s 20-somethings have all but given up on the idea of job security and are looking for a career that offers much more than money.

Namely, they want a career that fulfills a personal talent or calling while also allowing them to have time for their family and friends.

“They insist on the ability to mix work and life,” said Morison, the co-author of the worker satisfaction study.

The reality? They often have to sacrifice one for the other.

This realization came slowly to Amy Perez. By 29 she was making six figures a year as a Miami lawyer. Yet instead of feeling powerful and rich, she was bored by 70 hours a week of monotonous paperwork.

“Here I was at this big national firm, I had a nice office overlooking Biscayne Bay … and I felt trapped,” she said. “I felt like the fluorescent lighting was sucking the marrow out of my bones.”