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Twenty-Somethings: 'Quarterlife crisis' growing among dissatisfied young workers

Jamie Malernee
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Jamie Deitchman tries to change the music as he hands DJ duties while dancing with Ericka Elias in Margate, Florida, in January 2006. (Andrew Innerarity/South Florda Sun-Sentinel/MCT)

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. "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, 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."

Garber knows this from experience. She is 26 and only a few years ago had no idea where her life was headed.

"I graduated from college as a business major, but I didn't know what I wanted to do," she admits. "It's very normal. Our average student changes their major three to five times."

Garber kick-starts students by pushing them out of the collegiate nest long before graduation, encouraging them to do internships, attend meetings and speak with people in fields that interest them.

The technique worked for Nadira Bickram, a student at Nova Southeastern University.

She switched her major several times before discovering passion for a field she didn't know existed until she started doing research: cultural psychology.

"Actually go out there and speak to doctors and even volunteer," she said. "The more you know, you can say, `OK, this is what I want,' or `This is what I don't want.'"

Generations 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 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."

Peter Manzi, a vocational consultant with the National Career Development Association, notes that today's 20-somethings may feel more trapped in their jobs than past generations because of exploding debt, the rising cost of living and high expectations for success.

"With all previous generations, the 20s was a period when it was OK to experiment with different jobs," Manzi said. "Nowadays, there is pressure to get the big jobs because they have bigger loans and more obligations."

Median wages for male, full-time workers ages 20 to 24 have fallen by 25 percent since 1975 when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At the same time, in the past 20 years, young Americans with debt have seen the amount they owe nearly triple, according to Federal Reserve statistics also adjusted for inflation.

And while many Baby Boomers may see a six-figure salary as plenty of cash, young adults are increasingly aware that's what they'll need to buy even a median-priced home in some areas of the country.

On top of that, Manzi said, studies show young Americans place more importance on money than previous generations -- perhaps because it is necessary to pay for the technology they've come to depend on: laptops, flat-screen TVs, iPods and more.

"Everybody expects a good-paying job, but the younger generation expects it sooner," Manzi said. "This generation is probably the most materialistic."

For a while, such concerns kept Perez, the Miami lawyer, in a job that didn't fit her. But eventually, she took a huge pay cut and became a real estate agent.

"I love it," she said. "When I tell people who are not attorneys, they say, `Oh my God, are you crazy?' But invariably, when I tell other attorneys what I've done, nine times out of 10 their response is, `You're so lucky!'"

In the end, that's what the Deitchmans did, too. They chose jobs that balanced economics with a more fulfilling calling.

Heather Deitchman now teaches high school art. She moved out of her parents' home and can afford her own place and car. More important, she says, her new career is more rewarding than the one she originally planned.

"Teaching high school is probably the biggest challenge of my life," she said. "I thrive on pressure."

Jamie Deitchman used his frustration to fuel his ambition.

All the time he had been working in tech support, he had worked as a DJ and karaoke provider on the weekends as a hobby.

He never thought playing music was a practical career. Then one day he got a call for a DJ job on a Wednesday. He took it.

"I realized if I just got one or two more jobs a week, I could be making the same money (as my day job)," he said.

Deitchman quit tech support and now runs his own DJ-karaoke company, working at parties and clubs. He has a Web site and hired another employee.

While he admits working for himself is less secure, he no longer dreads getting out of bed in the morning.

"Now, going to work is playing music," he said. "I get paid to do that!"

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