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Close Quarters

You want to yell "Get your act together," but twentysomethings are facing more than you think.
December 1, 2005
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/80962

I'm not complaining about my current situation. I'm not depressed, I'm not having an early-life crisis, and I don't feel entitled, but you should understand that being young isn't what it used to be.

I'm a 27-year-old college graduate with a stable career job (thanks, Entrepreneur). In the old days, even 10 years ago, I would be set. I'd buy a house, chat about my kitchen remodel, throw barbecues, marry my longtime girlfriend, Jessica, and enjoy. That life is no longer possible.

Only with financial help from Jessica am I able to afford rent at my one-bedroom apartment. My friends, all college graduates, either live with others or bought houses with help from their parents. I'll never be able to afford a house--at least not within 500 miles of my job. The reality of today's urban twentysomethings is sad--it means being college-educated, career-supported . . . and limited to just one bedroom.

--Steve Cooper

Perhaps you've noticed the general angst and unrest among the twentysomethings in your business. You may wonder why they don't just get their acts together and grow up. But the angst is more fact-based than people realize. As a 28-year-old, I confess to being anxious about finding my way to middle-class adulthood when financial self-sufficiency, marriage, children and homeownership seem hopelessly out of reach. Graduating from college with a mountain of debt and realizing that entry-level salaries aren't enough to pay it off and still afford rent on our own apartments, we, as a generation, are living with parents or roommates far longer than we thought we'd have to. We're waiting until our 30s to marry and have children. We move from job to job looking for meaning. We're in flux-we're going through a "quarterlife crisis." It's different from a midlife crisis, notes Catherine Stocker, co-author and co-founder with Abby Wilner of The Quarterlifer's Companion and Quarterlifecrisis.com. Midlife crises usually arise from the realization that one's options are shrinking, says Stocker, "whereas when people hit their quarterlife crises, they tend to be paralyzed by all the options they have to choose from."

Sure, people in earlier generations had to face similar transitions, but their prospects were different. "In our parents' and grandparents' generations, you were more likely to get out of school, land a job and feel secure you would have that job until you retired," says Stocker. "You weren't necessarily laid off after 18 months, having to start from scratch."

Not only do we feel less secure in our jobs, but even when we do land them, there seem to be fewer opportunities for advancement. "It's hard to say which came first-job-hopping or lack of loyalty from employers--but there aren't many mentorship programs anymore. There aren't any guarantees you'll advance within a company," says Wilner, also co-author of The Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties.

We're being squeezed on all fronts by student loans, an uncertain job market and insane housing costs. About 74 percent of twentysomethings surveyed by Quarterlifecrisis.com graduated college with debt, and 44 percent feel they'll never be able to pursue their goals because of debt. And even if the housing bubble bursts, home prices still might not be within reach for the average twentysomething, says Wilner.

Why should you care? Because this generation of twentysomethings represents your employees, your customers, the future of business and the future of the economy. What quarterlifers are searching for, according to Stocker and Wilner, is meaning and direction. As an employer, you could harness that desire, energy and enthusiasm by providing feedback, mentoring and sound templates for advancement to your quarterlifer employees.

It's hard to say how we will overcome this uncertainty. Will we turn away from an insecure job market and start our own companies? "I wouldn't be surprised if you saw more entrepreneurship from twentysomethings," says Stocker.

Or perhaps, surmises Wilner, since we're already hitting our existential crises, we won't have full-blown midlife crises. "I doubt many of us will miss the uncertainty and instability of our 20s," she says.

So yes, we twentysomethings are questioning. Yes, we often feel fear about the future. But we also have great passion, great energy, great enthusiasm and the desire to make our mark. "[Quarterlifers] don't want to wallow in their anxiety. They want specific, concrete answers. They want help and guidance to get through their 20s and be more productive and successful," says Stocker. "They're not just expecting something to fall in their laps."

A generation of whiners? Hardly.